Journal of Employee Assistance Vol. 48 no. 2 - 2nd Quarter 2018

Feature Article
Executive Coaching: The Future of EAPs?

By Jason Sackett, LCSW, PCC, CEAP

The employee assistance profession has passed through several evolutionary stages since its origins in addiction recovery, including expansion into workplace mental health support, work-life and wellness programs, and management consultation. I believe the next stage, and possibly the future backbone of EAP, involves executive and professional coaching.

What Coaching Isn’t
To better understand the concept of coaching, it’s necessary to first explain what coaching isn’t. Coaching is not:
* A form of counseling for people who don’t want to bother with clinical education and training;
* Consulting, but with a title that sounds friendly and hip;
* A specialized advisor role requiring expertise in the client’s profession; and
* A completely unregulated and loosely defined service not bound to a code of ethics. 

Coaching vs. Counseling
When addressing employees with substandard performance or behavioral issues, some programs use the terms counseling and coaching interchangeably. Coaching, by definition, is not a remedial service, and therefore using that term to describe a service primarily aimed at correcting problem behaviors mislabels that service and misrepresents true coaching.
This will ultimately lead to confusion and mistrust for consumers, and create marketing and program evaluation problems for EAPs. The potential benefits of branding performance improvement counseling as coaching—namely, to lower client resistance by avoiding stigma associated with counseling—are not worth the consequences for a program’s coaching services that this practice will bring.
If a manager calls me requesting coaching for an underperforming or problem employee, I correct that manager, and recommend employee assistance counseling. If the employee in question is of high rank, and will not accept counseling, then I will offer “consultation,” but never coaching.

What Coaching IS
Coaching involves a collaborative partnership between coach and client that supports action toward a desired outcome. Coaching strives to help clients overcome obstacles, maximize potential, and stay accountable to the actions they have designed to realize goals. Although coaches help create the plan, clients ultimately set their own agenda and responsibility for outcomes.

This point is crucial as its non-directive style makes coaching an empowering experience for clients. Unlike consultants, teachers, or mentors, coaches are facilitators, not providers. This is a key part of what makes coaching distinct from other forms of counseling.

Coaching is fundamentally a process of facilitation. A coach’s job primarily involves prompting clients to explore their goals, develop clarity about their motivations for those goals, and brainstorm actions that ultimately help the client reach the desired outcome. Rather than creating a power dynamic in which the coach is viewed as an expert or advisor to be heeded, coaches work to promote a productive thinking environment for clients, in which they generate the insight, creativity, and tasks to support their agenda.
According to the International Coach Federation’s (ICF) core coaching competencies, coaching does not involve persuasion, advising, counseling, or mentoring (ICF, 2009).

Although the coaching industry is not subject to government regulation, coaching does have several prominent professional organizations that set professional and ethical standards for training, practice, credentialing, supervision, and continuing education. The oldest, largest, and most influential of these are the ICF and the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC). 

Marketing the Coaching Service
One strategy is to target underserved, high-value employees, identifying potential outcomes they would find attractive, shaping the message to address those outcomes, and delivering the message directly to those individuals and their close colleagues.

For example, an EAP could promote coaching to help executives increase employee confidence in uncertain economic times, help team leaders leverage the strengths of an increasingly diverse workforce, assist physicians in balancing research activities with patient care, or helping faculty position themselves for tenure and promotion.

Coaching Sessions
In terms of mechanics and structure, a coaching session might look like the following:

* The coach and client co-create goals and desired outcomes, ultimately reaching a contract or coaching agreement in which the client explicitly states what he/she wants to achieve during that session that supports the desired outcome.

* Next, the coach and client enter an exploration phase, in which the coach relies on four core competencies to facilitate discovery and awareness for the client: 1) Coaching presence; 2) Active listening; 3) Powerful questioning; and 4) Reflective observations (also referred to as direct communication).

Coaching emphasizes exploration and creation of awareness because it views these as essential to clients creating agendas and outcomes that resonate with their values and motivations. Without this congruence between motivations and goals, clients are less likely to follow through with action plans or feel satisfied with outcomes.

* Building on the awareness developed through the exploration phase, the coach prompts the client to design a specific, measurable plan that is consistent with the coaching agreement. After discovery occurs, the client may develop a new coaching agreement based on a new, desired outcome.

*The coach provides accountability to sustain commitment, and at times tracks back to key points of awareness (e.g. of motivations and values) discovered in past sessions to reinforce a client’s drive to continue taking action.

Employee assistance professionals and others with clinical backgrounds often have a great foundation for coaching, and conversely, training and practice in coaching often complements and enhances clinical and EA work.

Case Example
Tina, a mid-level executive, is engaged in coaching for career enhancement purposes. Ultimately, she wants a more fulfilling role that incorporates most of her strengths, but in the short term, she wants to improve her effectiveness in her current job and relationship with her boss. During a current coaching session, she expresses wanting to be optimally prepared for her upcoming performance review, and articulates to her coach what optimal preparation would look like, and how she would measure successful attainment of that goal.

