How to find & choose an executive coach

A CEO once described to me how isolated they felt, “trapped somewhere between my Board and investors looking down at me, and my team looking up.” It wasn’t an issue of authenticity, they just couldn’t be as completely candid with their Board or team as they could be with me, their executive coach. There are lots of reasons that people decide they want to work with an executive coach, but what exactly is the role of an executive coach, and how should you find and choose the right one for you?

Executive Coach

What is (and isn’t) an executive coach?

An executive coach is a trusted partner who provides a private space for their client to share and discuss their innermost ideas, concerns and challenges, and reflect upon them. Objective and unattached to the outcome, an executive coach will help you determine your own way forward, rather than tell you what to do.

John Whitmore, one of the founders of the modern coaching movement, explains that coaching involves “unlocking people’s potential to maximise their own performance”. Coaching helps someone to learn rather than being directly taught. The coachee “does acquire the facts, not from the coach but from within himself, stimulated by the coach”. The International Coaching Federation, one of the industry’s leading professional bodies, defines coaching as the process of partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.

A great coach will serve as a thought partner to help you examine and develop your own thinking and decision-making, provoke new ideas and insights, and commit to action steps that help you achieve your goals. Using intelligent questioning a coach facilitates self-awareness and self-directed learning. The coach identifies and builds upon an individual’s knowledge and intrinsic motivation to get them to their own outcomes. They won’t do all the hard work for you and they won’t tell you what to do, that’s a mentors job. The difference between a coach and mentor is important and often misunderstood. 

Understanding the different types of executive coaching

Executive coaching focuses on your work-related ambitions and professional life, as opposed to your personal one, though the two are of course intrinsically linked. The pillars of executive coaching are generally built around helping you maximise your career, business, personal performance and leadership potential. Your personal life is best supported by life coaching, which falls outside the general definition of executive coaching and won’t be discussed here. 

How to find an executive coach

You have decided that you would like to work with a coach but, for all the technology that now exists, finding one can be an old school endeavor.

Google can yield some good results, especially as online executive coaching continues to gain in popularity. The other place to start is with your trusted network. Ask around to see who people have worked with and who they would recommend. Clients that I work with ask their investor network and board members, and reach out to other leadership peers.

Whether face-to-face or online, narrow your list down to about three coaches (it doesn’t need to be more than that), make the decision to commit and get in touch with them. Coaches often offer an initial telephone or virtual conversation, or face to face meeting in order to understand what you would like to get out of coaching and explain how they work. They will make this investment of time because they know it’s the best way to establish rapport, build early mutual trust and for both parties to test if the relationship feels right. Coaching is a two-way process and the best coaches will only work with you if it feels right for both sides. If you are being asked to sign up for a coaching package without the opportunity to first test the relationship then you should rightly feel nervous.

How to choose an executive coach

When you’re talking to your potential coach, here’s a few things to bear in mind, some questions to ask them, and some questions to ask yourself. Ultimately, choosing a coaching will come down to your gut feeling about whether this person is right for you.

Interpersonal style & Approach

Every coach is different and will bring a different way of working to the coaching relationship. Are they warm and supportive, or critical and direct?
Are they focused on the big picture and vision, or more detail orientated and pragmatic? Do they focus on the practical, or lean more towards the existential? Ideally the coach will have captured in writing how they work. If not, they should be able to easily explain it to you.

Questions to ask a coach: to explain, in their own words, their interpersonal style and coaching approach.

Questions to ask yourself: does their explanation align with your experience during the conversation? Does this person communicate with you in a way that makes you feel comfortable and positive? Will your interpersonal styles work well together?

Sensemaking & application of theories

In her book Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World (Amazon UK, US), executive coach and leadership expert Jennifer Garvey Berger explains that “coaches – like other reflective adults – tend to have particular theories or beliefs that guide our work on a day-to-day basis. We have common patterns and ways of engaging. We use particular tools or ideas to understand a situation and offer insight to clients.”

This is a natural result of human psychology but it only gives the coach a partial perspective on the world. Their way of making sense of the world may differ a little, or a lot, from you own. The best coaches “rub theories together… taking new theories and putting them together – especially theories, practices, or ideas that are contradictory.” This gives them practice in “holding the paradoxes of what it means to be human.”

