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  • Writer's pictureMichael Barton

Hiring a Coach 101

What is a coach? What do they do? How would working with a coach help me? Do I need a coach with specific expertise in my field? I'm already a successful executive and my company is doing great, so what can a coach do for me?

If you haven’t worked with a coach before, it may sound a little strange to hire someone who knows nothing about you or your company to give you advice. However, that’s actually part of the benefit.

I’ve been coaching and advising clients for over 20 years. The use of coaching in the professional world has changed tremendously over that time. Back in the day, investors and board members called me in to coach founders or young executives struggling with the transition to leadership. Coaching was sometimes the investors' last resort before removing the executive.

There were also a lot of executives back then who didn’t want anyone to know they had a coach. They thought their peers would see them as flawed if they needed a coach. It was similar to the way some people feel shame around having a therapist. Those days are gone.

Today, companies offer coaching as a recruiting tool to entice top executives, or as a benefit for their entire executive teams. I work with one executive at a large publicly traded company where all C-level executives are "strongly encouraged" to have a coach and the company pays for it. In the most recent coach training program I attended, about half the people in the program were training to become internal coaches in their large well-respected companies. A lot of Venture Capital funds are now making coaches available to their founders as their companies grow.

Not only am I seeing a change in the way companies view coaching, but I’m also seeing a change in the way executives view coaching. Most top executives I know either have a coach or have had one. Taking on a coach does not say "I'm broken", it says "I am striving to grow and learn and be the best I can be".

Coaching has made the shift from the shame of a therapist to the prestige of a personal trainer.

What exactly do coaches do?

Coaches do pretty much what you think. They ask you questions, find out what your challenges and goals are, then try to help you reach the best outcome. There’s a wide variety of style and expertise in coaching, as with anything. And, as you can imagine, there are good coaches and bad coaches.

Finding a coach is not hard. Finding a good one requires a little more work. Here’s a list of the stuff good coaches do:

  • They ask questions and listen. Lots of questions and lots of listening.

  • They get clear on your goals and what you want.

  • They don’t judge you or what you want.

  • They learn who you are - your strengths, weaknesses, values, fears, superpowers, dreams, frustrations, etc.

  • They serve you. A good coach knows their success is measured only through their client's success.

  • They speak truth and they challenge you.

  • They meet you where you are. They don’t give you concepts that are beneath you or over your head.

  • They are trained in well-respected coaching practices and techniques from well-known and highly regarded institutions.

If you’re interviewing a coach, this is a good list to guide that process.

I've been an executive and leader for a long time and I'm good at it. What can a coach do for me at this stage?

You're smart and you're very good at what you do, so maybe you don't need a coach at all. After all, you've made it to this level of executive leadership without a coach. You've put together a great executive team and your company is doing great. But think of this - even Serena Williams has a coach.

Coaching is not about you not knowing what what you're doing. It's about having another expert watching your performance, just like an elite athlete, and observing and tweaking to make you even better. It's about cranking up your performance more quickly than you would working on your own. It's about getting new tools and perspectives. It's about learning from other's mistakes.

Another aspect of coaching for more seasoned and successful executives is that your coach can help you look forward, focusing on the ideal leader you want to be. They will work with you to understand your personal core competencies, or what I call your "superpowers", and build on those. They will understand the areas where you already know you can grow. They can perform 360 reviews or peer interviews to find areas of improvement according to your board, your employees and your peers. They can observe you in team meetings and help you see relational "blind spots" that you may not be aware of having. They can help you up-level your already strong skills, communication, and business relationships.

We all say we want "mentors", and we tell stories honoring the great mentors we've had in our lives, but the word "coach" can bring up fears and insecurities. Get over that. It does not show confidence and maturity to declare to your peers, board and employees that you know everything and have nothing to learn. It does show confidence and maturity to declare that you don't know everything, and you're actively trying to learn and grow and be an even better leader than you already are. That within itself is leadership.

Even seasoned Fortune 500 executives have coaches throughout their careers and lives. My coach is 82. His coach is 94.

What benefits should I expect from coaching?

I know my clients gain a lot of different things from their coaching experiences, but there are certainly common benefits you can expect.

  • Confidentiality: Being a CEO is the loneliest job in the world. You can’t discuss all of your fears and concerns with your board or with anyone who works for you. You have to show a certain level of confidence. You certainly can't talk openly about your personal doubts or insecurities. You’re truly alone with some of your most stressful thinking. An outsider who listens without judgement, is there purely to support you, and helps you think through your challenges with complete confidentiality is a tremendous asset.

