How to Find a Good Coach

How to Find a Good Coach

Smart leaders solicit and accept good advice from those they trust to provide it. They understand no one is bright enough, objective enough or experienced enough to consistently know what to do or how best to do it. (Intellectual humility is a sine qua non of leadership.) While many sources of counsel are readily available, getting the right advice in the right way at the right time should be a matter of design, not good fortune. This is especially critical when uncertain choices with profound consequences must be made. If you choose to succeed, whatever the endeavour, you must know what advice is required, from whom to get it and whether you are receiving it.

{ Caveat: This is one aspect of the business I’ve been in for many years. I have no need nor room for additional clients but am frequently asked for advice on this particular topic, especially by senior executives who attend my advanced programs. Given your age or current position, this blog may be irrelevant … though one day it could prove useful, either to you or those who may seek your help. With that as context, here is my counsel. }

Based on a study undertaken by the school of business at Stanford University, The Harvard Business Review reported that, while two-thirds of business leaders today do not have outside advice on their skills and challenges, “all top-ranked CEOs have performance coaches.” Could there be a better testimonial for success? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal study of the “most creative people in the world” 25 years ago found that every one of them had either a coach or a mentor (there is a difference).

Of course, not everyone is coachable. They may ask for advice but are primarily searching for self-affirmation of what they deem to be existing strengths. Good advice takers have a growth mindset – they’re eager to learn and are always looking for insightful and instructive feedback with an open mind. They’re neither in denial nor delusional about the need to accept the wisdom of others when necessary. They seek advisors who are more objective or more skilled than they are about what concerns them. They don’t let their ego get in the way of acquiring the information required to address their problems and make better decisions.

Good advice takers deliberately assemble and actively manage a network of trusted advisors to ensure they’re fully informed about the issues they must confront. They know the quantity of information they provide directly influences the quality of the counsel they receive. They listen receptively and non-defensively to all opinions, regardless of how difficult that can be at times. Then they weigh it carefully before acting. Especially where risk is their primary concern. They go beyond their comfort zone in seeking the collective perspectives of a diverse group of people. In essence, they’re curious to find out how to take their game to the next level.

Good advice takers distinguish the types of counsel they need, then select their coaches accordingly. Are you looking for highly specialized knowledge, experience with similar challenges, an ongoing partnership, a sounding board on a particular issue or a non-judgmental reality tester who speaks frankly and offers no-nonsense, compelling insights? These different types of coaches require different levels of disclosure. No coach worth his or her salt will ever offer one-size-fits-all or cookie-cutter solutions.

Are you seeking counsel that affects your corporate vision and direction or a unique and independent analysis of competitive strengths and weaknesses? Or, do you want operational insights on the cost-efficiency of your workplace processes and better tools or techniques for fixing short-term problems? Perhaps political savvy is required – advice on the nature of your stakeholder relationships and the interplay of interests, power and demographics that influence your organizational culture and communication dynamics. Maybe the perspectives you need are more personally relevant, such as recalibrating emotional needs, building strategic coalitions or winning friends and influencing enemies.

How do you find a good one? First, know what makes a good coach. Then do the necessary due diligence. Talk to those who have (or have had) coaches. Their advice and recommendations will be invaluable. Coaching (of every imaginable kind) is an unregulated profession. Anyone can hang out a shingle and offer advice. But, like every service you pay for, there are credible ones as well as those who think or say they’re good but have no clue how to do it. There are currently almost 30,000 registered coaches in North America taking home over $8.5 billion annually. It’s the fastest growing business support industry today averaging 6.7% growth yearly. One company that trains coaches claims over 8,000 graduates – keep in mind that a certificate is no guarantee of quality … it just means they’ve finished their training.

Find a coach who:
❏  Genuinely wants to work with you and with whom you will feel comfortable disclosing some uncomfortable details of your life – like your deficiencies, concerns and aspirations;
❏  Has a solid track record of success – since you will be paying for the counsel, you don’t want to be the trainer;
❏  Is demonstrably committed to being an extraordinary coach and not just pursuing revenue or resume-building opportunities;
❏  Will make the most efficient use of your time together; and
❏  Is a good listener and one you can depend on to keep confidences.

How do you keep a good executive performance coach once you’ve found one? Be a worthy pupil – good coaches don’t waste their time on people without talent or potential. Since you pay for the time, why waste it? If you do, you’re history. Find someone who scares you a bit but who isn’t a jerk – someone who will treat you as an adult, not a child, and who will be respectful of your self-concept but not coddle you. Ask great questions; good coaches love questions that make them think. And never ask a question Google can easily answer for you.

Stay relevant, stay curious, stay fresh, stay in the picture – you’re easily forgotten by busy people (and great coaches are busy people). Don’t be a nuisance; find the sweet spot between being bothersome and being buzzworthy. Make your coach proud: the common goal is to make you awesome. When you find the one who fits your needs, insist on achieving clarity and mutual understanding of your goals (he or she will do likewise). Tell them honestly your level of commitment to be responsible for learning and your expectations about the process (how you are best coached). Ask how and when your progress will be mutually assessed and what your time and budget investment will be. Candour is the fuel of all productive and mutually beneficial relationships.

A final point: should you find the coach you want but he or she says ‘no,’ step back and prepare a business case and develop a “pitch” – be creative and persistent. A Chinese proverb tells us “one hour with a wise man is worth 1,000 books.” So it might be worth a second or even a third effort. In every negotiation, ‘no’ is just a moment in time. And every extraordinary coach ought to be looking for tenacious people who believe in themselves. Coaches want to be an integral part of a winning team. And that’s what this relationship should be all about … building the A Team. Good luck.