How To Become An Executive Coach: Everything You Need To Know

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By: Corry Robertson, PCC

Last Updated: Nov 15, 2023
How to become an executive coach

Are you looking for a career change? Do you want to learn how to become an executive coach? Whether it’s because you’re craving more of a leadership role, or you want to help transform people’s lives, becoming an executive coach is an excellent option. 

It’s never too late to get training and certification in coaching, so if this sounds like something that interests you then keep reading! 

What does an executive coach do?

Executive coaching is a process that helps executives and high-potential employees gain self-awareness, and clarify goals in order to achieve their development objectives. Executive coaching (sometimes also called leadership coaching) involves direct conversation to unlock the potential within each individual so they can navigate change or meet difficult challenges.

This is the traditional view of executive coaching, but in my experience, the best professional executive and leadership coaches are disruptors. 

We fine-tune our listening skills and our intuition to such a point where we are able to hear when a client’s thought process is getting in their way and we know how to interrupt it, hold space for the client to see the loop for themselves, and then change it to something that will get them a better outcome.

This ability comes with training and experience, the necessary first steps to becoming an executive coach or a leadership coach.

What’s the difference between executive coaching and leadership coaching?

Many people ask what the difference is between executive coaching and leadership coaching. Ultimately they are similar, in that they are both coaching. Leadership coaching is often seen as a subset of executive coaching, where the focus is more on leadership development for the client and less on their personal development or life goals.  

Leadership coaching focuses primarily on how to improve certain aspects of leadership skills for a particular profession, whereas executive coaches aim to help the client with his/her broader vision in both professional and personal realms. 

What makes a great executive coach?

A great executive coach has coach-specific training including leadership coaching training, and understands the difference between executive coaching and consulting. 

Let me tell you a story to explain.

Recently I’ve been working with a CEO with 6 direct reports who hired me for executive coaching with the intention to work on performance improvement and management.  

One day early into our mandate, her topic was on how to help her employees achieve their goals without being so directive and involved in the details of the execution of projects.

She wanted her employees to be more autonomous and effective, to run with their projects, and include her less.

In other words, she wanted them to have clarity, to be aligned and productive.

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Setting and achieving goals

Setting and achieving goals is a classic leadership coaching topic and pivotal with regards to coaching for performance management.

So yes, I could have advised her on how to set up goals for her team. This would be easy for me because I teach this subject at The Coaching Academy For Leaders.

Nothing would have been simpler than to take off my coaching hat, put on my consulting hat, and launch into a full-blown presentation on the topic of goal setting. Right then and there, I could have guided her through an end-to-end goal-setting exercise, complete with timelines and accountability measures. I could have even followed up with a whole kit of custom materials that she could work with and share with her team. 

However, I coached her instead.

Coaching vs. consulting

We have a saying among professional coaches…if you can find the answer on Google, it’s not a coaching topic. And believe me, you can Google “how to set and achieve goals” and you will find more resources there than you can consume in a lifetime (for example, you can find my recent article on the topic here).

From the coaching perspective, moving into the consulting sphere would have cost her the opportunity to be coached. Said another way, I would have cost her the opportunity to get to the heart of the real challenge, where true transformation can take place.

So after years of training and experience coaching executives, I had the instinct to go deeper because I sensed that the lack of goal setting was just the symptom that was sitting on the surface, top of mind…

This executive had to back up a few steps, which is where the true coaching topic rested.

Executive coaches hold space for their clients

Coming from a place of genuine curiosity, I was able to pose a few powerful questions that caused the necessary disruption to her thinking patterns that were causing her mental blocks and thus her current challenges at work.

Is it comfortable for a client to have their thoughts disrupted? Not always. 

Sometimes it irritates them and makes them cranky but that’s ok. As a coach, you are trained to hold space for a person to be honest about their feelings. You trust the client and you trust yourself. The client trusts you for the psychological safety that you maintain.

Sometimes they find it invigorating for their thoughts to be disrupted. They’ll laugh and say, oh! This is great! Great question!

Sometimes they’ll cry, or go quiet for a while. Sometimes they’ll end the call because they need some space. And yes, men cry too. More than you may think.

What came to the surface was that the issue was not about needing to set better goals, it was about leading from a sense of purpose. (For more about this see our infographic Inside The Mind Of A Conscious Leader).

The coaching revealed to the client that she had lost her way in her own business. She had lost touch with her “why”. She had experienced such success and rapid growth that she had gotten herself trapped in a loop of do-do-do, go-go-go, busy-busy-busy.

Her team was following her…following her in circles that is.

That’s why she was feeling that she needed to work on goal setting so that everyone could go back to feeling like they were on track by getting things done.

Coworkers celebrating - How to become an executive coach

Executive coaches help clients reconnect with their purpose

There is no track without a clearly defined purpose. Actually, the purpose IS the track. Without it, the cars derail. Employee engagement plummets, and the damage is epic.

After the executive reconnected with her purpose, then she could get to work on aligning her team and their team’s teams with the purpose and start the strategic planning. As the coach, I could support the process every step of the way.

So what makes a great executive coach?

Executive coaches know that, often, the first thing the client says they want coaching on is not the real challenge. Professional executive coaches have the training necessary to listen with ‘curious compassion’ as they support the client through the process of peeling back the layers, symptom by symptom until the real block is uncovered.

How much do executive coaches make?

Many people who are interested in becoming certified as an executive coach or who want to pursue leadership coaching also want to understand the earning potential. According to as well as the International Coaching Federation (ICF) surveys, full-time certified executive coaches can charge a range of $250-$500 per hour, with some even charging up to $3500 per hour, and they earn anywhere in the median range of $100,000 to over $700,000 per year.

Which coaching certification is best?

With so many executive coaching programs available, it’s important to find one that has been approved by a reputable association. The International Coaching Federation (or ICF) is the world’s largest professional coaching organization and provides external and objective validation of both courses and coaches. They examine the quality of approved courses to ensure that you receive a high-quality education in this unregulated field.

If you want to become a coach, it’s important that you choose the right training program for your needs. I hear from people who have invested thousands of dollars and loads of time in coaching training only to find out later they can’t use their certification anywhere because it’s not ICF-approved.

An easy method to find the right coaching training program is checking if it’s ICF-accredited. ICF-accredited education programs like The Coaching Academy for Leaders have gone through a rigorous review process and demonstrated that their curriculum aligns with the ICF definition of coaching, Core Competencies, and Code of Ethics. Level One, Level Two, and Level Three offerings deliver foundational coach-specific education and training, so you know they’ll be a great fit for your needs and goals.

Leadership training - How to become an executive coach

What is the best executive coaching credential?

Becoming a coach requires rigorous study and ongoing self-improvement. Simply earning the title is not enough; coaches must also have their credentials verified by an international governing body, such as the ICF, the International Coaching Federation. 

For a complete overview of ICF credentials and certification programs, read my blog post here: How To Become A Certified Coach.

Credentials are documented evidence of education, training, and experience that can make or break your success with an executive coaching career – it pays to know what you’re looking for in a reputable executive coaching qualification.

Have you ever noticed the letters after a Coach’s name? The International Coaching Federation divides coaching experience into three levels of credential which are designed to indicate how much training and experience a coach has as well as their skill level.

Associate Certified Coach (ACC)

To become an ICF Associate Certified Coach (ACC) you start out by completing at least 60 hours of coach-specific education. This education may be earned through one or more ICF-accredited programs. Candidates for the ACC Credential must also have at least 100 hours of coaching experience following the start of their coach-specific education. As part of your coaching education, you must have 10 hours of Mentor Coaching. You must also undergo a performance evaluation as part of the completion of your coaching education program. Finally, you are required to pass the ICF Credentialing Exam, a computer-based written exam administered by ICF Credentials and Standards, to prove that you have a high degree of understanding of the competencies required.

