Executive Coaching vs. Life Coaching – What’s the real difference?

By: Patrick D. Goonan

Pat is a 25+ year veteran in business who has been employed by such well-known companies as Merck, Xerox, Oracle, PeopleSoft and VMware.  He earned his Masters of Psychology at John F. Kennedy University and also attended the Coaches Training Institute in San Rafael, CA after working in the business world in various capacities.  He has lived and worked in the San Francisco Bay area since 1994.

san-francisco-financial-district-above WOW

The difference between life coaching and executive coaching is largely one of emphasis.  Although a number of methodologies can be used in both cases, executive coaching has the added dimension of a business stake being intrinsic to the relationship and outcomes.

How I see this as altering the coaching relationship is that the process is not just about the executive.  The leader has a responsibility to the shareholders, the people working under him and to the organization itself.  This means there is accountability and generally executive coaching is more focused on specific measurable outcomes that impact the business.

In life coaching the emphasis is more strongly directed toward the well-being of the individual one step removed from organizational objectives.  The perspective is more on work as one component of a meaningful life and when work comes up it is usually framed in terms of work/life balance and business objectives aren’t necessarily center stage.  The happiness and fulfillment of the individual is the yardstick of success.  The coaching agenda is not mixed with a business agenda, life coaching is all about the individual.

In both cases, what you have is a co-designed relationship that deepens over time.  However, the differing expectations lead to the evolution of a different sort of emotional space.  In both cases, the coach facilitates the client’s process, but in executive coaching he also helps the client hold the agenda of the business with explicit recognition of the business systems, organizational culture, outward behavior/image as well as those elements internal to the client such as personal values, developmental level, etc.

In both cases, there is an emphasis on process vs. content and a goal to reach deeper insights, understandings, etc.  However, this processing in the case of a leader is subsumed or in the service of the business agenda.  This results in a somewhat different emotional tone and additional criteria for measuring outcomes.

In practice, I find that the expectations of the coach are different when working with a leader as well.  The pace of the work is usually faster, the expected outcomes clearer and there is a tacit expectation of measurable return on dollars invested.  This is reasonable because the coaching isn’t all about the leader, it’s about the leader and the business he or she is leading.  In other words, everyone has a stake in the coaching including the shareholders, employees, customers, etc.  This stake is more direct than it would be in a life coaching situation.

In all coaching situations I think it’s necessary to balance appropriate support with appropriate challenge.  This changes from day-to-day and moment-to-moment, however, given the strong and intelligent personalities that end up in leadership, I find it’s important to be more direct and even confrontational.  This is not something that some coaches are prepared to face and as a result the outcomes sometimes fall short.  This is where I think it’s helpful that the coach is truly comfortable dealing with strong personalities and preferably has some significant business experience themselves.  Unfortunately, this is often not the case.

My own personal philosophy is that a good business coach should have a lot of backbone and heart.  What’s usually lacking if a client doesn’t choose carefully is enough challenge of the status quo and the strength of personality to take the client to places that are uncomfortable.  The truth is if you can’t get someone out of their comfort zone either through creating a feeling of safety or by directing them, significant growth or insights aren’t going to occur.

In an business coaching environment, I also find that a more structured methodology that takes into consideration all the complexities of the business environment is helpful.  Only by taking the broadest possible perspective can you get deep insights that translate quickly into business tactics and strategy.  The playing field is large for the leader and all aspects and interdependencies need to be considered.  There is too much of a ripple effect to leave anything important out.

In both life coaching and executive coaching there is a dialectic between deep learning and taking action.  In other words, after a new insight it is important to embody it in some type of action.  This back and forth movement between learning and taking action is like alternating the movement of your legs in walking.  Deep insight alone is not enough in either case, but in business in particular meaningful action is expected and measured.

In summary, the distinction between these two spheres of coaching is one of emphasis, differing accountability relationships and a different psychological space with a somewhat different feeling tone.  In executive coaching, the business objectives intrude upon a solely personal agenda and often the business organization has a stake in the outcomes.  I also think more flexibility and broader perspective is required of the coach and a willingness to be more confrontational and not let the client off the hook with respecting to leading them to areas where they may feel uncomfortable.  As in all coaching, a good sense of humor and empathy is very important and I personally feel business coaches who have had significant organizational responsibility have an edge in terms of understanding the ambiguities, value conflicts, ethical dilemmas and other complexities inherent to the fast-paced modern business environment.


