Coach Selection

Selecting and appointing an executive coach is an important task. It involves the commitment of significant resources (time and money) to meet a given developmental requirement. The relationship between the business leader and the coach will be a vital factor contributing to or degrading the return on the investment made. So, in order to achieve the best “chemistry” and levels of coaching effectiveness the following aspects of potential coaches should be carefully considered:

Appropriate level of coaching experience. Different levels of coaching experience may be required, depending on the complexity of the issues being addressed, as well as the seniority of the individual. For example, the level of experience and skill-set of a coach needed to provide career coaching for a junior manager would be different from those needed when a business leader is being coached. To ascertain their level of experience, it is often helpful to ask prospective coaches about how many hours of coaching they have delivered, how many coaching assignments they have delivered, what kinds of issues they have coached individuals concerning, and at what level of seniority they usually work.

Relevant business/industry experience. An interesting, and debatable, criterion when selecting a coach is whether to look for candidates with relevant business experience (for example of a particular job, organisation or an industry sector). Opinions differ as to whether this is a necessary requirement. Most people would agree that coaches do need strong understanding of organisational dynamics and business. However, direct experience of a particular industry or organisation is unlikely to be a necessary requirement for a person to be an effective coach. (It might be if a mentor is being sought). It is important to remember that, while the coach should have a sound knowledge of business, their real contribution is their ability to help individuals learn and develop. Relevant experience can be useful in establishing credibility with the individual(s) being coached. The competence and credibility of the coach is a major part in the process of winning over the individual and creating a good working relationship.

Others argue that hiring a coach on the basis of specific experience can be counterproductive. This argument states that one of the main benefits of using external coaches is their neutrality and objectivity. They can uncover limiting beliefs, values and assumptions that may be obstructing the strategic objectives of the individual and of the organisation. Coaches should be hired for their ability to help someone see opportunities for improvements in performance as well as practical ways to help them make changes.

References. Talking to previous clients of the coach is a good way of finding out about their style and skills, as well as how effective they were in producing the desired results. A good coach should always be able to supply references and it’s important to check them early on in the process to accurately establish their credentials, experience and ability to deliver.

Background of the coach. Coaches come from a variety of different professional backgrounds. Examples include HR, occupational psychology, training and development, sports psychology and management development. Naturally, these different backgrounds will mean that the coaches may bring some very different experience and skills to the coaching relationship.

Supervision. Supervision is a formal, independent process of reflection and review to enable the practitioner to increase their self-awareness, develop their competence and critique their work with their client (Lane 2002) [1]. Professor Mike van Oudtshoorn and Professor David Lane from the International Centre for the Study of Coaching (ICSC)/ Professional Development Foundation suggest a number of benefits that supervision can deliver. The CIPD and Bath Consulting, in an extensive study of supervision summarised in Arney (2006) [2], explained the context for supervision. As investment in coaching has grown, so too has the need to find ways of quality assuring the services being provided, to develop and sustain the coaches who are delivering them, and to find ways of drawing out the organisational learning from the many coaching conversations taking place in the organisation.

As Hawkins and Schwenk (2006) [3] explain, supervision is critical to effective coaching:

  • It offers protection to clients – cases are discussed with trained professionals who are able to identify areas of potential concern and offer advice or referral to specialist support if appropriate.
  • It offers coaches the opportunity to reflect on their work and gain insights to improve their interventions.
  • It offers coaches the opportunity to identify their own personal strengths and weaknesses as a coach in order to realistically judge what limitations to set with respect to the type of work they undertake.
  • It offers coaches the opportunity to learn from peers who have had similar cases and experiences to further develop their skills as a coach.
  • It offers coaches the opportunity to keep up to date with professional developments in the field and to continually work to increase their competency as a coach.

Breadth of tools, techniques, models. Coaches should have an extensive ‘kit bag’ of tools and techniques that they use in different situations and with different clients. Coaches should be able to clearly describe their favoured approaches, but it is worth being cautious about coaches who push particular models and are unable or unwilling to flex their approach to suit a particular individual/organisation. Good coaches will use models, techniques and frameworks from a wide range of theoretical backgrounds, including organisational theory, occupational psychology, psychometrics, learning and counselling.

