Choosing an Executive Coach

Once reserved for only the most senior managers, executive coaches are increasingly available to managers at all levels to support professional growth and performance improvement. With demand growing, the number of professional coaches in the marketplace is expanding rapidly. The spectrum of experience and qualifications is an extremely broad one.

If you are thinking of working with an external or internal coach, here are some tips to help you make the right choice.

Psychological training/experience - Many coaches have a background in psychology. While this is not essential for effective coaching, it is important for a coach to be able to understand that each individual thinks and operates differently from others - including themselves. A good coach must be able to understand your perspective and situation and to assist you in meeting challenges in a way that makes sense to you.

Experience in the world of business - Prior experience working in business organizations provides a sense of the day-to-day environment in which you work and the normal pressures and challenges inherent in that environment. It's harder for someone whose professional life has been outside the business world to provide coaching that is relevant to that world.

Knowledge of your profession and business - While knowledge of and experience in the business world is an asset, experience in your particular profession or business is not. The task of a coach is not to solve business problems but to guide you to finding ways to manage yourself and others to solve these problems. Too close an association with your profession or business can become a handicap by resulting in nuts-and-bolts business discussions rather than exploration of the larger issues.

Inquiring vs. prescribing - The best coaches do not claim to have all the answers. Their job is to help you to find the answers that work for you. Typically this is reflected in a style which is based on questioning, listening and exploring. Be wary of prospective coaches who tend to tell more than they ask.

Track record - It is worth asking prospective coaches about their past coaching experience: Which organizations have retained their services? Over what period of time? At what management level do they have coaching experience? What are some of the performance or development issues that they have addressed with other clients?

Chemistry - An initial exploration session will enable you to get a feel for the chemistry between yourself and a prospective coach. Coaching relationships work best in a supportive environment that enables open conversation. Beware, however, if it appears that you are getting along too smoothly from the start. The coach's task is to maintain an appropriate distance and perspective and, at times, to question or challenge your current thinking. This takes place best in the context of a relaxed but professional atmosphere.

Clarity about your objectives and commitment - Coaching is a powerful tool for professional and personal growth - and it requires effort and commitment on both sides. Be clear to yourself and your coach about your objectives. Yet it is also important to remain open to revising those objectives as the coaching relationship progresses and you gain new insights. Successful coaching leads to new ways of thinking and skills. To reach them will require time and effort on your part - along with the coach who is best suited for you and your objectives.

There are few coaches who will meet all the criteria described above, and some of the best coaches do not meet them all. But a coach who satisfies most of these criteria is more likely to be the best coach for you.

Frequently when you're exploring some blockage, just doing it is like holding up a mirror, so they can see what they have achieved, and that's more important than the actual advice you give.
Mary Catherine Bateson
Composing a Life