Looking up from the ground at the canopy of big trees.

Business-First Executive Coaching

Contact: David M. Lynn, Gerard F. McDonough

March 3, 2021

The impact of highly effective executive leadership is felt in every facet of the business, from strategy formulation to the speed and quality of decisions and day-to-day execution. Conversely, an underperforming leadership team can pose significant obstacles to these same factors and can impact company culture, cause unwanted turnover, undermine employee engagement, and reduce productivity. In today’s volatile business climate, companies whose executives are aligned and in sync with the company’s strategy and corporate culture are far better positioned to weather the storm and come out on top.

Against this backdrop, many companies are intensifying their efforts to ensure that leaders in their most crucial, strategically significant roles are fully equipped to succeed, often involving some form of executive coaching. Some of these efforts are remedial with the focus on underperforming leaders, but increasingly, coaches are engaged to upgrade the performance of their leaders across the board, including those who already are successful in their roles. In short, what got these “successful” executives to where they are today can be built upon to produce even better results, increasing future success.

Graph showing executive leadership roles.

Regardless of the purpose of a coaching engagement, there are significant challenges in successfully coaching senior executives who, typically, are bright, experienced and have a keen sense of urgency. As such, they may be skeptical of soft “human resources” initiatives that, in their experience, too often lack clarity, rigor, and tangible benefit. While everyone’s time is precious, the more senior the executive, the harder it is to schedule time for anything that isn’t part of an urgent and obvious company imperative.

Ankura has successfully coached hundreds of executives across industries and in virtually all business cycles and circumstances. Our experience has led us to orient our approach around three critical factors that, we have found, determine the success of executive coaching initiatives:

  1. A business-first approach

Executive coaches are too often thought of as personal advisors operating purely within the confines of a leader’s life and career aspirations. This perspective is crucial but is only half of the story. Coaching engagements are most effective when formed around clear business imperatives, defined in concert with the executive and his/her direct leader (for CEO’s this is the Board or a select Board member). Ankura’s approach has proven to achieve outstanding, measurable results by integrating business imperatives with personal goals. The approach is based on a deep understanding of the business context; that is, the key goals and metrics for which the leader is accountable, as well as the most relevant challenges and barriers to achieving them. It also requires a nuanced understanding of the leader’s stakeholders, in all directions, who most strongly impact success in achieving these business objectives. Finally, our approach involves a deep understanding of the leader’s strengths, weaknesses, and behavioral choices in terms of both current role objectives and longer-term aspirations. The primary focus is on how these skills and choices affect the stakeholders most central to business success.

  1. Executive credibility through business context

It is a given that executive coaches need to earn credibility and respect with the leaders they coach and many factors, including style and personality, come into play. The best executive coaches have successful track records both as coaches and as executive leaders, themselves. A coach with a nuanced understanding of the specific business strategies, pressures, and challenges the executive faces will not only gain greater credibility, but will, in fact, provide far more useful guidance. As one client put it, “They can see the whole playing field, and this makes them true business partners. I know when I describe the circumstances around a problem, they get the whole picture. In this way, they have helped me improve my interpersonal judgment as well as my business judgment.”

In today’s volatile business climate, companies whose executives are aligned and in sync with the company’s strategy and corporate culture are far better positioned to weather the storm and come out on top.

  1. A defined process based on data

Successful coaching drives behavior change, which may include the executive’s greater ability to both manage the business and lead its people. These changes are far more likely and sustainable when the coaching engagement involves a defined process that involves some form of data, whether through interviews, direct observations or 360o feedback assessment. Further, the process should require the executive’s full engagement in the form of assignments and challenges between coaching sessions, including regular check-ins with key stakeholders. As with any effective process, executive coaching must produce concrete results. It should involve specific outcomes achieved within clear timeframes. This rigor is typically welcomed by all involved, including the coaching client.

Rapid change tends to highlight an executive’s greatest strengths as well as areas of vulnerability where improvement is needed most. For many executives, business success, and the capabilities required to achieve it, are shifting, and what was a strength may no longer be strong enough. The coach can play a crucial role in helping the executive enthusiastically embrace the challenge and evolve much more rapidly than could ever be achieved without guidance from a skilled and objective coach. In the end, successful executive coaches must have the ability to see the world through the client’s eyes while simultaneously seeing the client through the eyes of their key stakeholders, the organization, and the market. Coaches must use their credibility, empathy, and business acumen to drive outcomes that truly matter, for the coaching client and for the business.


“Business-First Executive Coaching,” Ankura Consulting, 03/03/2021; Lynn, David; McDonough, Gerard