Strategies for Successful Executive Coaching

Executive coaching is a must-have for successful leaders, and I-O psychologists are quite prominently filling this need. What is the most effective and scientifically-supported way to coach? Authors McKenna and Davis (2009) recommend applying the “active ingredients” commonly seen in effective psychotherapy sessions to executive coaching. They say the processes of coaching and psychotherapy are quite similar: both attempt to facilitate psychological and behavioral change through the one-on-one relationship between a trained professional and a motivated client. The authors suggest these four factors are the “active ingredients” of successful psychotherapy:


The characteristics of the client and his or her environment outside of therapy account for the greatest differences in therapy outcomes. The authors suggest that clients must be ready and willing to change in order to have a successful coaching experience. The extra-therapeutic factors that affect the quality of development include the client’s work environment (e.g., will he be accountable for making changes?), culture (e.g., will she break unwritten rules by taking a new approach?), and resources. These help the client to apply the changes made in therapy to the workplace.


The quality of the relationship between the therapist and the client is the second most powerful ingredient in psychotherapy, explaining 30% of the statistical differences in client outcomes. Coaches can be most effective by focusing on the goals and topics that are important to the client, approaching the learning in a way that makes sense to the client, and by being prepared to modify goals and tasks as the client or the relationship changes.


The client’s desire to change accounts for 15% of the statistical differences in psychotherapy outcomes. Executive coaches can activate their client’s expectations and confidence by building their own credibility with the client; if the client knows the coach has been effective in the past, the client is more likely to have confidence in his or her own growth and success.


The thoughts, perspectives, and framework the psychotherapist uses in developing the client explain the final 15% of the statistical differences in psychotherapy outcomes. Coaches should rely on methods, models, tools, and techniques they believe in. But, those techniques must relate to the client’s own way of thinking and dealing with problems in order to be effective.


There were two major premises within the commentaries that the authors received in response to their article. The first is that executive coaches can benefit by applying these “active ingredients” to their practices. The next argument is that the differences between psychotherapy and executive coaching are too great to draw any parallels between their practices.

In their commentary, Frisch and Lee (2009) agree with the original authors. They believe that developing some training in clinical or counseling psychology can benefit executive coaches by increasing their knowledge of individual growth and developmental interventions. Another commentary (Fontaine & Schmidt, 2009) suggests that the most vital client-centered training approach used in psychotherapy may be empathy. The practice of being empathetic – identifying with the individual needs and challenges of each client – is a necessary part of successful coaching and is not necessarily taught to I-O psychologists and other types of coaches.

The next premise is critical of the focal article – that the differences between executive coaching and psychotherapy are too great to apply the “active ingredients” of one to the other. Both comments by Hollenbeck, Segers and Vloeberghs (2009) point out that the main purpose of executive coaching is for the high-functioning executive to improve his or her own performance which will subsequently impact the organization’s performance. Conversely, patients of psychotherapists are typically low-functioning, dealing with serious adjustment problems, and are looking for remediation.


  • Although there are clear differences between psychotherapy and executive coaching, I-O psychologists and other executive coaches can learn from decades of psychotherapy research.
  • The most important “ingredient” to consider is the client-centered, empathetic approach, which can strengthen the relationship between the client and coach in order to foster greater growth and learning.
  • Finally, I-O psychologists should use resources from their own root discipline of psychology to leverage their skills and knowledge as a competitive advantage in the executive coaching industry.


McKenna, D.D. & Davis, S.L. (2009). Hidden in plain sight: The active ingredients of executive coaching. Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 2 (3) 244-260.