AI-centred executive coaching: A very real future for us?

AI coaching tools offer on-demand coaching around the clock, overcoming geographical and temporal limitations 

THE introduction of technology coaching platforms and artificial intelligence (AI) coaching tools to executive coaching has changed how leadership and talent development are tackled. This piece examines the impact of these technological advances have on executive coaching, critically analyses the expected future changes, identifies fundamental challenges for executive coaches and highlights the irreplaceable human touch in coaching engagements that technology platforms may not be able to fully replicate. 

Technology-based coaching platforms and AI-focused coaching programmes have democratised executive coaching, which was formerly designated for top management due to its high cost and intense personalisation. These platforms combine data analytics, machine learning algorithms and natural language processing to give tailored coaching at scale. BetterUp and CoachHub, for instance, match people with executive coaches worldwide to create personalised development programmes and track progress. 

AI coaching tools, such as smartphone apps, provide on-demand coaching assistance, making coaching available 24/7 and breaking geographical and temporal restrictions. Applications such as Cultivate, Mobility and Bunch are such examples where they can analyse speech patterns, text inputs and in the future facial expressions to provide personalised coaching feedback with unprecedented immediacy and personalisation. 

AI and machine learning will create more advanced and intuitive coaching platforms, transforming the very realm of executive coaching. These technologies will enable platforms to provide more personalised and intimate feedback with development plans by applying massive amounts of data to spot patterns, benchmark practices and predict future coaching needs. Add this to the integration of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies and the executive coaching field would be revolutionised all together by simulating real-life leadership challenges in a risk-free and controlled environment, allowing executives to practise and hone their skills in a realistic environment but risk mitigated environment. This is so unlike pen-and-paper and coffee-based coaching interactions that play out today. 

What do executive coaches have to look out for in the immediate term?

1. Technological Adaptation: Executive coaches must adapt to technological changes to be relevant. Failure to incorporate technology into their coaching might render them obsolete and drive them out of business. 

2. The human element: As coaching platforms improve, coaches must emphasise the irreplaceable value of human empathy, intuition, genuine understanding, appreciative inquiry and emotional intelligence, which the AI platform cannot yet replicate. 

3. Context appreciation and adaptability: As coaches, there is a need to appreciate the context of the situation that the coachee is in, to effectively coach him/her. And with this comes the adaptability to change the course of the coaching journey midway with changing demands of the coachee. 

4. Data privacy, integrity and security: Executive coaches must handle data privacy issues and protect client data as digital platforms become more common. With the rise of cyber security hacks, data breaches are that much easier to take place. 

5. Personalisation at scale: Coaches must use technology to tailor their coaching experience. 

Given the one-on-one nature of executive coaching, mass profiling coachees and creating personalised growth programmes are issues. 

6. Ethics: The “blind” use of AI in coaching poses ethical issues, including AI algorithm bias and how AI-centred decisions should affect leadership and personal development. AI platforms “learn” using biased primary data. The decisions made will be criticised in some way. Now is the time to rationally plan excellent coaching interactions. 

Despite technological advances, some aspects of executive coaching are distinctively human and cannot be entirely recreated by AI or technology platforms. This includes: 

a) Emotional intelligence: Human coaches can read between the lines, discern unstated problems, evaluate facial nuances and provide empathy and understanding that AI cannot. 

b) Complex problem-solving: AI can analyse data to give solutions, but executive coaches excel at navigating complex, ambiguous situations that demand creativity, flexibility, intuition, experience and most importantly, wisdom from experience. 

c) Relationship building: Executive coaches and their clients must build trust and rapport, which is essential for an effective coaching journey. However, technology, being clinical, cannot fully replicate personal connection, open fellowship and shared experiences. 

d) Ethical Guidance: Human executive coaches help their coachees navigate their values, inadequacies, strengths, mental models and the impact of their decisions on stakeholders. 

Democratised executive coaching 

In conclusion, technology coaching platforms and AI applications are making executive coaching more democratised, accessible to all levels and scalable, but personalised human executive coaches offer irreplaceable value that technology cannot replicate. 

A critical point of interest is that as the industry evolves, the right balance between using technology to improve the coaching journey and outcomes while keeping the distinctive human qualities that makes a great executive coaching discussion has to be met. 

And to support this intersection, the US International Coaching Federation (ICF) — the global standard bearer of coaching — and the Chartered Management Institute UK (CMI) — the standards setter of professional managerial and leadership excellence — should continue to study this dynamic interplay to ensure that the executive coaching field remains innovative, adaptive and human-centred. Afterall, what is executive coaching but to actively and consciously support the journey of humans. 

  • Taranjeet Singh is the CEO of Quantum Steppe Advisory and the immediate past chair of the Malaysia regional board of the Chartered Management Institute

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition