How to Choose a Coach – by Ira Chaleff

Published in Executive Excellence – January 1999

The value of coaching is permeating the organizational world. Successful senior executives have always relied on confidants to give them honest feedback – a critical element of good coaching. Increasingly, they are inviting coaches into their management meetings to make observations about group dynamics and their implication for creative thinking and organizational decision making. Mid-level managers whose teams, stripped of support staff, are drowning in workload are bringing in efficiency coaches. Senior managers whose workplace behaviors were developed under a set of norms which have changed are being sensitized and retooled by fair employment practices coaches. Career coaches are becoming a standard feature in the landscape of downsizing and out placement.

But what exactly is coaching and how do you know if you have a competent coach? Does the coach have to be able to run your organization better than you? No – most tennis coaches have not achieved the star status of their best performing clients. Does the coach have to be an expert in your industry? Not necessarily. Peter Drucker never ran a high-tech firm. Then what do good coaches have to be able to do?


A good coach has to be able to do the following for clients:


Your coach must be able to perceive and appreciate the strengths, talents and unique gifts you bring to your job. Only when appreciation and trust exists will you be able to accept coaching. Otherwise you will naturally respond defensively.


An effective coach is a keen observer. Keen as in HAWK EYED. The coach observes every gesture, tone, hesitation, choice of words, body language, motion, innuendo, tactic, decision. A coaching session is not a casual “Let’s get together and talk.” It is closer to getting an MRI in which you are being observed from every angle. You should be somewhat startled by how much your coach learns about you in a very short time.


Change requires mechanisms for accurately perceiving the existing state of affairs so you know what needs to be changed . A strong coach will tell you clearly and precisely what he or she perceives about your behaviors and their effects on others. The coach will choose one or two high-payback behaviors to focus on and not overwhelm you with a stream of observations undifferentiated in importance.


A skillful coach will articulate the consequences of your current behaviors – the price you are paying for these and the price you are likely to pay in the future. He or she will encourage you to weigh the costs and benefits of your current behaviors and decide if you want to change these. The coach will respect you making a conscious choice to live with the behaviors or work to change them, but will not allow you to simply use the old behaviors by reason of habit.


An effective coach will help you generate options for different behaviors that would be more productive. The coach will pay attention to which option interests you and encourage you to try that option first as, whether or not it is his or her first choice, you are more likely to stick with it over the long run.


A hands-on coach will have you practice new behaviors or difficult conversations before you engage in them. Action plans, strategies, role plays, all have their place in preparing you to do your best in each situation.


Learning from doing is significantly enhanced by “After Action Reviews” or debriefs. A results-oriented coach will examine with you what went well, what did not, and what are the take away lessons for the future.


A supportive coach will stay alert for instances in which you are using the new behaviors well and will validate these. Perfection is not a realistic goal, but continuous improvement is. Shining a spotlight on an instance of improved behavior helps you use it as a model for future behavior.


As knowledge of you and your business grows, a trusted coach becomes a thinking partner. Effective coaches are adept at posing the right questions to help you examine issues from new and often deeper perspectives. Dialogue about problems often leads to detection of the unseen pitfalls or unrecognized potential in situations. As useful as these discussion are, rather than letting them become a substitute for appropriate group collaboration, the coach helps you forge the culture and processes that utilize the wisdom of teams and maximize their commitment.


At the highest level, once the issues that precipitated the need or desire for coaching have been addressed, coach-client relations may evolve into forums for transformation. Coaching sessions become a conversation to help you explore your deeper values and find and express your unique voice on which great leadership is built.



Before you sign on with a coach, you can and should do your reference checks, but they are not as important as what you experience in your initial encounter.

Coaching is a cumulative process. You and your coach will go over the same or similar ground several times while working together. Each time you build on previous progress.

But even at the first meeting when you discuss your interests with a potential coach, you should be able to experience the process begin. If you feel you are being seen in fresh and perceptive ways, if you feel appreciated rather than threatened, if you are given feedback which smacks of honesty and options for proceeding which seem workable, you have probably found a good coach with whom to work. At that point my advice is simple – get to work!