Similar to top athletes who are relying on the help of coaches to bring out the best in them, more and more corporations use the service of executive coaches to better utilize the potential of their leaders. But with no regulation of the coaching industry, there is confusion in the marketplace about what coaching really is, and executives and HR managers ask themselves “how do I find the right executive coach?”
Ask Google for help and you will find 92,100,000 results ranging from “How to Choose an Executive Coach” over “Three Common Mistakes People Make in Selecting an Executive Coach” to “Your No-Fail Guide To Selecting An Executive Coach”. All these articles come with well-meant advice, but is the advice also useful? A recent Harvard Business Review article “You and Your Executive Coach Are a Bad Match. Now What?”  seems to indicate that there is no such thing as fail-safe when it comes to choosing your executive coach.
The most common suggestions available on the Internet focus on three key areas for making the right choice:
- the coach’s credentials
- the coach’s leadership (and coaching) experience
- and a chemistry check with the coach
The longer I coach, the less I believe that credentials, previous experience, or chemistry checks are great predictors for the success of a coaching engagement. Here’s why:
I hate to say it, but coaching is not exactly a real profession. Any individual can become a coach the moment they nail a doorplate reading “Executive Coach” on their office door. Practicing as a coach does not require a university degree or any other formal qualification (like you would need when practicing as a physician or an accountant). 
We coaches have also failed, so far, in establishing clear criteria as to what coaching truly is, and, similar to psychology, there are many different schools with very different approaches to coaching out there. Partly this may be due to coaching being still a relatively young “profession”. Naturally things might need time to evolve, but we shouldn’t use this as an excuse.
The International Coach Federation (ICF), the largest coaching organization world-wide, has done a great job setting certain standards for coaching . However, apparently we are still far away from reaching full agreement on a common and clear definition of coaching, and a lot more work needs to be done.
The ICF also offers credentials, and increasingly corporations expect external coaches to be equipped with such credentials. Nevertheless, whilst this is certainly well-intended and useful, receiving an ICF credential is not as difficult as getting a university degree .
Choosing a coach with ICF or other credentials (e.g. from the EMCC  ), may increase your chances of getting a good coach, but it is certainly not a guarantee. At the same time, there are a number of brilliant coaches in the market who are not members of any coaching organization at all and thus hold no such credentials.
Previous Leadership (and Coaching) Experience
It may very well help if you have an executive coach who has been in your shoes. You may want someone who has experience in your industry, and most certainly you don’t want to waste time by explaining to your coach the deeper meaning of EBIT DA, ROI, and why cash flow may matter more than profit.
Rapport and trust are an essential prerequisite for the success of your coaching engagement. So if the coach has the experience that helps you build this rapport and trust, then this is indeed important. But you should honestly ask yourself how critical the coach’s leadership experience really is for you, because coaching is not about consulting or giving advice. Besides, a “here is what worked for me” doesn’t mean that it will work for you.
Many clients also ask about a coach’s coaching experience in a certain industry or with a particular problem. To me, this is a useless question: an executive coach or leadership coach works with an individual on changing their behaviors. Thus, a coach needs a profound understanding of human behavior and how to change this behavior, and this is the same in any industry, whether you are in banking or in chemical manufacturing.
The Chemistry Check
An initial meeting between potential coachee and coach, often called a “chemistry check”, has become sort of standard procedure for corporate clients as part of their coach selection process. Consequently, it has become hard for coaches to say “no” to such a beauty parade.
The chemistry check has a major shortcoming though: it does not predict the success of the coaching assignment.
Coachees may like the coach most who is the most like themselves, or who gives them the impression that they will be ‘on their side’. E.g. they may be colluding with them (“I also think your boss is an idiot, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with you.”) whilst what the coachee may really need instead is to be challenged rather than having their opinions confirmed.
HR departments on the other hand often shortlist coaches based on their impressive marketing activities. But obviously the marketing capabilities of a coach say nothing about their coaching qualities. On the contrary: some of the best coaches I know are quiet, keep a low profile, and feel utmost uncomfortable marketing themselves.
So how do you chose the right executive coach then?
If credentials, previous experiences, or chemistry checks do not tell you much about the quality of the coaching, then how can you identify the right coach for you?
It’s actually very simple: have the coach coach you!
If you are looking for a new hairdresser you may first have a look at their shops, their price list, and perhaps referrals. But ultimately you will go for a cut and then judge if you will be coming back.
Whilst cutting hair and coaching have their differences, I still recommend using the same approach: be clear what outcomes you want from coaching, and what kind of coach you will need to achieve these outcomes. Make sure you understand the coaching approaches and coaching processes of your shortlisted coaches. Then ask them for a ‘working session’, a real coaching session with you. Such a working session might take anything between thirty minutes and four hours, and you should prepare sufficient time accordingly.
Should you get such a working session for free? Well, will a great hairdresser give you a free test haircut…?
A working session cannot be an exact representation of what is going to happen over a twelve month coaching engagement, in which you will go through various stages of your development. But in my experience, there is no better predictor for the success of your coaching engagement than this real coaching experience.
 “You and Your Executive Coach Are a Bad Match. Now What?” by Sharon Dougherty in Harvard Business Review, March 22, 2019 https://hbr.org/2019/03/you-and-your-executive-coach-are-a-bad-match-now-what
 And to be honest, the exploding number of coaches in the marketplace worries me because the increase in quantity might come at the expense of quality, thus risking the reputation of the coaching industry overall. (See also my rant “The World Does Not Need More Coaches”)
 The statement that “They [ICF Credential-holders] pursue and complete rigorous education and practice requirements that provide unquestioned legitimacy to their commitment to excellence in coaching” (https://coachfederation.org/icf-credential) appears bold considering that the basic ICF credential (Associate Certified Coach) requires only a minimum of 60 hours coaching training and 100 hours of actual coaching.
 European Mentoring & Coaching Council https://www.emccouncil.org
Gerrit Pelzer is a Leadership Advisor & Executive Coach who helps leaders in multinational corporations get better business results through people. Would you like to explore how executive coaching can help you and your organization get the results you desire? Then contact Gerrit via firstname.lastname@example.org
“If coaching is so great, why doesn’t it work?” Join Gerrit Pelzer at the AMCHAM HR Committee on April 26, 2019 in Bangkok as he helps us learn from the three most common mistakes that companies make when trying to build a coaching culture. Details and registration on the Website of the American Chamber of Commerce in Thailand.
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