Ever since Machiavelli first advised a young prince, leaders have sought the counsel of outsiders. After all, it’s lonely at the top. At many small companies, chief executives are the only people who truly understand their organizations, and every major decision falls on their shoulders. And since the CEO is the one who signs the paychecks, it’s tough to find employees brave enough to provide honest feedback. Seventeenth-century merchants turned to “cunning men,” or wizards, for guidance; entrepreneurs today turn to their more modern counterparts: executive coaches.
Executive coaches are not quite business consultants, whom you’d hire to address a particular operational or technical problem. And they’re not psychotherapists, whom you’d tap to work through emotional issues. Coaches generally focus on one thing: improving your performance as a leader. They do this in much the same way sports coaches work with athletes: by helping you make the most of your natural abilities and find ways to work around your weaknesses. A good coach will make sure you meet your commitments, behave like a grownup, and otherwise stay out of your own way–things nearly all of us can use a little help with.
There certainly is no end to the number of people promising such greatness. The ranks of executive coaches have swelled from 2,000 in 1996 to some 10,000 today, and sorting through them is not easy. Different coaches work in different ways. Some work only over the phone; others come to your office; and a growing number work in group settings, coaching dozens of business owners simultaneously. Some provide tough love; others coddle and cosset. There’s no standard fee structure, either: Rates can range from several hundred to several thousand dollars an hour, and a few coaches will even ask for a piece of your business. Some demand a commitment of a certain length of time, others are pay as you go.
Adding to the chaos is the fact that despite a few noncompulsory credentialing efforts, the coaching profession is completely unregulated. Anyone, with any amount of experience, can crown himself coach and start offering advice. Hairstylists face more stringent licensing procedures.