How To Become An Executive Coach (Or At Least How I Did It).

In the last few months, I have had a number of clients and prospective clients ask me about my coaching journey. They want to know “my story”. This is because they are naturally curious, or they want to become Executive Coaches themselves and are looking for pointers, or they are trying to decide if my style is a good fit for them as clients. So, I thought I would write it down. Here goes.... I became an Executive Coach in 2003. I made the transition after leaving my job as Vice President, Human Resources for Blast Radius, a high growth tech company that grew 500% during my tenure, and survived and thrived the technology bubble. Blast Radius was an awesome company and job, but it was a crazy time and very exhausting. I was definitely burnt out when I left. When I left the company I had stock options which I knew would be valuable one day (they were). Because of this, I did not want to leave the company and just do “whatever.” I made a pact to myself that if I left that job and left my stock options on the table, I needed to finally make the transition to my “dream job.” This is where Executive Coaching comes in.

I did my coach training at the Coaches Training Institute. I absolutely loved it and found it be transformative on a personal and professional level. After doing certification, the core coaching skills were encoded in my DNA. The training program was that good. When I left the program, I put up my shingle as an Executive Coach and I got out there. Although in hindsight I was successful as a new Executive Coach and my practice was growing, I found the whole experience quite stressful. I was used to earning a six figure income as a Vice President and I was frustrated by how much marketing effort it took to get one client. All of this meant, I was stressed about cash, especially since I wanted to invest in things like marketing and I wasn’t bringing in enough to invest confidently.

So, I switched up my strategy a bit and I got a contract three days per week with Caliber Leadership Systems, a leadership development firm. This was pure luck and genius! Caliber was growing in leaps and bounds and one of the first projects I got to be a part of was a global succession management project for a mining company. This was back in 2004 when people were just talking about succession and many of the tools were not created yet. At Caliber we wrote a 100 page guide to succession. I loved it and I realized that succession was a great compliment to coaching. When doing succession projects I could use my Human Resources and leadership selection skills, and I got to coach the high potential leaders. I ended up joining Caliber full time and I stayed there for four years. During this time, I did a number of leadership development projects. I also did Executive and Career Coaching and worked on an international College for Leaders Program where I coached about 50 people. It was awesome.

While at Caliber, I also realized that although my coaching training with the Coaches Training Institute was fantastic, there were limitations when applied to Executive Coaching. First of all, I found that the language was too “life coaching like.” It used words like Gremlins to describe the Inner Critic or Internalized Other, and many of the tools were about life satisfaction rather than leadership. As a result, I decided to do my Masters in Organizational Development and Management at The Fielding Institute. I did this because I recognized that Executive Coaching is about leadership, team dynamics, organizational systems, and personal “being.” I had the personal side from the Coaches Training Institute, but I needed the leadership education. I absolutely loved the Fielding Program and did all of the electives that I could on Executive Coaching. One of my favourite courses was on Coaching High Achieving Women and I also enjoyed a course on Evidence Based Coaching which takes all the theory from the Field of Psychology and applies it to the field of coaching. This was really useful to me because I have a BA in Psychology; I had psychology knowledge rattling around in my brain, but I had not yet connected it to the coaching domain.

I also did my Master’s Thesis on how to coach executive women during the transition to motherhood. Right after my daughter was born, I had a masters thesis to write. (Ugh). Given that the timing sucked, I wanted it be to highly relevant to my life so it did not feel like drudgery. Thanks to my mom who babysat while I wrote, I was able to get it done and I extracted tremendous personal and professional value from it. In reality, writing a 100 page paper on Executive Coaching deepened my understanding of available coaching tools and theory even more.

In 2007, I started my own firm again, and this time I felt much better prepared for it. Because of my experience with the team at Caliber, I had the knowledge I needed to run a firm.  I had a clear business strategy and a well developed business network. For new Executive Coaches (or any coach for that matter), I think a well thought business strategy is very important. Many of the coach training programs have a “dream it, do it” philosophy. Although on the surface this sounds great, many coaches get derailed when they start their business without really thinking through the business part. This includes how to get clients, how to make money, defining competitive differentiation, and evaluating how much time and energy will be needed for marketing activities.

If you are starting a coaching business, or you are trying to build yours, I also believe you need to be very real with yourself about what knocks your confidence. The lack of confidence is what kills. I have seen so many coaches start out strong, only to be like little kids whimpering in diapers by month three. This is no insult, it happened to me! I believe the most important questions to ask yourself are: What are the things that “trigger” feelings of insecurity? When I feel insecure, what does this do to my coaching? Given this, what are the things that I need to put in place to feel confident on this journey? For most people, I have found that this involves support, slowing down the pace of what they are trying to do so there is not as much pressure, and being very pragmatic about money. There is a difference about between how much money you need to survive, and how much you need to feel confident about your financial situation as you build your business. Okay, that’s enough preaching for now. Back to the story.

