Michèle and Carolyn, you both started as counsellors and now work as coaches within organisations. Looking back, what motivated you to make that move?

Carolyn: In a sense, it was a move to include a new sphere of working rather than a move away from something else, and it happened quite organically. I was coaching individuals and knew that I would earn more money in the corporate world, which would also balance the pro bono and less lucrative coaching I was offering elsewhere. I was motivated by challenge, learning, the opportunity to use my knowledge and skills in a new context, and capacity to earn more money.

Michèle: I had no motivation to become an executive coach as at the time I was starting out, 22 years ago, I didn’t know they existed! I stumbled into it while doing corporate training (after a career in teaching, then setting up a successful small business, then training as a therapist). I was training two directors one day when I realised they were already competent in what the course covered, so I asked them what they really needed, split the day into two, and worked with them one to one. Over lunch, one of them said to me: ‘I didn’t know you were also an executive coach’, and I responded, ‘Yes, I am’, even though at the time, I had no idea what an executive coach was! That client then asked to carry on working one to one with me, and so began a very happy career.

What is most rewarding about the executive coaching you are currently involved with?

Carolyn: The variety is great. In one day, I can be seeing people at a consulting room in Bank, meeting a young entrepreneur informally in a bar, and then seeing someone in the financial sector in a large glass office. I have enjoyed learning more about current challenges and trends in leadership and the cross-fertilisation that brings to clients. It sounds a bit clichéd but people are people everywhere, and I find that a huge percentage of the time, what is holding them back are their own limiting assumptions and sometimes the need for some pertinent information and generative support. I have found that being able to bring a systemic perspective is invaluable. In this aspect of my work, I am also coaching people who have the power to influence and support others, so seeing the impact of their own growth as leaders on their teams and organisations is very satisfying.

Michèle: I’m working with some wonderful individuals and teams and seeing real change and growth. As always, I am inspired to see the positive effects of therapeutic coaching on stressed executives who are often buckling under the weight of pressure, responsibilities and long hours.

What is most challenging?

Michèle: There is an element of not knowing where your next project or client is coming from and I used to spend a lot of time worrying about the future. I took my worries to my supervisor once and she pointed out that the evidence suggested that the work always comes. Which it did! That realisation helped me become more comfortable with uncertainty. I have worked very hard to get to a place where I now only take on work that makes my heart sing. For the first few years, I had to take on everything that came my way. Other than that, there is a lot of admin when you work for yourself, such as emails, paperwork and VAT returns, and finding time to do it all, as well as writing bespoke workshops and programmes, can be challenging. I am currently considering getting a part-time personal assistant. The travel can also be a challenge – I live in Wales and work in London and Oxfordshire so I always travel to see my clients. Although I break my journeys by staying away from home for a few days at a time, if my car could talk, it would be saying, ‘What, again?!’ on a Monday morning as I set off early on my two- to three-hour trip.

Carolyn: I grew up in a working-class family, who were basically in service, in what is now quite an unusual way, to an upper-class family, who you might call ‘landed gentry’. While we were appreciated and supported by my father’s employers, I grew up with a particular sense of ‘knowing your place’ that has at times proved hard to shake. It helps to be married to someone from New Zealand, himself successful in the corporate world, as he doesn’t really see class. I think my early background, coupled with the sense of vocation and service that comes from working for a long time as a counsellor and in some inner-city locations with people who were often struggling economically, made it a challenge for me to see myself as entitled to ‘pass’ and to earn at a much higher level in the corporate world. I have had to work on my own untrue, limiting assumptions and take on the challenge of genuinely valuing the extent of my experience, knowledge and skills. It has been good for me to grow in this way.

How much does your therapeutic background inform your work as an executive coach?

Carolyn: Hugely! It was why I was hired in many cases, because there was a need to be able to work at some psychological depth in each of the situations or with particular people that associates brought me in to work with. I have found that clients value the opportunity to go into depth when it is needed, with the understanding that we are not engaging in therapy per se, though, as has often been noted, the work can itself be therapeutic. The stigma still felt in some quarters about counselling is often absent in coaching, but the need for work at depth may still be required. It can be hard to disentangle what I have learned as a counsellor and what I have learned as a coach, particularly because the theory is powerful across contexts, so Gestalt and transactional analysis (TA) perspectives underpin a great deal of my work, as does understanding about attachment and selfcompassion. Psychological safety, trust, boundaries and presence are all essential in coaching and I gained a great deal of experience working as a therapist that I could build on when learning to be a coach.

Michèle: I wouldn’t be the coach I am today without it. To be able to sit with a client in that deep, emotional place can only happen with a deep therapeutic underpinning. Equally, the ability to meet my clients wherever they are requires the same rigorous training. However clients show up is fine with me, because as a therapist, I was used to working with whatever and whoever came through my door. Nothing really phases me and I’m sure clients feel the security of that, knowing that they can absolutely be themselves with me.

Executive coaching has become a highly competitive field. Are there any identifiable factors that make a coach new to this field more likely to succeed?