Coaches should be able to encourage reflective learning and change, and they should be able to describe how they do this during the selection process.

Understanding of boundaries and approach to referral. Good coaches understand the boundaries of their expertise. This means that a coach should not knowingly accept an individual into a coaching programme if they need specialist support beyond the competence of the coach or the resources available. If this situation does arise, the coach should encourage the individual to seek appropriate support from a qualified professional. It is essential that coaches understand their own limitations and can see when their methods/techniques are not able to address an individual’s needs. Buckley has advised and consulted extensively on this sensitive topic. For a summary of his approach, see Buckley (2006) [4].

Relevant training. Coaches should be able to demonstrate that they are competent in the provision of coaching services.

The training of coaches should be fit for purpose. There is definitely a place for short introductory courses, but, as with any discipline, expertise will vary depending on the length of the course, level of qualification, depth of study, practical experience of delivery and extent of supervision and support received while studying.

There are now a number of different training routes for coaches, and new professionals have a wide range of options to choose from. Specific coaching qualifications, ranging from master’s level to short courses, are being offered by institutions right across the world. Understandably, a qualification that is specific to ‘coaching’ would seem like the most relevant qualification for a coach to have. However, remember that these qualifications have only been available relatively recently and therefore the majority of professionals delivering coaching services may not possess one of these newer qualifications. In such cases it’s important to consider other formal qualifications and experience.

It is also worth noting that if a coach is being employed for the specific transfer of skills (for example skills-based coaching on presentation skills), they should be able to demonstrate that they have those skills and have the ability to impart them.

Other qualities/personal characteristics. The best coaches are those who give honest, realistic, challenging feedback, are good listeners and suggest good ideas for action. Beyond looking for specific qualifications, experience and knowledge, it is important to look for coaches who have certain qualities, skills or personal characteristics that are critical to successful coaching. Different qualities may be needed depending on the specific individual, the problems being tackled and the organisational context. However, it is widely agreed that there are some general skills that characterise effective coaches. These include:

  • self-awareness and self-knowledge
  • clear and effective communication skills (verbal and non-verbal)
  • relationship-building skills (including ability to establish rapport)
  • flexibility of approach
  • listening and questioning skills
  • ability to design an effective coaching process
  • ability to assist goal development and setting, including giving feedback
  • ability to motivate
  • ability to encourage new perspectives
  • ability to assist in making sense of a situation
  • ability to identify significant patterns of thinking and behaving
  • ability to challenge and give feedback
  • ability to establish trust and respect
  • ability to facilitate depth of understanding
  • ability to promote action
  • ability to build resilience

Danger signs. The following characteristics may identify a coach that could prove a problem. It is worth being very cautious about selecting any coach that:

  • can’t explain the model or models they use
  • names individual clients
  • can’t say what they can do, and what they can’t
  • does not know who they would not coach
  • has no experience in organisational settings (for example only has a therapeutic background)
  • has only done outplacement work
  • takes credit for past coaching results – ‘I fixed this guy’
  • sees coaching as a ‘power trip’
  • uses a strictly counselling approach (coaching is not counselling)

[1] LANE, D. (2002) The emergent coaching models. European Mentoring and Coaching Council Conference EMCC9.

[2] ARNEY, E. (2006) Guiding vision. Coaching at Work. Vol 1, No 7, November/December. pp 34–36.

[3] HAWKINS, P. and SCHWENK, G. (2006) Coaching supervision: maximising the potential of coaching [online]. Change agenda. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

[4] BUCKLEY, A. (2006) How to recognise when a client is mentally unwell. Coaching at Work. Vol 1, No 7, November/December. pp 54–55.

[5] BERGLAS, S. (2002) The very real dangers of executive coaching. Harvard Business Review. June. pp 86–92.