For many years, as the head of Executive Development for three Fortune 500 corporations, one of my jobs was to hire coaches for our most senior leaders. For the last 8 years, I have been a leadership coach offering my services to corporate buyers. On a recent long haul flight, I allowed myself to ponder the question, “What advice would the current me have for the former me about selecting executive coaches?”
The first piece of advice I had for the former me is that selecting a coach is an art not a science. I have a degree in electrical engineering and spent the early years of my career working as an engineer. I know a little bit about science and selecting a coach ain’t science. I have met folks out there who are trying to make it a science. Good luck with that and don’t expect any help from me. Finding a coach is not about finding the single perfect coach from the hundreds of thousands out there. It’s about finding a coach who has a reasonably high probability of helping the executive get better. The target is large.
I do think there is a series of questions I should have asked myself and/or the potential coach that would have made me a more effective buyer of coaching services such as:
- Does the leader want a coach/want to change?
This is the most important question. My friend Marshall Goldsmith, who has been recognized as the most influential leadership thinker in the world by Thinkers50 2011/HBR, wrote in his article It’s Not About the Coach, “I cannot make the successful people I work with change. I don’t try. Too many people think that a coach — especially an accomplished one — will solve their problems.” If the leader isn’t interested in changing, s/he won’t no matter who his coach is. If you have such a leader, save yourself some money, save the coach some time, and don’t hire a coach.
- What are the specific issues the leader might want to work on?
I have met a few coaches who say they can coach on any topic including leadership behaviors, time management, presentation skills, strategy, financial acumen, globalization, process reengineering, etc. and can also do windows in his/her spare time. I am not one of them and would be suspicious of those who say they can coach on any topic (unless they are wearing a cape.)
- Is the leader’s boss dealing with a problem performer that he/she doesn’t have the courage to address?
On occasion, I have felt a potential client was asking me to come in, disguised as a coach, and confirm their original diagnosis that a problem leader should be fired. I have done some of this. It is not fun or satisfying work for me as a coach and rarely results in success. So now, when asked about these opportunities, I reply that I don’t do turnarounds and fixer-uppers and they already know what they should do – fire the person sooner rather than later.
- What method does the coach use? Does it make sense? Is it easy to understand? How much time does it require of the leader?
There are almost as many methods out there as there are coaches. I think it’s important that the method can be understood during an elevator ride. If it’s hard to explain, it’s probably hard to do. I would be suspicious of any leadership behavior coach who did not use some form of stakeholder feedback. In my case, I advocate the good old fashioned interview with individual stakeholders to get a clearer picture of the potential areas for development. I also believe the time factor is important. I have not met any leaders lately who have a lot of spare time on their hands. If the coaching methodology requires a lot of the leader’s time, it reduces the likelihood that the leader will do it.
- Is there a personality fit between the leader and the coach?
This step is certainly the art of selecting a coach. It is important that the leader and the coach enjoy their relationship and look forward to connecting with each other. I have had clients who want a coach of the same gender, of the opposite gender, of the same background, of a different background. There are no rules about fit. A phone conversation between the leader and prospective coach can be helpful in determining if there is a fit. I do not advocate parading a number of potential coaches by the leader in a “bake-off.” I was recently hired to coach an executive in a financial services company whose background is as an actuary. We connected on my question about which one of us (actuary or engineer) would be the least fun at a party. (Both of us thought the other would be more fun.) Maybe someday, the on-line dating services will offer software that will assist in matching leader and coach. For now, it’s a crap shoot.
If only the former me had been able to have this conversation with the current me, it is unimaginable how successful the former me could have been.
You might ask; “Would the former me have hired the current me as a coach?” Ah grasshopper, that is a dialog for a future flight.