What Is the Difference Between Life Coaching and Executive Coaching?

The coaching industry is deemed the second-fastest-growing sector in the world and continues to expand. Such growth coincides with both increasing awareness of the importance of mental health and wellbeing, as well as the (perhaps contradictory) rising stress and difficulty associated with ‘succeeding’ in our modern society.   

Often, individuals are unsure of how to achieve the change they desire, whether that be in their well-being, performance, or both. This is where coaching can come in; seemingly more important now than ever.

The growth of the coaching industry, however, has also brought an increasing array of different options in the area. Indeed, coaching is now being used to enhance performance in many different areas, leaving many of those individuals in search of support, confused about which type of coaching they should explore.

In particular, the question ‘How do I know if I need a life coach or an executive coach?’ is one commonly received by coaching experts. The answer to which requires an understanding of how exactly these two major types of coaching differ.

Although there are distinct differences between life and executive coaching, the fundamental principles underlying both (and indeed any form of coaching) are similar.

Let’s start at the beginning. The International Coaching Federation (ICF) broadly defines all forms of coaching as “thought-provoking and creative processes that inspire clients to maximize their potential”, something which both life and executive coaching certainly have in common and aim to do.

Critically, coaching in its “pure form” as defined by the ICFis distinct from training or teaching, as it does not focus on teaching a specific technical skill (like how to construct an excel spreadsheet). Rather, coaching is intended to provide a space for individuals to voice their concerns and desires for change, before providing them with personalized guidance to foster the production of their own solutions. Simply putting, all forms of coaching are about creating the conditions for fostering growth.

Also similar across all types of coaching, are the techniques employed by coaches to achieve these broad aims. Importantly, both life and executive coaches must be able to establish a trusting relationship with the client(s), usually doing so using active listening skills (listening attentively to understand a client’s desires, rather than to simply respond), empathy, and sometimes even humor! After working to identify their client’s goals, powerful questioning, coupled with the encouragement of reflection and goal setting, is commonly utilized to motivate and help clients to begin taking action towards the change they desire.

However, whilst similar techniques and methodologies are applied in both life and executive coaching, they do differ. How does it work? The predominant difference between them is that they place emphasis on different areas. In other words, these two coaching types have different purposes.

Life Coaching is conducted with an individual focus, helping clients to identify those aspects of their personal life that are discrepant from their desires, acting to facilitate the change these individuals personally wish to see. The coaching is therefore entirely driven by the individual and their personal desires.

These desires for change may lie in a multitude of areas: friendships, romantic relationships, family dynamics, stress management, weight, self-confidence, transitions into new employment, to name but a few. Some individuals may even seek out life coaching to help them better achieve a balance between these different areas in their lives if this is the change they wish to see. Seemingly, life coaching is therefore a rather general term, encompassing the coaching of a whole range of issues in people’s personal lives. 

Importantly, the emphasis on life coaching is primarily focused on the well-being and performance of the individual.

During a life coaching session, once an individual’s goals have been established, the coach will typically work with them to help them to uncover the factors (their individual attributes, values, behaviors) that may currently be hindering the achievement of these goals. This could be something as simple as a bad habit. For example, a tendency to reach for the chocolate after dinner could be hindering one’s desire to lose weight. Habits are not easy to break however, especially if the individual does not believe they will ever be able to change. This could lead to a hesitance to remove the things that may trigger their habit, like the box of chocolates in the back of the fridge. A life coach may help this individual explore ways in which this belief can be changed, helping them to break this maladaptive habit that is preventing them from losing weight. 

Alternatively, it could be that a client’s low self-confidence is hindering the achievement of their desires, such as their ability to engage in effective public speaking or to find a romantic partner. The life coach may aim to help the client remove this barrier,

initiating the setting of individualized goals for them to work towards. In this case, such goals may involve exercises that intend to enhance their self-confidence, such as writing down an achievement each day. The ‘success’ of a series of life coaching sessions will be determined solely by the satisfaction and fulfillment of the individual attending the coaching engagement, the coaches. Do the client/coachee themselves feel that they have achieved the personal goal they entered the coaching with?

Now, how about Executive Coaching? In comparison, executive coaching has a much more specific emphasis. Its focus directly addresses the professional desires of an individual. Typically, clients are in leadership and managerial roles, and are looking for guidance on how to make ‘better’ leadership decisions, or are in search of feedback on their leadership abilities. It is often hoped that, by improving those at the top, the entire company will experience a boost in performance.

Saying this, clients may not always be in leadership positions, with some instead seeking executive coaching to help to advance their career, to move up to those more senior, managerial roles. Executive coaches in these cases may help clients to realize the direction in which they want to progress, helping them to formulate an action plan to achieve these goals, and many times incorporate skills sharing and 1:1 training on presentation skills, interpersonal skills within the coaching methodology.

