When Martin Boley, chief executive of Carlton Media Sales, hit crisis point in his lofty but lonely post, a headhunter recommended an executive coach. She would, he was told, resolve the should-I-stay-or-should-I-go? dilemma that he was facing.

When Martin Boley, chief executive of Carlton Media Sales, hit crisis point in his lofty but lonely post, a headhunter recommended an executive coach. She would, he was told, resolve the should-I-stay-or-should-I-go? dilemma that he was facing.

"So long as it didn't involve Feng Shui, ravine crossing or any other management nonsense, I was prepared to give it a go,'' says Mr Boley. From exploring simple causes of unhappiness ("why sit behind my desk if I don't like it?") to more philosophical questions governing Mr Boley's future, psychotherapist-turned-executive coach Philippa Morrison changed his attitude to work.

"I was able to talk freely about work. She teased problems out of me quickly and I put pressure on myself to act on things she made me realise."

There are as many definitions of executive coaching as there are practitioners. For some, it's a way of asking the why, rather than what, questions about work. Others see it as a way of raising your game and holding a competitive advantage.

For some directors, a coach acts as a personal non-executive - a sounding board for individual style and strategy. But does the popularity of executive coaching - more than 70 per cent of the FT-SE 100 companies are now said to use it - imply the failure of schemes such as mentoring and in-house management training?

While Carlton Media Sales both mentors and trains, says Mr Boley, it doesn't possess the kind of culture sympathetic to the existential angst of top players. Many companies believe the difference between mentoring and coaching is merely a semantic one. As a crude definition, mentoring is seen in the industry as a resource - an internal well of experienced advice to be dipped into by aspiring juniors. Coaching is seen as more of a bespoke work-out - a self-driven process of understanding, leading to a slicker, happier performer at work. It is often employed to solve specific gripes and usually it's the preserve of the successful.

The popularity of coaching owes much to the "new economy", says consultant-turned-coach Julia Fawcett. A new style of work - a rise in collaborative partnerships and portfolio careers - demands a new set of skills and a need for polished PR. "Business life has become faster," adds Ms Fawcett. "Guys up there get a real battering both within the company and from the press. So you look at what erodes their confidence, and put in mechanisms to stop it."

As you would expect for a role defined as part-shrink, part-consultant, part-personal strategist, coaches come from business and therapy backgrounds. No regulations govern the industry, but moves are afoot to introduce a code of ethics.The ideal combination of personal qualities is shop-floor experience and an understanding of human learning.

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