How to Choose an Executive Coach

You are a senior leader in your organization (or hope to be one day) and you’ve decided to engage the services of an executive coach.  Congratulations!   Partnering with the right executive coach can be a tremendous catalyst in helping you achieve meaningful and long-lasting development as a leader.

But how to choose one?

The executive coaching industry is highly fragmented, and crowded with solo practitioners.  There is no formal educational or practical requirement for calling oneself a coach, and buyers of coaching services struggle with the lack of standards or qualifications to guide them.  In fact, even the phrase ‘executive coaching’ is used to describe services that are far afield from the developmental leadership consulting that we are referencing here.  ‘Coaching’ can include life planning, career counseling, health and nutrition advice and training in specific skills from public speaking to which fork to use for your Caesar salad.

When sourcing a good executive coach, one place to start is with your organization’s Human Resources department.   Here you are likely to find very informed buyers of coaching.  Your HR professionals may have a list of coaches that have already proven to be qualified and effective.  HR may also be in the best position to secure advantageous pricing due to pre-existing relationships with coaching vendors, and may have already secured purchasing contracts or volume discounts.  HR may also be the best source for coaches already familiar with your company’s culture, political dynamics and industry.  

Another valuable resource is a leadership development firm, such as WJM Associates, that has already pre-screened and worked with a good selection of coaches in a variety of geographic locations.  A WJM Account Director can be invaluable in providing a selection of coaches that fit your specific criteria and also offers an added layer of quality control to the engagement.  The Account Director collaborates closely with the coach to make sure the process moves along in a smooth, timely manner and that all client expectations are being met.  The Account Director can be relied on if issues with the coaching or coach arise or additional support is needed during the engagement.

Industry Expertise

Ask yourself:  how important is it that your coach has had direct experience working in your field?   Keep in mind that your coach will be supporting the development of your personal effectiveness, not advising you on market trends or specific business strategies.  It is certainly preferable that the coach have enough knowledge of your business so that you don’t spend too much time explaining industry jargon or broad developments impacting your organization, but don’t sacrifice too much in terms of personal chemistry, coaching experience and effective process just to engage someone who has ‘walked in your shoes’.  Still, try to make sure that the coach is quick enough on the draw to quickly grasp the nature of your business and its challenges.

Chemistry

According to executive coaching industry research (e.g. What Executives Want from Their Executive Coaches – D. Balut, May 2005), the number one criterion for a successful coaching experience is strong and positive chemistry between the coach and client.   However, it should be the right kind of chemistry given the coaching objectives.  Some coaching clients make the mistake of choosing the coach that most closely matches themselves, feeling that the consultant really “gets me”.  It is critical that you choose a coach on a close enough wavelength so that comfortable rapport and mutual trust and respect are established, but not so similar or agreeable that you are hiring a personal cheerleader or new lifelong buddy.  If your developmental objectives include a change in your behavior or style, you may want to choose a coach whose temperament is quite different from yours.  The coach’s style should complement your own while still being challenging enough to cause you to stretch yourself.    

Be sure the coach is a very active and empathetic listener, and fully attentive to you and your objectives.  During your initial conversation, does the coach interrupt you?  Do they seem to make too many assumptions or jump to conclusions too quickly?  Ask yourself, “How comfortable am I sharing my personal experiences, fears and dreams with this person?”  

The coach should not be overly prescriptive, tell you ‘what to do’ or constantly regale you with old war stories from their past.  The coach is not a surrogate boss or instructor and should focus on helping you draw out learnings from your own experience.   Be sure that you and your coach’s approach to the work are appropriately aligned.  Pay attention to personality differences that might positively or negatively impact the coaching – is the coach too literal minded or alternatively do they appear too idealistic or impractical?  Are they too structured and methodical, or too loose and spontaneous?  If you’ve taken a personality inventory such as the MBTI, ask the coach to compare your temperament or preferences with their own and discuss how this might affect your collaboration.

Coaching Experience

It’s said that we learn more from our failures than our successes.  While good coaches learn something from every client, be sure you’re the one learning the most from the engagement.  Nobody wants to be the client a coach ‘cuts her teeth on’.  In other words, choose a coach who already has a track record of coaching success.  Not all coaches have held a leadership position in a corporate environment, with some just going through a brief coaching training program before starting their consulting practice.  Alternatively, many former captains of industry decide to hang their coaching shingles as a half-step towards retirement, but actually have no coaching chops at all.  Choose a professional who can demonstrate significant past success actually coaching people.   As coaches gain in maturity they become more flexible in their approach.  Beginner coaches may over-rely on a particular model or framework that they recently studied, rather than being able to draw on a range of theories or approaches to support your particular brand of success. 

 

Questions to Ask the Coach

Finally, here are some questions to consider asking the executive coach during your initial conversation: 

  • Tell me about yourself, .e.g. your background, how and why you became a coach?
  • How long have you been coaching?  How many clients have you had?  What is the typical level of your clients?
  • Can you describe your coaching philosophy?
  • Tell me about the actual coaching process.
  • Can you describe the structure and content of a typical coaching session? How frequently will we meet?  How long should the engagement last?
  • What coaching or assessment tools do you use?
  • Can you describe other engagements you’ve had and the results your clients have achieved?
  • How do we establish developmental goals and how do we measure progress?
  • Can you show me an example of a development plan created with a previous client?
  • How do you handle confidentiality? How is it set up and managed appropriately with all key stakeholders?
  • How will my boss be involved?  How about HR?
  • What else should I know?

 

Tim Morin is the President and CEO of WJM Associates, Inc.

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