Business Coaching, Executive Coaching, Leadership Coaching: What’s the Difference?

January 19, 2021
Posted in Leadership
January 19, 2021 Jamie Notter

A lot of people have very specific interpretations of what “coaching” means in an organizational context, and the meanings seem to be all over the map. That’s probably why we usually add a descriptor before the word “coach”, like life coach, career coach, executive coach, leadership coach, business coach, etc. But that doesn’t always clarify things: if I’m coaching someone on their leadership, won’t that improve the business as well?

Yes, it will, as a matter of fact. The truth is, there’s always overlap between those various categories, but the other truth is, we don’t need a complicated chart that shows all the overlaps before you figure out what kind of coaching you need. If you are interested in possibly doing some coaching, just answer these two questions first:

  1. Do you want individual development or organization development?
  2. Do you need coaching or consulting?

Individual v. Organization

The first question will address the leadership versus business distinction. Leadership coaching and executive coaching are focused on developing the individual who is receiving the coaching. I’ve done some of this in my career, particularly focused on conflict. I have helped individual executives improve the way they handle conflict in the business environment. Yes, we talked about some of the broader organizational issues in which the conflict was rooted, but my role as coach was not focused on solving those problems—my role was to help the individual executive apply new concepts and practice new skills, i.e., individual development.

Business coaching is different. Even though I’m also doing work with an individual executive, the focus is on improving business results and expanding the impact of the organization, not the development of the individual. Yes, that might also include applying new concepts and practicing new skills at an individual level, but the purpose is to develop the organization and make it more effective. So as you explore coaching, get clear on what you most want to work on—yourself as an executive, or the results/impact of the business. You’ll get a bit of both either way, but executive coaching and business coaching are done very differently, so you should be clear going in.

Coaching v. Consulting

If you are looking for business coaching, there is an additional question you must consider: do you want coaching or consulting? As above, there is significant overlap in these two activities, but they are fundamentally two different levels of support. Since we’re already using a sports metaphor with “coach,” you can think of it like this: a coach stays on the sideline, but a consultant gets out on the field with you.

For example, when we do culture design consulting, we’re on calls with internal culture teams helping them clarify the culture priorities that will move the needle in their organization. We’re helping them flesh out the specific action plans within each of those priorities. We might come up with the first draft of metrics to track the progress of the culture work. We’re side-by-side with them as they do the important work of culture management. We’re not doing the work FOR them (that’s a different type of consulting), but we’re with them as they’re doing the work. That’s being on the field.

In our culture-driven business coaching, on the other hand, we support from the sidelines. We meet with the CEO or the COO on a monthly basis, and guide and support them as they do the work of continuously integrating culture, strategy, and execution inside their organization. For example, one of the first things we often help them with is translating their high-level strategic plan into clear annual initiatives and (more importantly) quarterly priorities. We have templates and resources to help them with that, and we’ll use our coaching sessions to talk them through the process to ensure they come up with a good result, but we’re not out on “the field,” meeting with staff to clarify priorities or writing up the drafts for them. That’s their work to do.

The purpose of coaching is to give the client just enough support for them to go out there and win on the field. This is a really valuable complement to in-depth consulting, which is why we launched our new business coaching program for associations late last year. We think association leaders are good at getting today’s results, but they need some coaching if they want to break through. They have the talent to break through, but they don’t have the system in place, and that’s what we help them build.

There is room in your business life for all types of coaching and consulting, but before you start, it helps to get clear on precisely what you want to develop and what kind of support you want to get there.


Photo by Maksym Diachenko

Jamie Notter

Jamie is an author and growth strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders integrate culture, strategy, and execution to achieve breakthrough performance and impact. He brings twenty-five years of experience to his work designing culture-driven businesses, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is also the co-author of three books—Humanize, When Millennials Take Over, and The Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement—and holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.