You're interested in working with an executive coach--but how do you find one? And once you've identified some options, how do you choose the coach who's right for you? I had to answer these questions just once: In 2001 a mentor on my board advised me to get a coach, and I turned immediately to one of my best professors from business school, Mary Ann Huckabay, who maintained a coaching practice in addition to teaching (and who's still my coach today).
But I'm well aware that most people don't have someone like Mary Ann in their lives, and I talk regularly with prospective clients who've never worked with a coach before and don't know how to determine whether I'll be a good fit for their needs. So with some inspiration from a tweet, here's a simple set of guidelines:
Step One: How to FIND a Coach
This is actually the easy part: Ask people you trust and respect if they've worked with a coach. If they have--and they had a good experience--they'll be eager to refer you. The amount of time you'll need to dedicate to this step will depend on your industry, your role and your location. (So if you're a tech CEO in San Francisco, this should take about 10 minutes.)
If you're getting referrals from trusted members of your network who've worked directly with that coach, you don't need a large number of options--3 is sufficient. If you're getting referrals from friends of friends or from people who haven't worked directly with that coach, get a few more.
The key here is simply taking the initiative to ask. While coaching is an increasingly common experience, it will always be a very personal one. In most places coaching has come to be seen as a perk for high-potentials or an investment in one's own development, rather than as a corrective measure for underperformance, so few people have a sense of shame or embarrassment about seeing a coach. But coaching still involves intimate conversations about meaningful topics, and while we're happy to discuss these experiences with trusted friends and colleagues, we don't typically bring them up unless we're asked.
Step Two: How to CHOOSE a Coach
This is the harder part--but it's still not that difficult. If you have a large number of referrals, you may want to do some pre-screening, but I'd avoid ruling coaches out purely on the basis of factors such as industry background or certification. A good coach doesn't need to know much--if anything--about your field or your organization to do a great job. And the very best and most experienced coaches I know aren't certified--coaching training and certification programs offer many benefits, but their function is not to screen out unqualified coaches.
Once you have a manageable number, contact each coach directly. Most coaches will be willing to talk with you to determine whether it's a mutual fit before committing to a formal engagement. I wouldn't expect to meet in person--in my own experience, it's simply too time-consuming to sit down with prospective clients. But I would expect to have a 30- to 60-minute phone call during which you and the coach can essentially interview each other in order to understand your goals for coaching and their approach to the process.
Ultimately the most important factor in choosing a coach will be your subjective judgment. The most impeccable credentials and decades of experience are meaningless if a coach doesn't feel right to you. And a lack of credentials or minimal experience are similarly meaningless if someone does feel right.
Below are ten sets of questions related to different aspects of coaching that you might find useful when talking to potential coaches. Some of these questions should be posed to the coach directly during your conversation, while others are intended for your personal reflection afterwards. I wouldn't use it as a checklist and try to address each and every question during the call, but rather as a pre-conversation guide to help you determine the factors that are most important to you.
- Do I feel a baseline sense of trust with this person?
- Have they demonstrated a willingness to be real with me?
- Do they strike the right balance for ME between organic & structured?
- How far can they flex in either direction?
- Is this person "in my corner" AND willing to challenge me?
- Can they be compassionate AND help hold me accountable?
- Why are they a coach?
- How did they wind up on this path?
- Is their answer compelling or meaningful to me?
- How do they leverage their experience?
- Can they see larger patterns among their clients AND see me as an individual?
- Can they say why they're not a good fit for every client?
- Can they say why they might not be a good fit for ME?
- What clients have they turned down and why?
- Under what circumstances would they work with those clients?
- Is this person working on their OWN development as well?
- Have they been coached?
- Do they have a coach now?
- Can they talk about their growth as a coach?
- What have they learned from their successes and their failures?
- Can they articulate the differences & similarities between coaching, consulting, mentoring & therapy?
If you've read this far, you might also be interested in my other posts on coaching, particularly Coaching and the Cult of Done, Dan Oestreich Interviews Me, Coaching Is A Journey or In Defense of Normal (A Coaching Manifesto), as well as my post on Harvard Business Review's report on executive coaching.
Getting a coach was one of the best things I've ever done, and I hope you have a similarly rewarding experience. Good luck in your search!
Photo by Vincent Lock. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.