Looking for a coach? Questions to ask them first


Are you considering investing in a coach for yourself, and/or for members of your team?

If so, how are you going about selecting them? Are you thinking beyond simply going to a large coaching company or association and hiring one of their qualified coaches?

After all, as they used to say in the 80s around buying computing systems, “nobody gets fired for buying “Big Blue” {IBM}”, and, more currently, it seems that the safe option on the external audit is (almost) always to hire one of the Big4.

Coaching is very personal, so I’d recommend you look beyond “ticking the box” with the “safe option” in that way.

Interestingly, recently I was pointed towards a great article that was actually written by a coach training company on “15 signs a coach can deliver what they claim“.

As one might expect such a company, the article was prefaced with: “In theory, the first sign should be a qualification”, However, they then they go on to note how, though they offer three different formal qualifications, the secret is in their method for training. After that, they then finish the preface to their article with:  “So if qualifications aren’t the clearest indicator of an effective coach, what should you look for?”.

“So if qualifications aren’t the clearest indicator of an effective coach,

what should you look for?”

Great question.

Today, then, I’ll discuss that. Then, before reposting their article (which is full of excellent qualitative measures to consider), I will offer you a few questions to ask of a prospective coach that way cut to the chase for you.

To begin, I’ll put my cards on the table.

Yes, I have been coaching for many years and certainly, have my “10,000 hours” in learning and practice. That said, I actually have no formal coach certification or membership of an industry body.

You see, the coaching business I worked within for many years (Shirlaws) felt that the types of people they wanted to attract as coaches and to train with us were at a different level from the main coaching organisations.

To use one simple empirical measure, the average earnings of ICF coaches in their latest (2016) survey was US$51,000 (less than £40,000). There are lots of coaches out there, if you are a successful leader looking for a coach to support you in elevating and transforming yourself and your organisation, I think it is fair to say you may want to work with a coach who operates and aims a little higher for themselves and their own practice and earnings.

So, Shirlaws created an in-house programme of training and development that was truly intensive. Our coaches went through over 30 days of training and development in their first year, then everyone committed to 12 days of continuing professional development each year. 12 days, and with travel to and from conferences and workshops that is well over 100 hours.

As another comparison, I am also a Chartered Accountant and my annual CPD requirement is way less than 100 hours. In reviewing quite a number of professional qualifications (in accounting, law, engineering and others), most require a range of 20-40 hours per annum, and much of that can be done with online courses.

Why share all of this, other than to get it off my chest? 😉 Well, the more serious intention is to give a real-world example supporting the question:

“So if qualifications aren’t the clearest indicator of an effective coach,

what should you look for?”

When I saw the article reposted below, I shared it on Twitter, accompanying it with some instinctive thoughts :

Those were immediate and instinctive to me, so now let me add depth to the tweeted questions:

1 : What are you currently focussed on for your own personal growth?

This is not really about what their specific answer is. You are really listening for two things here. First, if a coach is not always looking to stretch and grow themselves, then they are unlikely to be a good match for you if you are looking to do so. Second, observe how clear (or not) they are on their own personal focus.

2: How many professionals do you currently personally invest in to support you? (and for what?)

The incisive element of this question is to establish if they are they expending funds or only investing time in support for themselves. A top coach will charge significant sums for you/your team to work with them, so they expect you to believe in the value of such an investment. Are they modelling this by investing in themselves?

As to “for what”, self-leadership has many facets, so they may have their own coach, they may also be enrolled in other learning programmes, have a personal trainer, yoga teacher, be learning a new language, studying for a Masters, doing a writing course?

3: What is your context for being a coach?

This goes back to the first question and establishing how focussed they are. Context is the key to coaching. It is the “why”, the source, and also (at a different level) the expected outcome.

Your coach must help you get clear on your context for your coaching and always have their focus upon that at all times when working with you (see also point 7 of 15 in the article reposted below). A measure of how effective they will be on this is to ask them this question. What is their “why” for being a coach?

I hope these questions help you in interviewing your potential coach. Also, you may find answers to these on their website and/or their Linked In profile. Again, if not, perhaps they do not have the clarity and focus and commitment you need to give you what you are hungry for.

Now, as promised a repost of the article by TPC Leadership. There are 15 points in here, all excellent. To look to add further value to you here, though, I’d say many of them, though excellent, are to give you clarity around what coaching is as opposed to consulting or mentoring. If you seek a coach with a higher level of mastery, then, I will force myself to highlight just three points in the article, and those are points 7,13,15, and all are around long-term commitment and value to you. Be very wary of coaching that has a short-term structured process. Such work is of high value situationally, but if you seek long-term, high-value transformative leadership change, go for the long-term approach.

Article by TPC Leadership :

15 signs a coach can deliver what they claim

In theory the first sign should be a qualification. ICF, EMCC, ILM and the Association for Coaching are the main accrediting bodies for leadership coaches. They all exist to uphold a certain standard of coaching, and require that coaches exhibit self-awareness and relational skills, and learn accepted models, techniques and ethics, but two coaches with the same accrediting body can still have very different approaches to coaching.