  • Objectivity: It’s good to have someone who is not personally involved in the team dynamics or politics of your organization give you an objective view of your actions. Yes, you were out of line on that call. No, your board did not give you clear direction. Yes, you co-created that mess. Just like a tennis coach video tapes your serve and watches it with you, a good coach can show you things you can't see while you're doing it.

  • Deep experience: Please make sure you hire a coach who is a little older and more experienced than you. Or, if you’re a very experienced executive, make sure they can challenge you and bring you new perspectives. One of the things that makes a coach powerful to you is the pattern recognition that comes from years of experience. This is why “been there, done that” is so valuable. Don’t worry about finding someone with experience in your specific field of expertise. Rather, look for someone with deep experience and knowledge in the career phase you’re moving into, such as managing a much bigger team, evolving from internal focus to external spokesperson, or shifting from doing to long-term strategic thinking. A good coach should be able to see around the corner and warn you of what might be coming.

  • Confidence Boost: Many executives think they are facing unique challenges for the first time that no one else has ever faced. You’re not. A good coach will normalize your experience by telling you a story about when they, or another executive, faced the same challenge. Or they will recommend a book or article that makes you think the author has been looking over your shoulder for the last six months. No, you’re not crazy, or faking it, or getting it all wrong.

  • New perspectives: A good coach will be a walking encyclopedia of new ways to look at old stuff. They can bring you tried and true solutions from other industries, frameworks you may not have seen before, lots of best practices, academic articles, and new tools. I use lots of frameworks and analogs in my coaching practice, including startup horror stories, MBA case studies, podcasts, Vedic and Buddhist philosophy, and parenting tricks.

  • Constructive feedback: We don’t always get good feedback from our coworkers because it’s easier to just move on and let it be. We may not get good feedback from life partners because they love us, flaws and all. Constructive criticism from someone whose only job is to serve and support you, and who does not judge you, can be powerful.

  • Increased awareness. In my coaching, I sometimes use the framework of Emotional Intelligence. That model focuses on self-awareness and social awareness. What are your blind spots? Your biases? Your unconscious behavior patterns? Your destructive beliefs? How is all this negatively impacting your work and relationships? A good coach is a good mirror to their client.

If you ask any Executive who’s worked with a good coach for any length of time, they can give you a lot of other benefits. These are the ones I hear my clients report most often.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve coached an executive, then met members of their team, and those team members shake my hand and thank me for how their boss has changed and grown. That’s rewarding and great feedback for me. But more importantly, the client loves hearing it from their team. That’s just one more data point that the benefits of coaching can be real. And big.

Identify what you want to accomplish.

Before you hire a coach, get clear on what you’re trying to get from the process. You may have some relationships with team members that are challenging. You may have recently entered a senior leadership position and new and overwhelming demands are being placed on you. You may be an experienced executive and everything is going well, but you want to tune up your game and learn some new tricks. Your company my be going through fast and massive growth and you want an experienced advisor to keep you from making high-cost mistakes. Those are all good reasons to hire a coach. Just make sure you’re clear about what you want when you start, and discuss that with your potential coach during the interview process.

Also get clear on what you don't need. Something I encounter from time to time are clients who insist on coaches with a background in their area of expertise. I spoke with the new CTO of a large very successful online company and he only wanted to hire a coach who came out of software. I once interviewed a newly minted Chief Design Officer who only wanted to work with a coach who was a former designer. This is not the way to find the best coach for your growth.

First of all, you're cutting your pool of potential coaches down to a very small number. Second, you already know design, or technology, or marketing. What you don't know are the challenges and blind spots you have in this new role you're going into. In school, we don't repeat the classes we had before, we graduate and move up to the next grade and take on all new lessons. Your specific expertise is what helped you get this new job, but it's not enough to insure you're going to excel in this next role as a leader. Hire a coach who understands the skills and challenges of your new role, not the one you've already done.

Find the style of coaching that’s right for you.

As with anything, there’s a range of coaching styles.

Some coaches are very goal and outcome oriented. You will set a specific business metric with them, and a time frame in which you’ll reach it. Each week you’ll have defined homework tasks and deliverables. These coaches tend to be great accountability partners, but may be less able to address the underlying personal needs.

There’s a style more centered on life coaching. These coaches will work with you on leadership goals, but may use everything from energy healing, to nutrition, to meditation. They can work with you on family scripting and unconscious pattern behaviors. This can be powerful coaching but may neglect the tangible business goals you need to reach.