Although it is impossible to capture all of the complexities inherent to working with business clients, it is also important to understand the responsibilities of the management level of the client you are working with.  The word executive implies someone operating at the strategic level, but other possibilities exist as expressed in the graphic above.

Understanding how information, roles and responsibility is distributed up and down the management hierarchy theoretically and in practice is very important.  A knowledge of business best practices and horizontal interfaces at every level of the organization is also critical.  A good executive coach gets down to examining these areas quickly and understands the implications of the work being done to the organization as a whole.

While there are many good coaching models one could apply to the coaching environment.  Probably, some version of the integral model is best to understand the leader and his context most completely.  However, in practice this depends upon the needs of the organization, level of understanding required and the temperament of the client.


I do not believe in forcing any individual or organization into a particular perspective.  There are many possible lenses one can use, the burden is on the coach to be flexible and creative here.  Since, leadership coaching is a co-designed relationship the client and organization should have input into what model or models can be helpful and in what ways.  The point of this diagram is to show the breadth of what is at stake in a simple way.

Ideally, a good coach might use multiple lenses to look at problems, situations, conflicts and circumstances.  For a tactical problem, perhaps the well-known SWOT analysis below would bring out aspects of an issue that might be missed in others.  Although this is not a coaching model as such, it is certainly a useful tool for making decisions and diverging from a habitual and often distorted perspective.


.There are also very dynamic decision making models and tools for higher awareness.  One of my favorites is Action Inquiry championed by William R. Torbert.  Robert Kegan at Harvard University also has looked at the relationship between developmental levels as they relate to leaders and organizations.  For further reading, here is a bibliography of titles that might be of interest.

Titles by Robert Kegan

  • (with L. Lahey) Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, 2009
  • (with T. Wagner and L. Lahey) Change Leadership: A Practical Guide to Transforming Our Schools, 2005
  • (with L. Lahey) How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation, 2000
  • In Over Our Heads: the Mental Demands of Modern Life, 1994
  • The Evolving Self, Harvard University Press, 1982

My own personal experience is that when the stakes are high it is important to increase the number of perspectives and breadth of an inquiry.  Organizations and individuals can not see their own blind spots and therefore, bringing in an outside experienced business coach could be an investment that ultimately yields unsuspected dividends.  In a fast-paced world, executive coaching is good insurance against unconscious errors and usually pays for itself many times over.

About Pat

I'm an organizational development specialist, career counselor and personal development coach. My other interests are diverse, but I'm primarily concerned with helping people to lead a productive and meaningful life. I currently maintain two blogs on WordPress. One is directed more toward a business audience and the other will most appeal to the general public. My Masters is in Integral Psychology and I also attended Coaches Training Institute. I like an work in Silicon Valley and work with people from all over the world.
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6 Responses to Executive Coaching vs. Life Coaching – What’s the real difference?

  1. This is a helpful post – I have always wondered about the difference, and have had students (in psychology) ask me about these different paths. Thanks!

    • Pat says:

      You’re welcome. The distinction between coaching and therapy is also a useful one for students to understand. It is not a rose my another name. They are fundamentally different in some very important ways.

  2. Joycelyn says:

    I really like this:
    “In both life coaching and executive coaching there is a dialectic between deep learning and taking action. In other words, after a new insight it is important to embody it in some type of action. This back and forth movement between learning and taking action is like alternating the movement of your legs in walking. Deep insight alone is not enough in either case, but in business in particular meaningful action is expected and measured.”
    So true! Although I’ve developed somewhat of an allergy to “business” (overexposure?), I thought this was a very good post. 🙂

    • Pat says:

      I appreciate this comment and all your comments. I’m glad you found this article useful. I’m not sure what you are saying in the last paragraph, whether you overdosed on business in general or whether I’m posting too frequently. In either case, I understand. I think there is information overload for everyone AND I haven’t exactly hit my stride with respect to the frequency with which I write and the quality. However, I’m watching the statistics and trying to put out things that resonate with my readers. If you have any other suggestions along this line, I would love to hear them.

  3. Joycelyn says:

    Yes, that wasn’t real clear, was it? I meant overexposure to “business” (which may be a concept into which I’m dumping a lot of things that don’t belong there) over the course of my working life. I’m glad people like you are involved with businesses, however. I agree good people need to stay involved. Given my anti-business bias, you can take the fact that I read through your entire post as an indicator of its (your) ability to sustain my interest and inform me. 🙂

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