For instance, we offer ICF, ILM and EMCC accredited courses to the coaches we train. But our method is interactive, as much about personal self-development as learning skills to teach others. Our approach produces a very different kind of coach to lecture-based courses with the same accreditation. So if qualifications aren’t the clearest indicator of an effective coach, what should you look for?

1) They have a personal approach

There really isn’t a substitute for this. The wisest person in business can be teaching you, but it isn’t effective coaching unless it deals specifically with the individual. Inspirational talks and large group sessions are valuable. But they do not allow a person to grapple with their underlying issues: their dualities, doubts and fears. A face-to-face approach creates space for such things to come to the surface so they can be addressed.

2) They listen more than they speak

If a coach is secure, they don’t need to prove they are an expert. Beware of coaches that are overly-quick to diagnose or to give their opinion. They are likely to be afraid of dealing with the unknown or with nuances. Maybe they are even more worried about losing their reputation as the one who knows everything. But coaches shouldn’t know everything. In fact, they should be very comfortable with the fact that they know very little. Any ‘answers’ will come with time and probably not from a coach’s external perspective.

3) They are curious and open-minded

Remaining curious allows a coach to keep asking questions instead of arriving at a premature conclusion. Every coach will come to a situation with a narrative of what they suspect is going on. It is their job to ignore that narrative, to recognise their own judgements as partially or totally false, and to stay open-minded. When a coach has this capacity, dialogue can progress to a place where new perspective can be gained by both coach and coachee.

4) They address beliefs above behaviour

There are so many principles that can be taught, so many behavioural tendencies to find and correct. But the overall effect of this kind of coaching is to pile additional weight on an already-fractured back. Unless underlying beliefs are given far more attention than symptomatic behaviour, any ‘progress’ made through a coaching session will likely be short-lived and shallow.

5) They are growing themselves

Every coach needs to be coached. On an ongoing basis. If a coach feels they have outgrown their need for coaching, empathy will come less easily to them and they may have forgotten what it feels like to be in the hot seat. Coaches can also only take you as far as they have gone themselves. It’s not worth having a coach who hasn’t gone far and it is worse still if a coach feels they have ‘arrived’.

6) They are authentic

The best coaches are the fullest versions of themselves. They haven’t hidden their humanity under a cloak of pseudo-professionalism and expertise. Conversation with them leads quickly to a click – a real connection with a real person. You feel at ease in their presence and they help you bring your authentic self to the table too.

7) They understand your context

“No baby without a mother, no leader without a context”, says Manfred Kets de Vries. Every leader is both limited and empowered by their organisation to varying degrees. If a coach understands exactly how, they will be far better equipped to deliver meaningful coaching. At the very least, coaches need to understand organisational structures and how they work.

8) They don’t oversimplify

Coaches seem to love their acronyms. Especially if it sounds catchy or motivational. They generally seem to be made up of 4-5 letters as well, which means there are only 4-5 easy steps before you are PURE or become SMART. Memorable learning has its advantage. But it also has its limits. Tools have the potential to be helpful but humans are complicated creatures whose lives seem to colour outside the lines of formulae. Be careful of coaches that don’t recognise this.

9) They don’t give the answers

To quote Manfred Kets de Vries again, “When I coach teams, it regularly happens that I look around and ask myself ‘What in heaven is going on here?’ Then I just wait. Waiting is the art of letting the answers come up.”

Any meaningful answers will come from within an individual or team. And usually after they have wrestled with some difficult, probing and personal questions. A coach needs to be comfortable with the awkwardness of offering nothing but another question. This way, everybody experiences discomfort for a while – sometimes a long while – but on the other side something of value is often discovered.

10) They have a holistic approach

If there seems to be little separating your leadership coach from a life coach, it’s probably a good sign. Leaders are people before they are leaders. And their business practices will come from their very personal sense of identity. Work can be an opportunity to bring meaning to life and a flourishing life can result in successful work.

11) They have a clear objective

Is the focus of a leadership coach to increase performance or wellbeing? Is it to encourage personal growth or to unlock creativity? Are they all linked? Work out what your own objective is and see if it aligns with what the coach claims to offer.

12) They know what they can promise

If a coach claims they can change anything quickly or totally, they are overpromising. Coaching is a part of a greater process that takes time. Coaches are not magicians, even if they put on their best wise-wizard performance. A secure coach who has a lot to offer will be humbly realistic about what they can give.

13) They invest in the long game

The best coaches are looking to benefit you years down the line, long after you have forgotten them. They are not after producing a fast result that proves their market value. They are about doing the hard work that brings about lasting change slowly.

14) They have clear vision and values

A great coach will not compromise their values if you ask them and they will certainly know what those values are. They know the difference they want to make in the coaching and business world. If a coach doesn’t know this, it is unlikely they will able to help leaders stay true to their own vision and values.

15) They know how to create transitional space

Creating a safe place to experiment and explore the unknown is not easily done. But a great coach will have done exactly that for years on end. If everyone feels free to be candid, to be vulnerable, to uncover the new – then hold onto your coach for all they are worth. They won’t give all the answers, work miracles or make everything easy. But they will create space to ask better questions. And who knows where that might lead?