What’s the difference?

Have you heard the terms Executive, Leadership and life coach? Have you wondered what the difference is?  There are both similarities and differences between these three terms.

At its heart, coaching supports people to get from where they are to where they want to be. It is an endeavor encompassing the present to the future, setting a positive trajectory towards what the person wants for their future.  All coaching has the individual’s learning, growth and development at its core.  The  International Coaching Federation, the largest governing body of coaching worldwide, defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential” (https://coachfederation.org/about).

In terms of what  you want or your potential, there are various initial levels of clarity.  You may know  what you  want to work towards.  You may know  that you want to work on something different for yourself , but you  have not yet been able to clearly articulate what that is.  Sometimes you may think you know what you  want but you  are looking at it transactionally rather than from a perspective of who you need to be to create what it is that you  want.  Regardless of your level of clarity, coaching will support you  to hone in on the purpose and related goals to support your  learning, growth, development, and goals.

From the foundational competencies of coaching, coaches tend to specialize in niche areas.  In this article we will explore the three broad areas of coaching:  life, leadership, and executive coaching.

Life Coaching

Following are a few definitions:

  1. A basic definition is shared on the Tony Robbins website https://www.tonyrobbins.com/coaching/results-life-coach/  

“A life coach is someone professionally trained to help you maximize your full potential and reach your desired results” and “someone who helps you identify your goals and develop an actionable plan to achieve them.”

  1. A more in-depth description is provided by The National Coach Academy:  http://www.nationalcoachacademy.com/what-does-a-life-coach-do:

“Life coaches work with their clients to help them achieve goals, overcome obstacles, and make changes or shifts in their lives — both transformative and modest changes alike. The coach works with the client as a partner, knowing that the client has the answers to create the changes they seek. The role of a life coach isn’t to give advice or “tell the client what to do,” but instead to help the client uncover or reconnect with their strongest values and motivations, which will then help the client achieve the goals they set out to complete.

A life coach is almost like a sculptor who can look at you and see the potential for you to achieve all that you desire. Through specific strategies and skills, the coach helps you define yourself and create the life you envision. Coaches help you focus, provide direction, challenge you, support you, motivate you and celebrate with you. Life coaches help you create a plan, detail action steps and hold you accountable for following through. They use skills that include observing, listening deeply, asking empowering questions, challenging, and motivating.”

Leadership Coaching

Pure definitions for leadership coaching are harder to find as this is an evolving field.  The coaching is conducted in the context of the leader.  The leader is first and foremost a person.  As Brené Brown (Dare to Lead, 2018) shares:  “Who we are is how we lead. Self-care and self-love matter.”  In addition, the individual  who carries the title of leader has a role.  The role is responsible for a number of areas of responsibility and core competencies and values associated with them such as (to name some of many):

  • Growth and development of self
  • Growth and development of their direct reports (who could be leaders themselves)
  • Provision of clear vision and direction, and inspiration of their team
  • Walking their talk with the values that they profess and that are aligned with organisational values
  • Creating psychological safety
  • Providing clear expectations and context
  • Delegation and ongoing feedback loops
  • Building of relationships with and collaboration up, down, and across the organization and sometimes outside of the organization with external stakeholders
  • Results of his/her/their area of responsibility

A  leadership coach works with a leader to explore their strengths and blind spots, values, and goals.  These are different for each leader.  Then, together they work on creating a customized plan to progress towards those goals based on the leaders responsibilities, strengths, values and own goals.  Reflection creates learning from experimentation with new approaches and skills/competencies, building on wins and learning from challenges plus creating the next steps forward.  This is what BetterUp calls a Whole Person approach (https://www.betterup.com/en-us/about-us/blog/a-whole-person-approach-to-development-video).

Here is a sampling of definitions:

  1. From the Association for Talent Development:


“Leadership coaching provides coaching for those looking to grow and develop leadership skills, regardless of whether they are an individual contributor, manager, or senior manager.”

  1. From the Institute for Leadership Coaching:

“Leadership Coaching … is a collaborative, individualised relationship between a leader and the coach — the leader could well be an executive, manager, supervisor, team leader or business owner for example — anyone in charge or responsible for a group of people.  … it’s a partnership — one in which both sides work to reach an agreed-upon destination. The aim of the partnership is to bring about sustained behavioural change and transform the quality of the leader’s working and personal life.”

Executive Coaching

A pure definition for executive coaching is also hard to find since it is a form of leadership coaching but from a different context.  The areas that executives handle and lead are different than the areas that frontline, mid-level or high potential leaders lead.

What do executives focus on?:  Vision, Organizational Culture (including practiced values), Strategy, Stakeholder Relations, Financing/Funding/Profitability, Navigating Change, Decision-making, Adaptation to Change, Innovation

A coach supports the executive to be their best self and integrate this with the context of the responsibilities and scope of their role.  The coach can be a sounding board, a source of feedback, a safe place to reflect and strategize, and an advocate to leverage their strengths, stand for their values, and develop in areas of growth.

Here are a couple of definitions of Executive Coaching:

  1. From the Association for Talent Development: (https://www.td.org/talent-development-glossary-terms/what-is-executive-coaching)

“Meeting one-on-one with senior managers or leaders within an organization (such as a director, vice president, president, or member of the C-suite), the executive coach provides a safe, structured, and trustworthy environment in which to offer support for the individual. The coach also helps the leader understand their current competencies, see how they’re perceived by others, and focus on identifying and clarifying current goals as well as the appropriate action steps to reach those goals.

  1. From interviews with leaders of leaders, we at Spark Success found that our coaching supports them to reflect, strategize, engage their strengths and values, get a bigger picture perspective of what they are navigating or creating, build stronger relationships, process high stress situations, navigate change, explore their thoughts and feelings in situations, lower stress, enhance performance for themselves and others, and create values-based organizational cultures.  (https://sparksuccess.com/why-and-how-leaders-of-leaders-engage-with-an-external-executive-coach/)

There are many other areas of coaching such as business coaching, career transition coaching,  health and wellness coaching, and relationship coaching.

We hope that this gives you a better idea of the similarities and differences between different types of these broad categories of coaching.  To summarize, the core coaching competencies of the coaches are the same.  How and what context they use those skills in are different.  The experiences of the coaches also tend to vary and can have an impact on what area of coaching they choose to specialize.

Book a session with me to explore how executive and leadership coaching can support you to be the best you that you want to be.  Alternatively, you can contact me here.


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