How 6 executive coaches (and their clients) are handling the pandemic

Thanks, coach.
Thanks, coach.
Image: Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports
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Executive coaching is an estimated $3 billion a year global industry, with the median rate for a coach hovering around $500 an hour. And though revenue in the coaching field might be hurt this year by the coronavirus pandemic, it’s still been a busy time for executive coaches, as business leaders seek guidance on everything from managing layoffs to navigating racial issues at work to handling uncertainty.

As their clients tend to lead busy lives, many coaches have long offered virtual sessions. But with the pandemic, the shift to online coaching has been more deliberate—which comes with pros and cons—and has brought about some changes to their businesses.

Quartz checked in with executive coaches to see how they’re managing:

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Melody Wilding

Executive and performance coach focused on highly sensitive people

Quartz at Work contributor Melody Wilding has always conducted her private coaching sessions remotely, but recently she’s added online resources her clients can access, as well as optional monthly calls around curated topics such as burnout, motivation, and giving and receiving feedback. Now that it is harder to see people in person, she says, the once-a-month meetings have helped create a sense of community for executives and are validating for clients as they see they’re not alone.

“I think the pandemic has really led people to realize: I need additional support,” she says. She has seen a bump in her business—a 15% uptick in new clients from April to September—and attributes that to coaching becoming a more mainstream service.

Working with mainly introverted clients, she says many have found they have a strength in that the “thoughtfulness, empathetic side really matters now.”

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Dana Gionta

Clinical psychologist, executive coach and organizational consultant with expertise in self-care, stress management, and organizational health. 

Dana Gionta says you can pick up on a lot of nuances by just being in a client’s office, whether that’s seeing signs that employee morale is low (which often can be ascertained in just a few brief conversations with people in the workplace) or getting visual cues as to how chaotic or orderly the environment is. So, in her remote sessions, she says she has shifted to “ask[ing] more deliberate or intentional questions to try to squeeze that down.”  Sometimes that includes asking to talk with other staff who might be helpful in framing the issues.

But the virtual setting also has allowed for more flexibility in meetings. In the future, Gionta sees herself curbing in-person interactions, reserving them for initial meetings, and then shifting quickly to the virtual format.

She says she’s still optimistic about the growth left in the coaching field, as there’s increased consciousness that a good coach “can help with organizational change processes.”

“We’re kind of in this interim place where it’s slowed down for a little while, but I think probably within the next six months, hopefully not more than that, [we] start to kind of resume and then increase in strength even more,” she says.

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Dan Guerra

Clinical psychologist and executive coach with expertise in stress management and behavioral change

While executive coaching is perhaps more familiar ground for corporations, there’s been increased interest in the service from US school district superintendents, principals, and educational department heads due to Covid-19, executive coach Dan Guerra says. While their jobs may not carry a traditional C-suite title, they’re still operating on the executive level and facing a lot of demands, he says. But it’s a somewhat risky business—the pandemic has put pressure on school budgets, which could mean less money available for employee development.

Like Gionta, Guerra has been cognizant of the challenge of not being able to pick up on the nuances provided by a physical meeting space. “We’re losing some kind of emotional and social intelligence by not having people gathered together,” he says. He’s been learning to adapt his approaches, he says, for instance trying to make sure that people who are passively receiving information on Zoom can feel more involved.

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Laura Gallaher

Organizational psychologist, speaker, facilitator, executive coach, and founder and CEO of Gallaher Edge 

Early in the beginning of the pandemic, Laura Gallaher experienced a pause in her business that was worrying. But by June, she was operating at about 50% of her usual level of client engagement. She attributes that to executives realizing they still needed to “move forward,” particularly in the area of driving culture. She says that executives were realizing that if they “were not doing something very intentionally to bring people together, we will probably see our culture continue to sort of downsize.”

With private coaching, even pre-pandemic, Gallaher had preferred conducting these meetings via phone, over which she says “information flows more freely.” On video, she says, people tend to self-monitor, while during in-person meetings they’re often preoccupied with trying to gauge other people’s reactions. (With in-person meetings, she has told people to turn their chairs around and literally sit back-to-back in a room.)

But with group settings, she finds in-person meetings essential, arguing that technology hasn’t yet figured out the cohesion aspect of meetings. Gallaher points out that some of the biggest breakthroughs she’s seen during on-site meetings have come during the breaks, where off-the-cuff chats happen. To recreate that, she suggests coaches encourage attendees to send individual messages in the chat function of the video platform or after the session.

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Megan Bruneau

Therapist and executive coach, speaker, writer, podcast host 

Right before the pandemic began, Megan Bruneau felt like she was “getting her big break.” In addition to having a lineup of $20,000 speaking gigs over the next couple of months, she had a “killer agent” for a promising book proposal that she has been working on for five years. She was cutting back on her caseloads of clients and had taken on an associate to help her out. But all that would take a turn once the pandemic hit.

The speaking gigs were canceled, and due to the precarious publishing environment, her agent told her she could no longer take first-time authors. And many of her coaching clients—including an executive at WeWork, she says—were in crisis mode.

“I mean, one of my taglines is how to do shit that scares you,” she says. “[But] in this case, it’s not like people reaching out being like, ‘OK, I want to 10x my company and go to this next level.’ It was more like, ‘How do I stay afloat now that my kids are at home?’”

One of the patterns she was finding was that clients didn’t know how to place boundaries between work and personal life—for instance, the client who was checking their Slack notifications during a virtual session with her. But she says that people are learning how to confront themselves more in this pandemic, and suggests that could lead to more people seeking help.

The book Bruneau is working on is about doing things that scare you and having control over your own life, which she feels she’s had to apply to her own life in recent months, whether in managing her mental health or growing her business in different ways than expected.

She suspects newcomers to the field are having a tougher time. But even experienced coaches have reason for concern. Bruneau worries whether companies will still allocate resources for things like coaching, especially in industries under extreme pressure, like leisure businesses. She says that while some progressive leaders believe in personal or professional development, it may be a “harder thing to measure” and tougher to see how it’s related to the bottom line given the current economic conditions.

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Salman Azhar

Executive coach and executive residence and faculty at Duke University

Salman Azhar says that in the pandemic, he has noticed his older clients appearing to be more reluctant about wanting to invest in themselves, which is a surprise for him. “Most of my clients have been successful in life—and don’t have a financial need that drives them to work,” says Azhar, who has clients both in North Carolina’s Research Triangle and the San Francisco Bay Area. He says his clients are hitting the pause button in part to see how long the pandemic will last, as well as needing to adjust to being comfortable online.

And while he says he feels he can be of particular value to those with greater decision-making demands, since the pandemic he’s seen more interest from younger people; this year, his client base has largely shifted to “junior” executives, he says.

He trusts that interest from professionals of all ages will bounce back. Humans, he notes, are “adaptive creatures,” and even the technology skeptics eventually will become more comfortable with the virtual format. Azhar relies on both Zoom and Google Docs for coaching, the latter for clients who find it easier to articulate their thoughts through writing. He’s increasingly seeing the technology as something more than temporary—since the pandemic, he’s been getting more coaching requests from leaders in Europe and Asia, and he says it seems more natural to stay online at this point.

As for the future of his industry, Azhar is optimistic. He says the field had become saturated with “self-promoters that are not very good,” which can hurt those who are. But he thinks a shakeout is coming—the pandemic, in a way, can be seen as a test of whether a coach can help executives make good decisions and grow.