Do Psychologists Make Better Executive Coaches?

October 4, 2009 by Ken Nowack

“Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.”

John Wooden

The use of executive coaching has been an increasingly popular trend in organizations. There are numerous professional organizations and training institutes devoted specifically to this particular intervention—each with different theoretical models, approaches, processes and ethical/professional guidelines. Many of the larger human resources consulting and outplacement companies now provide and even “specialize” in coaching services ((Nowack, K. (2003). Executive Coaching: Fad or Future? California Psychologist, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, 16-17)).

Given the popularity, there has been very little in the literature about who is providing coaching and qualifications that make for the most effective coaches.  A recent survey by Dr. Joyce Bono from the University of Minnesota has really helped to answer some important questions about the ongoing debate about the practice of coaching and similarities and differences between psychologists and non-psychologists in the field ((Bono, J. et al., (2009).  A survey of executive coaching practices.  Personnel Psychology, 62, 361-404)).

This survey was completed by 428 coaches (172 psychologists and 256 nonpsychologists) focusing on coaching practices (46 questions), coaching outcomes (23 questions) and information about the “coach” (e.g., education, preferred title, income, ethnicity, formal training, etc.).  The last section asked the coaches to share three competencies they believed was critical to successful coaching.

Compared to nonpsychologists, psychologists who provide executive coaching services were significantly more likely to:

  • Meet face-to-face
  • Contract for fewer coaching sessions (38% of nonpsychologists reported “often” holding 21-30 sessions compared to only 19% of psychologists)
  • Avoid using behavior modification, neurolinguistic programming, or psychoanalytic techniques
  • Assist clients with applying new skills back at the job
  • Focus more on building rapport with their clients
  • Incorporate and utilize more assessments into the coaching interventions (e.g., 360s, personality inventories, interviews)
  • Spend less time on topics such as stress management, time management, communication, motivation, adaptability, sales/financial performance, and mentoring
  • Use others/reports to evaluate the effectiveness of the coaching engagement

There was enough data in the survey just to compare differences between psychologists (industrial/organizational, counseling, clinical and personality/social).  The findings suggest that few differences occurred in the use of coaching methods or assessments/tools but some statistically significant differences were found for mostly for clinical psychologists (e.g., clinical psychologists tended to use personality inventories more frequently as well as have more CEO/President levels).

Several broad results can be taken from this survey:

1. The real differences between psychologists and non-psychologists as coaches is small

2. There are about the same magnitude of differences between psychologists from different disciplines as there are between psychologists and nonpsychologists.

3. A coach’s background (e.g., education) will provide only limited information about the coach’s ability or approach to executive coaching.

So, what do we make of these findings?  The authors suggest that “Taken as whole, our results appear to favor psychologist coaches, especially with respect to strong measurement, use of data from multiple sources, and use of techniques with empirical validity.”

I know from my observation of the coaching market that it is still “buyer beware”….What do you think?….Be well…
[tags]emotional intelligence, leadership, talent management, born versus made, executive coaching, personality, happiness, heritability, leadership effectiveness, kenneth nowack, ken nowack, nowack[/tags]

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Leadership Development

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  1. Prem Rao says:

    Interesting. I guess the main difference will come out from the nature of coaching that it involved.

    I have no doubt that trained psychologists will be more effective in certain areas as compared to non-psychologists. In this context, I was surprised to read that psychologists are ” significantly more likely” to “avoid behaviour modification etc”.

    I would have thought that they would use this more than non-psychologists.

  2. […] and non-psychologists as coaches? This question is answered by Ken Novack in his blog post ” Do Psychologists Make Better Executive Coaches? “. What do you think?This is an interesting post and topic. My take is that it really depends […]

  3. Gail Hunt says:

    Could you recommend any specific resources, books, or other blogs on this topic?

  4. Ken Nowack says:

    Executive Coaching: Developing Managerial Wisdom in a World of Chaos by Richard Kilburg is excellent:

    Psychometrics in Coaching is also very comprehensive if you use assessments

    Don’t miss Marshall Goldsmith’s Blog in HBR

One Trackback

  1. By Psychologists as Coaches « People at Work & Play on October 5, 2009 at 2:22 am

    […] and non-psychologists as coaches? This question is answered by Ken Novack in his blog post ” Do Psychologists Make Better Executive Coaches? “. What do you think?This is an interesting post and topic. My take is that it really depends […]

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