However, during the session’s exploration phase, Tina realizes that based on recent statements and interactions, her supervisor does not fully trust her. She also recognizes that she accepted her position with the presumption that she was trusted, based on her resume and stellar reputation. 

Then, Tina discovers a critical insight: that presumed trust is a non-negotiable standard for her, and without it, performance feedback is irrelevant, and trying to enhance that job is pointless. This dramatically changes Tina’s approach to action planning. Instead of finding ways to be optimally prepared for her review, she focuses on using the meeting to discuss trust issues with her boss, and designs action steps to create that conversation.

What Else Makes Coaching Distinct?
Another distinction of coaching lies in its purpose: to help clients achieve ambitious goals, through a strengths-based, developmental approach in which individuals design their own agendas and actions and decide who can be trusted to realize their desired outcomes. 

Since coaching is growth-focused rather than problem-focused, it is a more accessible, desired, and relevant to a larger pool of potential clients, especially compared to counseling (Steele, 2011). 

Utilization rates for counseling frequently drop as employee ranks increase. This has been historically true and is consistent at my university EAP, where until recently, the majority of clients consisted of lower-level staff and junior faculty. 

However, senior managers and executives often don’t merely accept coaching — they expect it. This represents a potential “ace up the sleeve” for EAPs: offering coaching services engages historically under-served, often high-value employees such as executives, emerging leaders, high performers, tenured or tenure-track faculty (in academic settings), and physicians, many of whom would rarely contact an EAP for other services. 

At the University of Southern California (USC), staff from USC’s internal EAP, the Center for Work and Family Life (CWFL), coached 110 physicians at our academic medical center in six years between 2011 and October 2017. In the six years prior to 2011—and prior to the introduction of coaching services—the center opened just 23 total cases for physicians.

This represents a significant increase, and the number of persons seeking coaching continues to grow as individuals refer their colleagues for coaching. This finding is consistent with ICF research, in which managers were cited by survey respondents as the group most often seeking coaching (mentioned by 29% of participants). Almost one in four respondents (23%) said they mainly coached executives (ICF, 2016). 

How Do I “Press Play”?
Technically, you can brand yourself as a coach—or offer coaching services through your EAP—immediately. However, this approach will create two problems. First, if clients ask about your credentials or training, you will have no real coach-specific training to cite. Coaching does overlap with counseling and other services, and EA professionals can be quick studies, but without training in coaching competencies and practice in keeping your professional roles distinct, you will be using the label of coaching inaccurately. Instead, I suggest following these steps:

* Obtain training. If you are based in the U.K. or elsewhere in Europe, you might want to take a look at the EMCC ( It is a long-standing professional organization with high standards. For the U.S. and most anywhere else, ICF is the leading organization, and lists many accredited coaching training programs on their website (

Some programs allow participants to complete training quickly, while others are highly flexible and accommodating. One valuable factor of ICF-based training is mentor coaching, in which a trained and credentialed coach directly observes the work of trainees (through audio or video recordings) and follows up with the trainee for point-by-point feedback.

* Get credentialed. Credentialing is becoming increasingly more important in the coaching industry, with more clients and corporate sponsors starting to demand certification. ICF offers three levels of credentials with their respective requirements listed on the ICF website.

* Build a program. Client selectivity is crucial to staffing and managing demand. One approach is to prioritize eligibility for the highest-ranking members of the organization, while another is to offer coaching to those with the potential to make the greatest impact (who may not be the highest-ranking employees).

If your EAP has enough staff, you can broaden eligibility on a case-by-case basis to include clients in middle management and people with leadership or high-performance potential. Given limited eligibility, marketing of EAP-based coaching services must be targeted. You would not want to mass market services for which only a small population of employees will qualify.

* Track your program. To thoroughly narrate the value of your EAP to stakeholders, you will need to track utilization and outcomes of coaching services. 

* Expand your repertoire. Once your program is firmly established, you can expand your career with activities such as mentor coaching, coaching supervision, coach-as-manager training, etc. Since the industry has embraced services by phone and video conference, you can also try coaching in different settings, locations, and populations—without leaving your day job.

If you remain unconvinced of the fit between EAP and coaching, here is a definition from EAPA’s website (EAPA, 2011):

“In general, an EAP is a set of professional services specifically designed to improve and/or maintain the productivity and healthy functioning of the workplace and to address a work organization’s particular business needs through the application of specialized knowledge and expertise about human behavior and mental health.”

Jason Sackett, LCSW, PCC, CEAP, regularly speaks to EA professionals about adding coaching to their skill set, and about increasing their program’s value with expansion into coaching services. He also serves as an internal coach and senior employee assistance professional for the University of Southern California, USC's Keck Medical Center, and Children's Hospital Los Angeles. He can be reached at 


Employee Assistance Professionals Association (2011). Definitions of an employee assistance program (EAP) and EAP core technology. Retrieved from

International Coach Federation (2009). ICF global coaching client study: Executive summary April 2009. Retrieved from

International Coach Federation (2016). 2016 ICF global coaching study. Retrieved from

Steele, D. (2011). From therapist to coach: How to leverage your clinical expertise to build a thriving coaching practice. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.