What’s the Difference Between Executive Coaching and Therapy?

There once was a time when people feared “getting their heads shrunk,” but now the general public has accepted that psychotherapy is not just for the overwhelmingly dysfunctional and rare breeds with psychological disorders.  It’s more commonly accepted today that everyone can benefit a little from therapy! 

Although this is true, many executives escape perceived social judgment and discord by using executive coaches as they would use a therapist.  At the same time, it is likely that many executives use therapists for reasons where an executive coach’s services would be more beneficial.  While either situation creates benefits for both parties, clients can benefit more by utilizing one service, the most appropriate service, over the other.  This raises a common question that the executive coaching and psychotherapy fields share – when should executives seek executive coaching versus psychotherapy, and when is it more advantageous for executives to seek therapists instead of executive coaches? 

This blog post explores and shares commonalities and differences between therapy and executive coaching while explaining when it is appropriate to utilize one service over the other.  In addition, this article provides the benefits of both services as well as the beneficial differences between them.

Executive Coaching. Therapy. What’s the Difference?

Executive coaches and therapists may both use their work to enrich and improve clients’ lives by using various styles, but the two professions do have many fundamental differences.  The most common difference is that while clients seek therapists to help with lifestyle issues, executives usually seek coaches to help them with organizational and workplace issues.  Another huge difference is that while therapy often uses a retroactive style that focuses on healing an identifiable issue located around the client’s health, coaching mainly uses a more prospective approach by focusing on a client’s goals to take full advantage of their potential in the workplace.  One small difference is that coaches usually have lower coach-client boundaries meaning that the relationship can be seen as using more humor and as having greater flexibility because there is not as much of a need to protect the relationship between parties.  It is also important to note that while there is not a necessary need to protect the relationship, as much as therapists should be concerned with, coaches often expect more changes, progress, and collaboration from clients than therapists do towards their patients.  In addition, coaches are more inclined to initiate conversations and topics with their executives than therapists with their patients who are trying to discover the source of the patient’s issues.  Above all, while coaches and therapists may use each of these examples interchangeably between professions, the international coaching federation explains that coaching supports professional growth by promoting clientele action towards achieving goals.

Executive Coaching and Therapy Commonalities

Although many executive coaches and therapists will argue that their profession and styles are fundamentally different, executive coaching and therapy share many attributes.  For one, the goal of both professions is to help improve factors involved in an individual’s life whether that includes helping them achieve small goals to overcome small obstacles that may hinder them from functioning, or portraying their potential and helping them overcome barriers to promote their growth.  Regardless, each field makes it an overall objective to improve each of their client’s quality of life.  In addition, both executive coaches and therapists practice and maintain to most outstanding level of confidentiality to protect their client’s lives, and for coaches, the organization that they represent.  They also generally work in a time-limited manner in order to serve their client’s needs and goals for improvements.  In accordance with all psychological professions, executive coaches and therapists both utilize assessments to measure a client’s personality, competencies, or other factors to make further analyses.  Both therapists and executive coaches can and often use similar styles like cognitive-behavioral or psychoanalytic methods to help clients break a habit that they wish to remove or to help them discover where their problems originated in order to find and fix the source.  Last, while one profession is devoted to improving an executive’s workplace issues and the other focuses on quality of life, the benefits of improving both dynamics is an outcome from receiving either or both coaching and/or therapy.

Benefits of Executive Coaching 

While many already know the benefits that executive coaching has to offer, this section aims to discuss the benefits that executive coaching shares with and exclusively offers over psychotherapy.  First and foremost, executive coaching and psychotherapy can tremendously help clients improve the quality of an aspect of their life.  While it normally falls upon the therapist to tackle a client’s general lifestyle issues that they are currently facing, the workplace is a major part of most people’s lives today, which allows executive coaches to treat lifestyle issues as well.  Furthermore, both professions prompt clients to adopt behavioral and cognitive techniques to solve or maintain specific problems that may occur in the future.  Almost every therapist and coach has had a client thank them for teaching them a coping mechanism or leadership technique explaining that they still use the long-term tools they were taught.  When discussing exclusive benefits, accessibility is one benefit that executive coaching clients usually have over therapy clients.  Basically, while therapists typically only hold face-to-face sessions with clients, executive coaches can and are typically accessed through phone calls, online communication, emails, and face-to-face meetings.  In addition, executive coaches typically have access to other employees who influence and are influenced by the executive in order to obtain more data about the executive’s behaviors.  This is different from therapists who usually only deal with one client except in rare cases.  Last, while therapy can benefit clients and ultimately their family and friends, coaching executives should always benefit subordinates within an organization and improve other workplace variables.

When to Seek an Executive Coach Over a Therapist

It is important for an individual to be able to differentiate between when they should seek an executive coach or a therapist’s services.  As noted before, there is great progress towards the public accepting that therapy is not solely for people with mental disorders, but a great amount of people seek executive coaching when they should have been seeking therapy all along.  In addition, while both services can enrich and improve people’s lives, using the less appropriate service can waste a client’s valuable time and money that could have been invested in a program that could have helped them make more significant improvements.  This does not mean that overlap between the professions does not or should not exist, as noted earlier.  Some coaches many be trained in an area of psychotherapy as well as therapists trained to coach, but most often if a coach discovers that a client has a psychological issue or anxieties, then they will and usually should refer the client to a therapist and vice versa.  The best way for an individual to tell if they should seek executive coaching over therapy is by asking themselves if their issues are caused by anxiety, if they are depressed, or if they have any other issues they wish to fix or maintain that affect their daily lives.  If their issues are work related, if they feel stagnated and do not know what else to do to progress further, and/or if they feel fine but want to perform better they should seek an executive coach.  In addition, they should seek coaching if they already have goals in mind, but seek additional motivation, direction, and advice to contribute towards their achievements.  While therapists can also help executives with workplace/leadership issues and to achieve goals, this is usually a coach’s domain and executives will benefit more when they seek coaching.


Executive coaching and therapy are both excellent professions that provide vital services for many clients today.  They help to improve and enrich many aspects of those who seek their help by using various styles.  While they both have many commonalities, they are fundamentally different and one, executive coaching, aims to serve those who wish to achieve goals and supports professional growth.  It is important to know that both professions share many benefits that can help clients seeking either service, but they additionally have exclusive benefits that the other profession may not be able to offer.  In order to receive the best benefits for the reasons of seeking one of these services, it is important for an individual to know which service can help the most.  Once this is determined, the therapy or coaching process can begin and the client will be on their way to great improvements and achievements.

Dr. Cherry

Cherry A. Collier, Ph.D. is an Organizational Psychologist, Strategist, Executive Coach, and Diversity, Inclusion, & Belonging Consultant for Personality Matters, Inc. Her science-based approach and brain-based techniques, propel people, teams, and organizations to build bridges and work from the inside out to achieve their goals. Dr. Cherry specializes in emotional intelligence, neuroscience, leadership development, and DEI Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. She received her Doctorate and Master of Science in Applied Social/Organizational Psychology from the University of Georgia and Graduated Magna Cum Laude from Spelman College. She is the author of more than twenty-five Human Behavior related books for leaders, executives, and coaches. Dr. Cherry is often called the DEI Whisperer because she has a unique ability to fiercely “hold the space” and be totally present which creates a psychologically safe environment that allows others all the space they need to fully express themselves. She listens to others with head, heart and hands approach so that they are heard, seen and understood.