How to Manage the Executive Coaching Discussion

You may never know whether coaching is being offered to provide you with the tools to successfully transition to your next role or if it’s being offered because your boss feels like you are having some performance issues.

You’re humming along at work. You’ve received positive feedback from coworkers and upper management commending you on the quality of your contributions to the team. Everything seems to be going great. Then one day, without any previous discussions or hints, your boss catches you outside of your cubicle and mentions he wants you to meet with an executive coach.


Your heart immediately starts to race. Is this a good thing? A bad thing? Your boss doesn’t help matters by not giving you much if any background and having the discussion (albeit brief) smack dab in the middle of a sea of cubicles as your coworkers listen in on your conversation.

If you’re the employee, how do you handle the conversation?

Put on your poker face. And pronto. Why? Because you may never know whether the coaching is being offered to provide you with the tools to successfully transition to your next role or if it’s being offered because your boss feels like you are having some minor (or major) performance issues or deficiencies.

Although you might be dying to ask whether you did anything wrong, you can’t. So don’t. There’s a chance (whether large or small) the coaching is really a good thing. If you ask too many probing questions, you could appear defensive and that’s never a positive in the eyes of your boss. When provided with the opportunity, you have to embrace it with open arms–always appearing eager to grow personally and professionally and excited and committed to the process (even if your heart is pounding on the inside).

As things start to unfold you should get a better sense, based on the focus of your coaching sessions, whether he or she was given specific developmental concerns from your boss. But don’t burn a ton of calories trying to psychoanalyze every conversation you’ve had with your boss or interaction you’ve had with coworkers–you may never know his or her “true” motivations behind the training. So instead, focus all of your efforts on the coaching.

If you’re the boss, how should you manage the discussion?


For starters, executive coaching generally isn’t something you want to spring on someone like an afterthought. In the case mentioned above, broaching the topic in the middle of a bunch of cubicles was a case of incredibly poor judgment. Executive coaching might appear like it’s coming straight out of left field if you haven’t mentioned it before–especially if you’re going to tee it up as a great opportunity for professional growth. Instead of having a quick conversation in front of everyone, schedule a one-on-one meeting over coffee or conference room. Talk about executive coaching as part of his or her overall professional development plan. And speaking of which …

Work with each of your direct reports to develop an individualized professional development plan. This goes above and beyond the annual performance review which, as a reminder, should be scheduled prior to the start of the next year–something often overlooked by many managers. Take time to ask your direct reports where they want to be professionally and have discussions about strengths (see the groundswell of companies embracing StregthsFinder2.0 over the past few years).

To keep from mishandling the executive coaching chat, bosses should be as transparent as possible, clearly communicating with their direct reports and working to create individualized professional development plans. Employees, on the other hand, should focus their efforts on getting the most out of the coaching that they possibly can and less on wondering why they have to complete the coaching in the first place.

Find Shawn Graham at CourtingYourCareer, on Twitter @ShawnGraham or via email at shawn(at)

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About the author

Shawn Graham partners with small businesses to create, implement, and manage performance-driven marketing strategies. His knowledge base includes media relations, business development, customer engagement, web marketing, and strategic planning