Is It a Cult or Executive Coaching?

I didn’t know about NXIVM until recently when I came across an article claiming that this executive coaching group is actually a cult. I was intrigued, and then did some digging to learn about NXIVM’s founder, Kevin Renier. Now I know more about him than I wish I did and have images burned into my brain that won’t go away. I also feel obligated to write and clarify the difference between a cult and executive coaching (EC).

First, I can understand based on website marketing rhetoric that you might not be able to tell that NXIVM is more cult than coaching. After all, according to the NXIVM website, their Executive Success Program “focuses on creating consistency in all areas, helping individuals develop the practical, emotional, and intellectual skills they need to reach their maximum potential.” That isn’t much different from my website, where I say “Executive Coaching is a support process that uses the expertise and perspective of a trained coach to help you balance priorities, shoulder leadership responsibilities, and make good life decisions.” This is all good, positive, life affirming stuff. If Executive Coaching companies can sound similar based on their general description, how do you know if a firm is more a cult and less a coaching service?

Here are some tip-offs that your “coach” might really be a cult leader.

  • The coach requires an annual multi-day celebration by clients of his (or her) birthday.
    • If anything, expect a nice card from your EC on your birthday. They are there to make you successful.
  • The coach has you provide blackmail collateral as down payment for services.
    • If you are doing anything worth blackmailing, a reputable coach will think twice anyway about working with you. Regardless, no down payment in terms of extensive up-front costs or rights to black-mail collateral are part of the executive coaching contracting process. Many coaches (myself included) will even insist on an initial no-cost chat to make sure that the client/coach match is a good one.
  • The coach requires that you get a brand (talking hot iron on skin like a cow brand).
    • This one is out, and this includes brands, tatoos, and public credit or endorsements of any kind. Sure, if the coach does a good job they would love you to talk them up on LinkedIn or refer your friends, but branding is out.
  • The coach has an initiation ceremony that requires blindfolds and secrecy.
    • Another big no. It is always best to meet in a public location when you are establishing relationships. You may choose to keep your executive coaching private, but that is your choice and not something dictated by your coach.
  • The coach requires a life-long vow.
    • Coaching contracts should be much shorter. The goal is to solve specific challenges and help you grow and move forward. A good coaching agreement has an end date. This makes it easy for the client to stop whether they are done or whether they just want to find a different coach.

If a potential executive coach requires even one of these things, this is a cult, so run. 

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