Executive coaching could be a pretty lucrative way to go, career-wise (and that kinda makes no sense)

Base-level executive coaches are making $500/hour, while some of the best can earn $3,500/hour. For contrast sake, “big law” can charge about $1,000/hour. There are a lot of things that go into a doctor’s pay, but an elite heart surgeon, for example, may make about $200/hour. Here’s the difference, though: when lawyers are billing you, it’s likely for a service. When doctors are billing you, they helped your health / potentially saved your life. But with executive coaching / coaching in general, one of the biggest meta-analyses ever was just published on the topic, and the broadest conclusion reached was this:

“In general… coaching is an effective tool for improving the functioning of individuals in organizations.”

Yap. So are happy hours and picnics, and the bill there isn’t often $2,000 per hour (I split the difference between top and bottom for that figure).

I come at this from an interesting place. First off, I take HRIR classes at the University of Minnesota, so I actually took two classes over the past year related to coaching. One of the classes was online and a little bit of a joke, but the discussion forums were still moderately interesting from time-to-time. A big theme that came up again and again was this whole notion of ROI. I was actually talking to my dad about this at Thanksgiving; he started out as an engineer, then got into real estate. When he was just north of 50, the company he had been with for a while flopped, and he realized he didn’t want to re-enter “the rat race,” or the world based on salary bands and promotions. One of his concerns, besides age, is that very little in the business world — minus sales — has a tangible ROI. People sometimes think marketing has an ROI because marketing is typically the domain of MBAs. There are definitely elements of marketing that have a stronger ROI, but exact measurement of ROI from a marketing standpoint is tough (and perhaps not an ideal idea anyway). So my dad wanted — wanted — a commission-driven job north of 50, because he thought the model would make more sense (“I delivered this, and I get a percentage of it”). I’m in school right now, personally, and a lot of jobs I’m looking at would be more creative-side, less ROI-focused — so I wonder about all these issues too. If you’re in a job without clear and direct ROI, how do you prove to someone that you eventually deserve more money, aside from simply tenure? Does it become all about politics then?

This is why I find this whole executive coaching thing interesting. First off, before I continue, let’s be real that to be an “executive coach” is a little bit like being a “sitcom writer.” You don’t just tell people you’re that. There are still kingmakers in these areas; executive coaches probably come from a background in HR/coaching but have worked with enough high-end-type clients that they can go out on their own a little bit (or be the go-to coach for a particular organization). And by and large, the idea of coaching is effective — see here, here, here and here. But there are also legitimate dangers to the idea, and — let’s be real again — it’s completely subjective. Is the effectiveness based on the coach? Or the coachability of the executive? Or the meeting schedule? Or the relationship back to the company? And is the whole thing based on non-specific factors, as alluded to in the new paper?

“Recent work in the field of executive coaching indeed suggests that non-specific factors such as understanding, encouraging, and listening behaviors of the coach may be better predictors of coaching effectiveness than specific factors such as the coaching methodology.”

I think my bigger issue goes to something that will never really change: the notion of how we pay people in this country. It seems like there are only a few avenues to true affluence, whereas in the 1980s there were probably two dozen or so. Right now it feels like tech, possibly government (in some sectors), finance, doctors, lawyers, and possibly real estate — and doctors are getting pinched, real estate is getting pinched, and becoming a lawyer is a fucking boondoggle these days. (By the way, in this paragraph I was talking about levels of affluence that might make some uncomfortable; I don’t mean having a comfortable life. I think you can do that on almost any type of job, give or take. And of course, geography plays into it.) But aside from mid-level athletes getting hundreds of thousands of dollars (which still makes no sense), I don’t understand how a position like “executive coach” — which, decades into it, we’re still unsure is even truly working — can command those hourly rates, while teachers — and that’s a profession where we have data saying they matter — are making 55K a year. It seems dubious. I think as a nation, we need to collectively think about salaries in terms of what they’re offering back to society and the real issues of our day. Unfortunately, that won’t ever happen. So …

… the best suggestion here would be to pursue fields such as executive coaching, and other positions that will likely remain well-compensated for a few more decades as busy people generally assume they’re valuable but don’t really think that deeply about what the value is, or how it’s being measured. Those are the types of positions you want if you want to make some change: jobs where people assume you’re valuable, and are fine to keep paying you because things seem to be working, but no one, when pressed, could actually describe what you do in the building. (This summer I found a guy, via audit, who had been making $15K per year from this company without ever showing up to work or calling in. He wasn’t even living in a city where they had offices. Just a couple of e-mails here and there, and bam, $90K over six years without lifting a finger. Amazing things happen in America.)

We don’t know everything we can/should know about executive coaching and all its pros/cons — and even when we know more and tie it back to more established research channels like “education” or “mentoring,” it’s still going to be an entirely subjective process because it’s rooted in the relationship of two people, and the current context of those two people’s lives. I’m not sure that entirely subjective professions should be banking at that level, but that’s part of a broader paradigm about how people get paid that I don’t completely understand either. But if you think you have good social skills, good conversational skills, can deal with potential Type-A assholes, and are well-organized … well, executive coaching could be a pretty lucrative spot for you.

Ted Bauer