There are coaches that are trained in pre-packaged programs and they take you through a defined process. These programs usually have workbooks and set exercises, and personality assessments that put you in some quadrant that defines your style or way of leading. You work through their program step-by-step. These can be great tools and very beneficial, but they can feel a little like training programs rather than coaching.

Leadership and/or Executive coaches usually work exclusively with more senior executives. They will focus on your leadership skills and interactions with your coworkers. They will get to know your business objectives and help you lead your company to successfully meet those goals. Leadership/Executive coaches usually try to balance the specific business goals with the overall less defined goal of making you a stronger leader.

There are also coaches who work with teams and the relationships within the team. They can work with teams in conflict, or with high functioning teams that want to be even more effective. Team coaching can be very beneficial to elevate the entire leadership style and competency or a company.

You will need to remember what you want to accomplish, and talk to a few coaches to find the style that’s right for you. Ask friends or peers that have worked with a coach what was most beneficial for them. When you interview a coach, ask them about their particular style.

I've decided to hire a coach. What will be required of me?

You can let your coach guide you on what they need from you, but there are a couple of general guidelines that will make your time with your coach highly valuable and impactful.

  • Be open and honest: The most important requirement from you is pretty simple. Give your coach the most to work with by being totally transparent and honest with them. Remember, no one in your company will hear what you discuss with your coach unless you want to tell them. Good coaches also don't judge you or where you are in your journey, so tell the truth. Lay it out - your fears, your insecurities, your frustrations and your confusion. It's all good material for new growth and discovery.

  • Embrace change: The next most equally important requirement is to be open to change. No one hires a coach with the goal of doing exactly what you've been doing. If that's the case and you're not open to consider changes to your behavior, stop wasting time and money and fire your coach. Coaches are agents of change. I don't mean to oversimplify this, because change is scary and it challenges our comfort zone and self-confidence. Don't go into change begrudgingly, try to embrace it. Be the change.

  • Be respectful: This is the standard stuff that I know you're already doing as an executive. Be on time, don't allow distractions during your session, pay the coach according to your agreement with them, assume they know what they are doing, and do the homework they may give you. This is basic stuff that applies to everyone, but it's important.

What’s the coaching process?

It’s pretty simple. You talk to your coach by phone or online for a one hour session. My starting point is one session per week. Some clients want more frequent sessions, some less. It depends on the intensity of the issue we’re addressing.

Most coaches will ask for a minimum time commitment. I don’t like to coach anyone for less than six months. It takes a few meetings for us to really hit our stride. Also, we may resolve some problems more quickly than six months, but what we really need to work on are the underlying causes, the blind spots, the areas of low self-awareness. That takes more time.

Some coaches charge by the hour with a commitment to coach for a certain time period. Some charge a fixed fee for a package of X months. Find the version that works for you.

How to find and hire a coach

Hiring your coach is a pretty straight forward. You find a potentially good coach by asking around, then talk to them and ask questions. An hour long call is not unreasonable to determine if a coach is a good match for you. A good coach will also actively engage in the process and will tell you if they don’t think it’s a good match.

Training and certification matters. These days, everyone from personal trainers to nutritionist to podcast junkies are calling themselves “coaches”. Only consider coaches that have studied at well respected coach training institutions or have coaching certifications. Time and experience in coaching or leading companies is really important here.

You can find a Coach through some of the organizations I’ve listed below. They are some of the best known and highly regarded training institutions and coaching associations in the country.

You can also ask your HR department. Many companies and investors keep lists of approved or recommended coaches that already have a relationship with your company.

Leading coach training and certification programs in the US:

Most states do not currently regulate training required to call yourself a "Coach", so look for credentials and training. Below are some of the most highly regarded Executive/Leadership coaching programs in the country, but this is certainly not an exhaustive list. There are, or course, other programs that are very good. These are the programs with which I am familiar and am comfortable listing here. All of these programs also cover requirements for International Coach Federation certification (see below).

CCR Global (team coaching)

In addition to training institutions, there is also The International Coach Federation (ICF), which is the international certification body for coaches. ICF has three levels of certification, each with increasing levels of experience: Associate Certified Coach, Professional Certified Coach, and Master Certified Coach. This is currently the largest and most common coach certification program in the world. Coaches who come from deep operating or leadership backgrounds and transitioned to coaching later in their career may not have the ICF certification, and that's OK as well.


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