Rather than focusing on the individual’s personal life therefore, executive coaching is centered around the client’s relationship with their work situation, preferences, and performance. Goals are generally professional, rather than personal, and maybe broader than just the individual themselves, spanning to the wider performance of the business, staff management, and company’s strategy.

When attempting to ascertain the form of coaching right for you, it is therefore imperative to ask yourself what your goals are, considering whether they are personal, or more professional. But what if you are not sure? A professional certified coach will be able to help and guide you in the right direction, but if possible it is more beneficial to the client/coachee to consider the general direction first before engaging in with the coach.

Whilst, as described earlier, both life coaches and executive coaches aim to build a trusting relationship with their clients, helping them to work towards specific goals, executive coaches must make some additional considerations.

Indeed, on top of considering how the client’s personal values, habits, and attributes may be influencing their performance, executive coaches must also account for the context of the business in which clients work. This involves accounting for factors such as the organizational culture of the business, its image, politics, leadership style, and the system under which it operates. Understanding these factors is uniquely important in achieving positive results in executive coaching, making sure any goals set are aligned with the business in which the client works.

As a result, unlike life coaches, executive coaches are likely to need to engage not only with the client themselves but potentially also with others. This can include anyone in a position above them, those in human resources, and those in the client’s team. This engagement with multiple individuals marks another distinction between executive and life coaching.  Whilst life coaching involves a one on one relationship between coach and client, executive coaching may entail the involvement of a range of individuals in order to gain 360 feedback on how the person leads, performs and manages up, down and sideways.

Building on this, executive coaching usually encourages clients to focus on external ways of achieving an external outcome, working not only on themselves but also on/with their teams. For example, in order to improve team performance, executive coaching may encourage leaders to discuss with each of their individual team members about their strengths, in order to ensure these are being optimized. On the other hand, life coaching generally focuses on the changing of more internal processes, like self-confidence, to achieve external outcomes.

However, there is certainly overlap here, and this difference is not always distinct. For instance, sometimes executive coaching may help a client with a leadership position to realize that they may be managing with unconscious biases hindering their growth and the business development; a barrier to equality in the workplace. This distinction is therefore not always apparent. Owing to this, asking yourself whether or not the problem is external or internal may not necessarily help you to determine the form of coaching you require. 

Differences also exist between life coaching and executive coaching in terms of how quickly change may be expected. Generally, in contrast to life coaches, executive coaches will be provided with a timeline by their client’s company; a date by which, or a maximum number of sessions by which, they would like to be seeing improvements. Official reports documenting the client’s progress may therefore also be requested. Indeed, life coaching is often not affected by any such deadlines, but rather just by the amount of support the individual themselves feel they need. Importantly, this is not to say that executive coaching achieves results faster, but rather just that set time-frames are more frequently put in place.

This may be something to think about if you are someone considering entering the coaching profession. Indeed, the question of how life coaching and executive coaching differ is not limited to confused clients, but also those potential coaches unsure of which form of coaching to go into. If you work well under stricter time-frames, then executive coaching may be suited to you. 

This, however, is of course not the only consideration that should be made by potential coaches. Executive coaches are usually expected to have experience working in corporate and business settings, alike to those they would be working among. There are also higher expectations that one will have a Masters’s when entering this executive coaching. Perhaps also important to consider, is that executive coaches generally earn and charge significantly more, likely because it is usually the client’s company that pays for their coaching, whereas for life coaching, clients themselves usually pay.

As touched upon earlier, nowadays, there is immense pressure on leaders to consistently deliver a high level of performance. Resultantly, the demand for executive coaching has soared, especially considering the ever-changing demands that the modern world exerts on workplaces, meaning that leaders often feel they need to reach out for support to ensure they cope in the most effective manner.

Similarly, there is also a growing demand for life coaching, potentially because of the increased stress of modern life, the current Pandemic of Covid-19, and increasing awareness of the importance of mental health.

Due to this increasing demand, the number of life coaches and executive coaches has increased dramatically over the past few years. As a job with generally flexible hours and the ability to work remotely (thanks to technology!), both forms of coaching are highly attractive careers, allowing individuals to turn their corporate expertise (in the case of executive coaching), ‘wisdom’, and drive to help others, into a business.

But, importantly, the increasing popularity of becoming a coach may mean that individuals looking to hire one may need to be extra careful, not only in choosing the right type (executive or life) but also in choosing a coach who really knows what they are doing.  Indeed, with so many people starting careers as coaches, not all may have a professional qualification or the right experience. So, when choosing a coach, whether executive or life, it is certainly important to do your research.

It is also crucial to remember that executive and life coaching are not the only forms of coaching out there. It could well be that another form of coaching might suit you better. Other forms include team coaching, which is specifically focused on improving team dynamics, and youth career coaching, which is focused on helping those young adults discover the job that is best suited for them. The options are endless.

Clearly, there is a lot to think about when considering hiring a coach, whether executive, life, or another form. One this is certain, however; act fast, because they’re in demand. And if you’re someone looking to become a coach, now might just be the best time.

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