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What is executive coaching?

Photo of a peanut butter and chocholate candy snack as an analog to answer "what is executive coaching?"
Peanut butter and chocolate are a combination that delivers a result that's better than one or the other alone.

Executive coaching is when a founder, CEO, or other senior leader joins together with a coach in an ongoing discovery process. It's a collaboration that delivers more than a sum of the parts. We follow a client-led, gap informed, and consultatively augmented model designed to help executives experience freedom as they lead their teams to accomplish big growth goals.

In this post, we'll summarize what each of these terms mean:

The goal of this collaboration is to reduce the negative effects of loneliness on leaders.

This, in turn, unlocks higher levels of performance as founders and executives pursue big growth goals. Examples of these goals include things like higher profitability, successful ESG initiatives, improved advisory and governance board performance, creation of a sustainable values driven culture, and much more.

Client-led executive coaching

Your business is unique. You have a particular vision for how you solve your customer's needs.

We believe the coach does not have the answers. We also believe an executive coach can help you see new solutions and innovations.

Client-led means you set the agenda. It starts with whatever you believe is the most challenging part of your leadership or the thing that, when you solve it, will make everything else easier.

Examples include things like:

  • Where to start when clarifying big, long-term goals

  • How to manage mindset challenges like feeling alone at the top, impostor syndrome, and being "stuck"

  • Finding new approaches to unlocking employee and contractor performance

  • Overcoming persistent frustrations in your leadership efforts

The number of opportunities and challenges are nearly limitless.

If I'm leading...

You might be asking "If I'm leading this, why do I need a coach"?

It's a good - and important - question.

Client-led simply means YOU, not the coach:

  1. set the agenda (what's the most important topic to explore in this conversation);

  2. provide the context in response to the coach's generous and respectful questions; and

  3. decide when the conversation has gone far enough that you have an action step (or plan) based on what you've uncovered with the coach's help.

"I don't need to pay a coach to tell me what I already know"

Executive coaches and consultants alike hear this regularly.

It's true - if:

  • you already know everything there is to know;

  • you already have a successful way to pick an action plan; and

  • you have a 100% track record of reading every situation - even the brand new ones - correctly.

If this is how you see it, coaching probably isn't for you.

And, that's perfectly OK. You are likely very successful and happy with the outcomes you are seeing. Why invest the time, attention, and financial resources?

For most founders and leaders, though, this just isn't the way they experience the work of leading at the highest levels.

In our experience, leaders often find themselves in various difficult places:

For leaders who don't want the stress of being alone, this style of executive coaching can unlock a new sense of freedom, purpose, and accomplishment.

Gap Informed Executive Coaching

In the early 1980's, Sir John Whitmore and others began to popularize the GROW model of coaching. In this model, the coach assists their client with this framework:

  • Goal - What do you want?

  • Reality - Where are you now?

  • Options - What could you do?

  • Will - What will you do?

This may sound simplistic but, as the Harvard Business Review article on The Leader as Coach shows:

3,761 executives assessed their own coaching skills, and then their assessments were compared with those of people who worked with them. The results didn’t align well….Coaching well can be hard for even the most competent and well-meaning of managers.

Its also a commonly accepted idea that one cannot (usually) coach themselves.

Brain science bears this out. Studies regularly show that our brains are often flooded with unhelpful chemicals. This flood leads to a "vicious cycle" when we are stressed.

A trained and experienced coach is outside of your brain chemistry.

They're not part of the vicious cycle.

In fact, a client who:

  1. identifies the area of challenge and

  2. shares how they are stuck

will have a better chance of escaping that cycle when they work with a coach.

Gap informed coaching thrives on the question: "Where are you now and, where do you want to be."

The most powerful results come when a coaching client identifies this gap for themself and then collaborates with an experienced executive coach to identify possible solutions.

You may be surprised by the questions, ideas, and clarity that emerge just by having the conversation.

Consultatively augmented

This is a potentially controversial point with my colleagues who are ICF Certified.

Here's why: Executive coaching - in it's most pure form - is almost exclusively free of any opinion driven input from the coach.

There's an exception for a coach to ask permission to share a relevant idea or experience. In the Professional Coaching Competencies (the ICF's guidebook), these occurrences are supposed to be very rare.

ICF certified coaches can be fantastic. We value the body of knowledge and the offer of tailored, client-centered, industry insights. Our approach establishes - as part of the initial coaching agreement - how the coach will offer these insights.

As any experienced founder, executive, or operator knows, there is significant value in an accumulated framework. The sharing of ideas and relevant experiences is core to our commitment of walking alongside executives with a co-founder mindset.

Consultation is not training. There's no preset "system" or number of weeks to master a particular approach. If you're looking for that, a training program is probably a better fit.

Instead, consultative augmentation is an intentional sharing of ideas, systems, and experiences. The purpose is to help a client quickly pass through a conceptual stuck point so they can more quickly consider if (and how) the idea might apply. They are potential jumping off points for a client's exploration of their own possible "way forward" ideas.

On rare occasions, the consultative coach may have bona-fide expertise in a specific topic area. The client is (always) at their personal choice in asking for and/or following any example, tool, process, or other consultatively prescribed course of action.

In all cases, the executive coach makes the offer with the stated caveat that the approach or solution might not be appropriate for the client's exact situation.

The Key To Successful Executive Coaching

In a word? Curiosity.

Coaching can be a powerful option for a founder, CEO, or senior executive who is committed to ongoing discovery and personal development.

This answer to "what is executive coaching" is a high level description. It shows how an executive coach can walk alongside a founder, CEO, or other c-suite leader to:

  • ask generous, powerful questions from outside your context;

  • help uncover both gaps and new ways forward; and

  • with your permission, offer timely and relevant insights for consideration.

Executive coaching is one support option available to senior leaders. To learn more about how it compares to other options, please download our (completely free) Guide to Executive Advisory Services Options.


Paravelle offers executive coaching services to founders and CEOs with big growth goals. It's a crucial support structure that helps leaders avoid the negative results that come from being lonely at the top.

We might be a good fit to work together if you're:

  • at the create (<1M ARR), build ($1-3M ARR), or grow ($3-5M ARR) stage,

  • curious and looking for ideas and answers, and

  • ready to invest in working with a collaborator that brings a co-founder's perspective (without losing half your equity).

Let's chat!


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