A good coach will intuitively meld different approaches, theories, models, frameworks etc to best suit the needs of their client and their perspective. I’m wary of any coach that is overly wedded to any one in particular and tells you that they will not deviate.

Questions to ask a coach: what coaching and other personal and professional development approaches, theories, models and frameworks do they use? How rigidly do they stick to them? How do they make sense of the world?

Questions to ask yourself: can this person see the world from your perspective, or at least empathise with it? Does this person bring a one-size-fits-all approach? If so, are you comfortable with that?

Why are they an executive coach?

Ask me to give one reason why I am an executive coach and I will reply that it is because I like to help people; to manage their emotional journey, achieve their ambitions and perform at their very best. There is no necessarily right or wrong answer to this questions, it’s just good to understand from a coach what their drive is.

Questions to ask a coach: how and why did they get into coaching?

Questions to ask yourself: does their story resonate? Does this person understand you and can they help you to become a better version of yourself?

Commitment to continuing professional development

The study of human psychology, development and performance is advancing rapidly. Coaching is a constantly evolving discipline. The best coaches are committed to their continuing professional development. They are fiercely curios and never stop learning. They bring their insights directly to their clients and through the way they work.

Questions to ask a coach: how do they continuously professionally develop as a coach?

Questions to ask yourself: does this person show a genuine commitment to continuous professional development or are they ticking the boxes?

Do they have their own coach and/or mentor?

If you have ever tried to coach yourself, you will realise that it’s not impossible but it is incredibly difficult. Coaches are no different. Just like the rest of us, they have not worked it all out, they don’t have all the answers and they have a host of their own developmental needs. For these reasons, the best coaches I know have their own coach and/or mentor.

Questions to ask a coach: do they have a coach or mentor? What function does that relationship play?

Questions to ask yourself: how well did they answer this question? Are you comfortable that they are ‘doing their own work’?

Coaching qualifications

The issue of coaching qualifications is a contentious one (and I won’t go into the detail of available qualifications here). Some of the best coaches I know don’t have coaching qualifications. Other coaches are highly decorated but lack necessary softer skills. My advice would be to treat qualifications as a helpful guide but not to discount a coach who lacks them if they have other strong credentials and you feel you could work well with.

Questions to ask a coach: do they have coaching qualifications? What is their attitude towards them? Can they tell you about their coaching experience? What is the difference between a coach, mentor, consultant and therapist? Be very wary if they can’t comfortably explain the difference.

Questions to ask yourself: am I comfortable that this person has the right level of experience and knowledge of coaching to help me? Does this person know their professional boundaries?

Do I trust this person?

Perhaps it all boils down to this? Trust is one of the most important components of a coaching relationship. You should trust your coach and they should have your back. You are going to be discussing issues with them that you may not talk to many other people about, if at all. Your relationship is likely to last months, if not years.

Questions to ask a coach: how do they go about building and maintaining trust with their clients?

Questions to ask yourself: do I trust this person and do they have my back?

Saying No

There will never be a mutually good fit between all coaches and clients, such is the nature and diversity of human beings. Good coaches have made peace with the fact that some clients won’t select them to work with. They will also be discerning in the other direction, not agreeing to work with a client if they do not think the fit is right and that they can truly help them. On a practical level, their professional reputation is worth more than the pay check from one bad engagement.

Questions to ask a coach: about a potential client that they turned down and why they chose not to work with them? About a time when a coaching engagement did not go as well as they would have liked; why did it not go well and what did they learn?

Questions to ask yourself: does this person have humility and have they learnt from their less successful experiences? What have they learnt?

If you choose not to work with a particular coach, give them brief but honest feedback. Even if it is a little bit uncomfortable, as coaches, we all need it, and it’s up to us what we do with it.


If you enjoyed this, you might like:

My post about the difference between coaching and mentoring. I define what coaching really is and explore the origins of mentoring in Greek mythology.

15 of the best books about executive coaching is my summary of my favourite reads on the subject, including books about leadership and performance psychology.

A similar post about how to find (and choose) a coach by my overseas colleague Ed Batista. Ed is an executive coach and lecturer at Stanford University. His post deeply inspired this one.