Michèle: If you’re pitching for work, speaking the language makes a big difference. As therapists, we would call it ‘working within the client’s frame of reference’. So if you’re sitting in front of a CEO or HR director and can neither understand their references nor respond in kind, you’ll struggle to create a rapport and be seen as the coach for them and their organisation. You need to know at which organisational level you’re most comfortable working. I specialise in working with senior executives and will offer that early in a conversation so that they know where to place me in their thinking, be it for one-to-one, group or team coaching. You need to feel comfortable in your working environment. If you aren’t familiar with the corporate world (my business background really helps), then you may be better working within the public or not-for-profit sectors. Choose the most natural fit for you. You will also need to understand the multiplicity of contracting – BACP’s Ethical Framework is a good place to start. Be sure you have a supervisor experienced in both
counselling and coaching or they’ll only be able to help with the therapeutic part of your work and not the organisational, which is just as important.

Carolyn: I know from my experience of supervising others who are starting out as coaches that their existing networks and previous experience are crucial. If you have a background in business and contacts who value and trust you, you are more likely to get initial leads and opportunities; and in my experience, good work in one context usually leads to work in another – either in the same organisation or through recommendation from one executive to another. I think you need to make sure that you have some kind of systemic understanding to bring, and I have found training in constellations work really useful. I think people still prefer to employ people that they know and trust, and that’s how I get work. If you don’t have a background in business, talk to people in your networks who do. You may also want to go in with a particular specialism, if this is something that you have experience and knowledge of, such as maternity coaching. Ensure that your offer is meeting an identified need and is research based. Make sure you know a lot about complex contracting and that you include more than experiential evaluation – eg, clear return on investment. Mary-Beth O’Neill’s Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart1 is a useful read in terms of linking individual development with the needs of the business.

What is the best way to break into associate work?

Michèle: I had no idea that associate work existed when I started out. My feeling is that if you have the right skills and background, and confidence in your offering, it makes sense to go into coaching directly. If you do so, the profits of the work are all yours. Having said that, I do miss the camaraderie that comes with working with peers (which is partly why I joined the BACP Coaching Executive). I can see that being an associate would also provide that.

Carolyn: Build really good, genuine, authentic relationships with other coaches. At the moment, I work with three associates and was asked in each case to come on board because I knew them from other contexts, either through attending training they were running, training alongside them as a co-delegate, or training them! They all valued the fact that I was also therapeutically trained and could offer an integrated approach. I have been lucky enough not to have to pitch to anyone as I was asked if I would like the work. I have also come together with other coaches to develop offers. If you are going to tender for work, you need to make sure that you have limited company accounts and can demonstrate that you have the capacity to deliver. All of this takes time and I don’t know any shortcuts. I know from others’ experience that there are organisations specifically set up to interview and employ coaches to deliver coaching contracts in the corporate world. They will have specific criteria and will also have quite rigorous interview days within which you will need to demonstrate your skills.

Where do you stand on pro bono work and how useful is it in establishing yourself as an executive coach?

Michèle: All my work comes to me through word of mouth. As an executive coach, this usually means that my initial meeting is with the procurer of coaching rather than the individual client. During that meeting, if there is a rapport and they believe I can provide what they are looking for, they will hire me as a coach. In my experience, if they aren’t sure I’m the right fit after meeting me, no amount of pro bono work will make a difference. Also, I prefer to keep my voluntary work separate from my paid work. That way, the one doesn’t taint or impact the other.

Carolyn: When I was starting out, I offered low-cost coaching through my networks and gained experience of coaching individuals in the corporate world. Some of those coaching relationships lasted quite a while and through them I was recommended to clients who could pay full rates. Some have also intermittently returned for sessions as they meet new challenges. I have found that coaching pro bono for the New Entrepreneur Foundation, working with young people, has increased my network with other experienced executive coaches, as well as keeping me up to date with developments and challenges in this field. I have also kept in touch with those young people who reconnect again once they are more established.

Is there a piece of advice you give to prospective executive coaches? Or that you were given that you found particularly helpful?

Michèle: Research the organisation before you go to your initial meeting so that you know something about them and have a feel for their culture. Also, something which is hard to put into words, but you need to sound less ‘counselling-y’ in a corporate environment. As therapists, we’re used to sounding soft and empathic, often tentative in our interventions so that the client feels supported, encouraged and not prescribed to. While this is just right for a vulnerable client, it can come across as lacking in confidence or passive to a corporate client. Of course, be yourself; but we all show up as different aspects of ourselves as the environment necessitates, so just bear this in mind, and use your therapeutic skills to quickly create rapport.

Carolyn: I guess it’s the opposite of selling yourself short. By that I mean, do recognise where you have extensive experience, knowledge and skills and charge accordingly – people often expect to get what they pay for, and an investment in quality coaching can provide an excellent return. If you are genuine and open in your interactions, people read that. Emphasise and build on what you have and who you know, without being disingenuous or mercenary about your contacts. There is no shortcut to trust and trust is what is needed for people to give you work and to work with you. It can take time to build the networks you need to succeed and at the same time, every contact and every good piece of work can lead to another, sometimes in surprising ways. I’m not big on giving advice because, generally, with the right support, people can find their own way forward; but I do know from my own experience that it helps to be generous and have both confidence and humility – they are not mutually exclusive! 

Carolyn Mumby is Chair of BACP Coaching carolynmumby.com

Michèle Down is BACP Coaching’s Specialist in Executive Coaching www.micheledowndynamics.com


1 O’Neill MB. Executive coaching with backbone and heart: a systems approach to engaging leaders with their challenges. San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons; 2007.