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What to Know Before Hiring an Executive Coach

© 2017

Like many executives and leaders today, you may have considered hiring a coach to keep your career vibrant and your vision true. But the word “coach” means many things to many people. How do you know who to hire, what you get for the money, and whether it’s worthwhile? In other words, how can you maximize the return on your investment of time and money?

What Coaching Is and Isn’t

Today, there is a continuum that describes coaching in the workplace. On one end, managers can be taught to take a “coach approach” – coaching skills or techniques used under certain circumstances with their direct reports. Trusted HR advisors may also take this approach to think through situations with leaders. Often a coach approach is comingled with expectation setting, direction, or advising. On the other end of the spectrum are certified coaches who have a professional credential. Whether internal or external coaches, they go beyond a skillset or approach to a pervasive mindset, behaviors, values and ethics, ongoing rigorous development, and tools. When you hire an external coach, you are looking for this type of pro.

Coaching in this sense provides a polishing stone for the leader. A coach’s role during an engagement is not to mentor, advise, consult, or provide therapy. Rather, the focus of executive coaching is to ask provocative, generative questions, challenge thinking and doing, and make insightful observations in service to the leader’s goals or agenda. Interestingly, there are licensed therapists and practicing consultants who are also certified coaches. They should be able to differentiate for clients the role and service they are providing in any given moment. Certified coaches who are not licensed therapists are trained to recognized when referral to a therapist is in order; that is, when the coach is out of his or her depth.

In deciding whether to engage an executive coach, consider three main elements: you, the coach, and the partnership.

Element 1: You

One of the first questions to ask yourself is why you’re thinking about engaging a coach now. What’s going on? Do you feel stuck? Facing a dilemma? Want to maximize your career? Ready to tackle a new challenge? Seek to be the best version of yourself? Looking to build your leadership brand? Want to develop in a particular area? Preventing a derailer? Overcoming a performance or reputational issue? There are dozens of reasons to hire a coach.

After you identify your reason, what general goal do you want to set for yourself? What is out of bounds? Once you hire a coach, you will work together to refine your goal. However, knowing the broad strokes now will help you hire the best coach for you now and maximize your investment.

The next thing is tricky: determine whether you are coachable. We all have times in our lives when we are coachable and when we are not. Determining your current frame of mind is difficult precisely because it’s fluid and it requires you to be self aware amid vulnerability. To be coached means inviting someone in to challenge you in an area you may already feel sensitive. It means acknowledging that where you are is not where you want to be and you are ready to change it, however hard that may be. Notice the active voice – you are ready to make, initiate, choose difficult changes. Those who are coachable are both ready for personal change and actively engaged in bringing it about.

In my experience, those who are not currently coachable often state external reasons for their situation. At times, they may even sound defensive. Focusing on external factors can be a normal part of processing a situation. The leader may even be accurate in appraising external reasons, but the picture is incomplete without complementary internal information. When the person is ready to look within, own forward movement, be both courageous and a bit humble, he or she is emerging into coachability.

Finally, do you have preferred characteristics in a coach? Think about your past learning experiences and your current goal. Maybe you would rather have a female coach, or perhaps you’d be more comfortable with a male coach. You might want someone a close colleague has worked with at your company or you might decide a new voice is the way to go. Perhaps you want someone who has faced the challenge you are facing, not to advise you but to ask detailed questions. You may be seeking similarities in some areas and differences in others. Whatever the case, be clear about the criteria that matter to you and equally clear about those that don’t. If you’re unsure whether a characteristic matters, err on the side of casting a bigger net. You may find a coach who is a great fit and the characteristic is negligible.

Element 2: The Coach

Remember the coach is there to serve the leader’s interests, draw out the best thinking from the leader, and shine a different light on the leader’s relationship to the situation. This is what the coach has been trained to do. The coach has expertise in coaching and may or may not have additional experience in the area the leader is addressing (for example, some lawyers hire coaches who also have a legal background).

Established coaches have established processes. Prospective coaches should be able to describe to you the experience of working with them, the steps or stages in the engagement, and how their services will unfold over time. When you interview prospective coaches, ask about their processes and what to expect.

In addition to a process, coaches use specific methods that aid in the coaching engagement. Many will use assessments, sometimes the same one at the beginning and end of the engagement to measure differences. A particular category of assessment is the 360°, which solicits input from the leader, the leader’s manager, peers, and direct reports. Some coaches perform a stakeholder interview, which is similar to a 360° but completed through dialog so the coach can ask clarifying questions. Other coaches rely on observations of the leader at work. These and other mechanisms provide information for the coach and leader to discuss. Find out what methods prospective coaches use, why they use them, and at what point in the process.

Element 3: The Partnership In Between – “The Space”

Coaches talk about creating or holding the space. Sometimes they talk about the envelope or container of coaching. This refers to the safe, confidential relationship the coach carefully builds in collaboration with the leader. It is a creative, sometimes challenging, milieu centered on positive intent for the leader to accomplish his or her goals.

Executive coaches are mindful of a variety of roles. The leader who is the participant of coaching is often called the coachee. The leader’s manager and/or organization frequently pays for the services and so is typically referred to as the client. However, I don’t prefer this language. I think of the leader as the client and the manager or organization as the sponsor. Think of it this way: if you pay for an athletic trainer for your best friend, the best friend is the trainer’s client. It’s important to keep you, the sponsor, happy but the client’s goals are central.

Because these relationships overlap, the dynamics can become complex. If the manager or organization sponsors the coaching engagement, expectations of transparency and confidentiality should be discussed at the outset. I see transparency and confidentiality as two ends of a continuum with blends in the middle. Ask prospective coaches for their recommendations to accommodate you and your manager. Often coaches suggest options, such as coach, client, and sponsor meet together for scheduled updates with the client speaking most. Come to agreements about what will and won’t be shared by whom and with whom.

Of course, you also need to talk with prospective coaches about the logistics that structure the coaching space. How often do they recommend meeting? For how long? In person or by phone? What are their rates? What about cancellation policies? If you want a different arrangement, most coaches will work to accommodate client preferences.

Bringing it Together

You have reflected on your situation, considered prospective coaches, and thought about the partnership. Now look at the evidence. What do the facts tell you? Do you have a gut feeling on what to do? What are your concerns and how might you address them? What feels right in this situation?

One final thought: when you do embark on a coaching engagement, remember the hard work happens between sessions. The coach is there as your partner but you make choices after the conversation. This is great news! After all, no one is better poised to change your life than you.

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