Psychologists who've ventured into the executive coaching field say there's great opportunity for more of their colleagues to enter the field--if they understand and care about business.

The work, which focuses on making top leaders more effective, has come into its own, says Sandra Shullman, PhD, chair of APA's Executive Coaching Work Group, an effort of the Board of Professional Affairs. "Executive coaching is a workplace trend and a trend in psychology," she says.

While Fortune 500 companies have used this kind of consultation for some time, it's becoming increasingly common for smaller entities like family businesses, dentists or attorneys to use the service.

"There is a huge opportunity," says Karol M. Wasylyshyn, PsyD, who has done the work for about 20 years. "Businesses of all types continue to invest a lot in executive coaching."

What it is

In terms of everything executive coaches might do, "the possibilities become mind-boggling," says Randall P. White, PhD, principal in the Executive Development Group and co-author of "The Glass Ceiling: Can Women Reach the Top of America's Largest Corporations?" The work often is about helping an executive identify his or her strengths and weaknesses and address both, but other areas of focus many include:

  • Serving as a sounding board for strategic decision-making.

  • Coaching a newly promoted employee who has never supervised before.

  • Helping employees manage their stress.

  • Helping a team "fight fair" as its members divide up resources for their parts of a make-or-break product development.

  • Aiding in the "management of uncertainty" in these days when there can be five or six "right" strategies that could be pursued.

  • Mediating conflicts between executives. A coach often has a kind of temporary authority, say several of the experts, to tell top leaders what no one else can. "Sometimes I can say the unsayable," says White.

Far from being a management fad, executive coaching has lasting impetus behind it, say those in the field. "There are talent wars ongoing in industry," says Shullman, and companies increasingly want to retain people by developing them into higher roles or helping them function in current roles.

In addition, Shullman says, globalization, technology and corporate mergers have so stepped up the pace of change that top leaders "don't have all the answers anymore." That means they have to rely on and engage the people they supervise much more than in the past, using the people skills they may not have developed.

Rodney Lowman, PhD, who has started a PhD program in consulting psychology at California's Alliant University, says part of the explanation for the "explosive growth" in executive coaching is that it fills some of the same needs as psychotherapy, but it has never had a stigma attached to it. Executive coaching he says, is "about positive things like growth and maximizing potential."

The declining economy and the uneasiness felt in many companies following the Sept. 11 attacks have also advanced the coaching marketplace, adds industrial/organizational (I/O) psychologist Nancy Tippins, PhD, who has worked with businesses for 20 years.

"Executives have tough jobs, particularly now with this economy, and it is increasingly difficult to be responsible for lots of people," says Tippins, who is president of Personnel Research Associates in Dallas, a consulting firm that does executive coaching. "Organizations want to invest in those activities that help executives be most productive."

What it takes

Seasoned experts in the field sound a note of caution to those who may want to join their ranks: Executive coaching, they say, is not the place for psychologists with no particular interest in business.

"You need to have some passion and respect and understanding for business and organizations," says Shullman. As an example, she says, the coach needs to understand the demands of the leadership roles from first-line supervision to middle management to the top executive.

Lloyd Brotman, PhD, who heads a Philadelphia consulting firm, adds that coaching requires solid grounding in the context of business, not just in terms of personal adjustment. And Bruce Peltier, PhD, author of "The Psychology of Executive Coaching," stresses that a novice must come to understand not just business, but business people: "They move fast and they keep score--using money. It may not be everyone's cup of tea."

Meanwhile for those with the interest, there is no universally accepted certification for executive coaching. Nor are there standard definitions of coaching or regulations governing good practice. Anybody can claim to be a coach, and more people from many fields, particularly MBAs, are becoming coaches, says psychologist Mary Kralj, PhD, who has coached for 12 years.

In fact, executive coaching is a "huge umbrella term," Tippins explains, so it's important for psychologists who coach to communicate with businesses on exactly what types of problems they are qualified to work on. A company may want a coach to counsel executives on their problems, to advise executives on organizational structure and design, or help executives motivate and manage problem employees--a wide range of issues that demand different skills, she says.

"Practice in the area in which you are trained," she stresses. Just as psychologists with industrial/organizational expertise may not be qualified to counsel executives on psychological problems, some practitioners may not be qualified to advise on designing a more efficient organization. "You have to say what you are capable of and what you are not, and not have the client figure it out," she adds.

Ways to sample the field

Getting started in coaching requires some additional learning for any psychologist, say coaching experts. "No one specialty in psychology may fully prepare someone to do executive coaching," explains Shullman. "If you're coming from a clinical background, there is a need to get experience with organizational behavior and issues as well as business context training, while those from the I/O end need an understanding of a range of clinical and developmental kinds of issues."

Psychologists who want to explore executive coaching can get a taste by attending the expanding number of continuing-education programs being offered on the topic. Kralj suggests getting involved with organizations that have a stake in coaching, such as APA's Divs. 13 (Society of Consulting Psychology) and 14 (Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology). In addition, more extensive programs have been established. A number of psychologist-coaches got training at the Center for Creative Leadership, in Greensboro, N.C., for example. Brotman advises it helps to be acquainted with business professionals, just to understand the mindset. A number of psychologists suggest joining a Rotary or other business club both to learn and to make contacts.

"There really isn't one way to go about becoming an executive coach, but there are definitely requirements that every coach should have," says Shullman.

The most important one, according to Tippins, is hands-on experience that's supervised by a seasoned coach who can provide evaluation and feedback. Tippins got guidance by interning at a large corporation under several I/O psychologists. Kralj went to business school and became a manager herself before joining a consulting firm. To gain such practical experience, Shullman suggests practitioners contact consulting firms or psychologist-coaches who they might apprentice with.

Coaches also add that, as their careers progress, it's essential to keep up to date with the latest in both psychology and business.

Wasylyshyn has words of inspiration for psychologists who may want to explore the field: Coaching is more than just a business opportunity for psychologists, she says. It's an opportunity for psychology to help humanize the workplace at a time when it has become very Darwinian.

Kathryn Foxhall is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Md. Monitor staff Jamie Chamberlin and Deborah Smith contributed to this article.