For the first year of running my business after I left Caliber, I did a blend of Executive Search, HR Consulting and Coaching. It was a good mix, yet to my surprise the Executive Search took off like crazy. I went from $0K to $850K in revenue in 18 months! It was bonkers. Executive Coaching and leadership development work was about 25% of the revenue due to some big contracts. I went along this way until my daughter was born and my degree was done. Then, I made the decision to drop the executive search and focus totally on what I love to do. I now do executive coaching, career coaching for leaders, and succession management consulting. I see all of these things as being intertwined. I am not about “world domination” and growing the biggest coaching company on the planet. I love going deep with my clients, and having intimate one on one relationships. I have a boutique firm and I usually have a waiting list at certain points in the year.

Before wrapping up, I want to close off by telling you a bit more about my coaching style. This is something many people ask me about. How would you describe HOW you coach? This has been one of the biggest parts of my journey, and it certainly has included some struggle. When I graduated from the Coaches Training Institute I loved the program, but the style didn’t fit perfectly with me. It was too organic. Basically, clients would just come and “show up” and talk about whatever. This is very powerful, yet I always felt like something was missing. I wanted a coach that would lead me through a process so that I got more value. I wanted more than just a conversation. I struggled with this belief because there are a lot of coaches out there who only do the organic approach. Bringing more structure to the coaching process became “okay” for me after doing my Masters thesis and working with my own coach, Nancy Anderson, the author of Work with Passion. Through her method and through the executive coaching research I did, I learned that you can get way further faster if you give clients well thought out exercises to work on in between each coaching sessions.

Inspired by Nancy, I created a number of workbooks which help me to get to know a new client faster and allow me to gain a big picture view of their issues. The workbooks prompt clients to think about issues like their vision, values, team dynamics, leadership principles etc in between sessions. The workbooks look very different for my career and executive coaching clients, yet they share one common trait: they get clients to think deeply about their issues before the session. I don’t use them throughout the coaching relationship, but I do typically use them for the first few sessions so I can get to know the client at a deeper level. I will often mix and match the workbooks that I propose and sometimes I coach organically, depending on what the client is trying to achieve.

Adding some structure to the coaching process has been transformational for my coaching. I really put my clients to work! The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. One client told me that we achieved more in six sessions then they achieved in two years with their past coach. I am not saying this to brag, I am saying this to inspire Executive Coaches to put their own spin on things. Adding some structure to the coaching process has become a competitive differentiation for me. Just yesterday I got a new client who said that I was the only person who put a coaching plan together for her after our inquiry session. She loved it! She needs some structure to feel engaged. Me too! Obviously my style won’t work for everyone, but it works for enough people for me to have a great business.

The other key differentiator that I have is that I have tools and depth in the area of stakeholder engagement, organizational influence, and building high performing teams. This may sound dry to you, but I believe it is paramount for Executive Coaching. I used to get stuck when I was working with top executives and they would say, “But, I can’t get the executive team to see my point of view.” I honestly would just want to throw my hands in the air and say, “Oh well! Let’s just stop the coaching right here!” I didn’t know where to take it. This put me on a two year research project. I kept asking myself: What is “the issue” that is getting me stuck? Finally I stumbled on the website of Colin Gautry, an organizational influence expert, and I became the first Executive Coach in Canada to become certified to use his tools. As an Executive Coach having tools that help leaders to be more influential is valuable.

Now, I am at a new place in my coaching. I now feel like I have a solid base and I am now just doing whatever seems interesting and fun to me. I see my coaching practice as the true "coaching lab" and the place where I learn the most about working with passion, leadership, and workplace relationships.  I also just started a new program at the Interdevelopmental Institute which teaches Developmental Coaching. It is meaty. Basically, I am now learning about adult development theory and how it relates to the coaching process. This program gives coaches tools for gauging client’s stage of cognitive and social emotional development. The idea is that if I understand this, I will be better able to design coaching interventions that fit with a client’s stage. It sounds fascinating, but I am only on course one. The founder of the Institute, Otto Laske, is doing a developmental evaluation on me next week. I can’t wait to see what I learn about myself. This is really the most important part of the Executive Coaching journey – growing as a person yourself.

If you have any specific questions for me, please do not hesitate to call me at my Vancouver office at 604-926-8717 or send me an email at natalie@karmichaelgroup.com.

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