Professional Certified Coach (PCC)

To become an ICF Professional Certified Coach, PCC, you build on the work that you did as an ACC. To obtain this certification, you must have at least 125 hours of coach-specific education through an ICF-accredited coach education program, and a minimum of 500 hours of coaching experience.

Master Certified Coach (MCC)

To become an ICF Master Certified Coach, MCC, you will have earned your PCC credential, and have over 200 hours of coach-specific education from an ICF-accredited coach education program, 10 additional hours of Mentor Coaching, and a minimum of 2,500 hours of coaching experience, and pass the credentialing.

If you’re interested in learning more about ICF credentials and coaching certification, a great place to start is our guide to ICF coaching certification, here.

Does an executive coach need niche-specific business expertise?

Often, people think that the word coaching is a synonym for consulting, advising, or mentoring. Because of this misunderstanding, people think that the coach needs to be or have been where the client wants to go – they need the specific business expertise or experience within the industry that the client is involved in.

But that would be the same as believing that only a doctor who has given birth can help you deliver your baby, or that only a divorced person can be a divorce lawyer.

To be an executive coach or leadership coach, first and foremost, you need coaching qualifications through a certification program. Without that, you simply can’t coach.

Yes, a coach needs experience and yes, a coach needs training. The important thing to know is that the coach does not need to have the same experience and training as the client.

I have heard many well-known thought leaders say that coach training isn’t necessary. These gurus say that as long as your client gets results with your support, you can call yourself a coach. 

That is like nails on a chalkboard to my ears.

Yes, your clients may get results with your support, but without coach training, they are most likely benefiting from your consulting and mentoring abilities. That may be exactly what the client wanted but again, it’s not coaching.

What is the most important quality to become an executive coach?

One of the biggest qualities that you will find in an executive coach is their comfort level with not needing to prove how smart and knowledgeable they are and how fast they can turn those smarts into solutions for their clients.

If you want to be an executive coach, you need to get comfortable knowing your value will come from your ability to be curious and empathetic. You must be at ease in the space of not knowing – not knowing what the client wants or needs. Not knowing what to say next and not knowing what the best outcome is. 

With coaching expertise, you are able to trust yourself and trust your client. This is the coaching competency of ‘presence’ which is part of any reputable coach training program.  

As my mentor, Marcia Reynolds says: “Coach the person, not the problem”.  An executive coach trained through a certification program will ask themself, what is stopping this very smart and resourceful person from solving their problem?

Trust me, it’s not because they forgot how to set SMART goals. No one wants to spend $300-$500 an hour to hear their coach present on SMART goals!


You may be a former corporate VP with tremendous leadership skills who wants a retirement career as an executive coach. You may be a 30 something, up-and-coming HR Manager who wants to learn about executive coaching and build a coaching department in her company.

Either way, you’ll start your coach training in the same place, maybe even in the same class, beginning with the ICF Core competencies where you learn how to become a coach.

So let’s go back to the beginning – how do you become an executive and leadership coach?

  1. You begin by understanding the difference between coaching and consulting
  2. You find an ICF-accredited coach training program to learn to coach
  3. You practice coaching
  4. You decide if supporting executives and business leaders aligns with your purpose
  5. You learn some more
  6. You practice some more
  7. You check-in to see if you are still aligned with your purpose
  8. You coach executives and leaders!

It’s really that simple, and that powerful. 

And if coaching feels aligned with your purpose in life, I invite you to get all of your questions answered about The Coaching Academy For Leaders and learn more about how we can support you in your journey to become an executive coach!

Have any questions about becoming an executive coach?  Ask me in the comments!


Did you enjoy this article?  You might also like:
Types of Coaching, Coaching Styles, and Certifications – Which One Is Right For You?
How To Become A Certified Coach: Understanding ICF Credentials and Certification Programs
Coaching Up for Alignment – How To Use Coaching Skills To Improve Workplace Dynamics

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Corry Robertson

Sought-after coaching culture expert, Corry Robertson has been helping leaders uplevel employee retention and performance for over 20 years.

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