You make decisions every day based on some degree of incomplete information – you simply do the best with what you have and move forward.  You are able to function this way because you possess deep knowledge and context of the day-to-day operation of your business.

Hiring a coach isn’t a day-to-day decision for you.  In fact, it might be a once in a lifetime decision for you!  And a risky one at that:  You are contemplating a potentially large investment of money, time and energy that will also require a leap of faith.

What if you engage the wrong person or firm?  Pick a tool, system or framework that doesn’t work for your particular company?  Get sold something that feels and sounds great, but doesn’t address the root issues that you must address?  Work through a process that takes a lot of time and energy, but doesn’t produce concrete, measurable business results?  The list goes on…

There are 6 factors that I’ve consistently observed to separate “cream of the crop” coaches from the rest.  Use them to tip the scales in your favor to find the “right” coach for your business.

1. Pick the person, not the toolkit
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The last time you hired a contractor to work on your home or property, you probably never bothered to ask them which brand of tools they planned to use during the project.  Why?  Because you were more interested in the outcome than in understanding exactly which tools would be used to make it happen.  So – accordingly – as you evaluated different contractors you focused on who they were: How well you liked and trusted them, the quality of their work, their references, and their overall qualifications to undertake your particular project.  The toolset didn’t matter – you picked the practitioner and trusted them to bring the right tools to create the outcome you wanted.

Use the same thinking to evaluate potential coaches for your business.

If you already happen to have an affinity for or a commitment to a particular toolset for your business, that’s great.  Simply look for practitioners who are certified to use it and follow the rest of this evaluation process.

If you aren’t quite sure which toolset or process you want or need, then consider candidate coaches just like you’d consider potential home contractors. Don’t focus on the tools!  Rather, assess your confidence in them to actually deliver the outcomes you seek – and trust that they will bring the right tools to make it happen.  The rest of this evaluation process will help you do just that.

2. Determine if they practice what they preach
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It never ceases to amaze me that so many coaches fail to “eat their own dog food” (practice what they preach).  They’ll spend all day telling you why you should hire them, but not a minute on their own integrity, which is exactly why you must turn the tables and explore this important qualifier.

Here are a handful of questions to help you assess whether a coach practices what she or he preaches:

  • When was the last time you met with your own coach?
  • What kinds of things are you working on with your coach?
  • How are you using the tools / processes you recommend for us in your coaching practice?
  • How much did you spend on your own professional education and development in the past year? What did you spend it on?

A solid coach with integrity should be able to look you in the eye and easily answer all of these questions, lowering your risk if you hire them.  If they squirm and dance around the answers, they don’t practice what they preach.

3. Find the personal “fit”
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Personality, methods, and style matter, but perhaps not exactly the way you think.

A great coach makes you feel uncomfortable as he or she pushes you and your team to learn, grow, and accelerate change in your business.  A great coach names the elephants in the room and tells the brutal truth.  A great coach asks thought-altering, assumption-challenging questions.  A great coach makes your brain hurt sometimes.

If you want these things from your coach – and you most certainly should if you are serious about change – then be careful not to confuse the appropriate “discomfort” they may cause in you and your team during the selection process with your sense of their “fit.”

A great coach also makes you feel capable, confident, and inspired.  A great coach – even in the midst of the most brutal truth – will give you a sense of possibility and hope.  A great coach listens intently to the both the said and the unsaid and interjects points that connect the dots in ways you’ve not yet contemplated.  A great coach is at once firm and compassionate, critical and affirming, distant (objective) and intimate.  A great coach energizes you.

As you think about the personal and stylistic qualities of the “right” coach, give careful consideration to where your personal needs fall on this “tough as nails” to “feel good” continuum.  Be sure to determine your sense of fit through that lens (my observation is that most CEOs fall right in the middle, seeking a balanced fit, though there are outliers for sure).

By now you are probably wondering how exactly to assess fit before you hire a coach.  There are two ways: (1) Great coaches coach, they don’t “sell” themselves to prospective clients – so you should feel their fit (or not) consistently throughout the selection process; and (2) Ask their client references specific questions to elicit the reality of their personality, methods, and style.

One final point: Trust your gut with regard to fit.

4. Probe for relevant training, experience and continuing education
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Many professionals like physicians, attorneys and accountants (even hairstylists and morticians!) are required by law to pass exams and earn licenses before they are permitted to practice.  After that, they are then required to attend a certain number of “continuing education” classes or hours each year to maintain their license.  All of this intuitively makes sense – when you go to the doctor or need an attorney, you want to have some basic safety and comfort level regarding their competence, which is exactly what licensing programs help ensure.

How about when you hire a coach for your business?  Um…

Due to the absence of any mandated licensing requirements, there is an extremely low barrier to entry for the coaching business.  Just about anyone can decide they want to be a coach and – presto!  The next day they can legally be engaged by a client, without regard to their training and competence.  This is a massive risk multiplier and must be addressed in your selection process.

In the spirit of seeking a coach with integrity who “eats her or his own dog food” as a professional, probe carefully to determine their years of experience as a practitioner and their level of formal training – both as a coach and specific to the toolsets they utilize.  Also ask how many hours per year they devote to recurring education and training (look for 40 hours annually minimum) – and – for specific examples of programs they’ve attended within the past 12 months.

5. Assess prior relevant measurable results
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Prior relevant results are the best predictor of future relevant results.  Carefully probe each coach’s experience with clients similar to you and your business to establish relevance before you enquire about their results.

Unless you are in desperate need of additional industry experience, which, in my experience, is the last thing most growth-oriented CEOs need, don’t fall for the “industry experience” trap.  Rather, focus on specific factors such as business size / complexity, business model, professional maturity of leadership, and ownership structure to determine relevance.

From there, have the coach focus on the subset of their clients who you consider relevant as you ask the following questions:

  • How do you measure your success in the first 6 months of a client relationship? Give me some examples of the early results you helped these relevant clients attain.
  • How do you measure your success 1-2 years into a client relationship? Give me some specific examples of the longer-term results you helped these relevant clients attain.
  • What are the results I should expect to hear about from your client references? Are those typical?
  • How long does a typical client relationship / engagement last for you? Can you provide an example of a client engagement that ended prior to the end of your anticipated term?  Why didn’t it work out?
  • What are the things your best clients do that drive their results and success? What is your role in that?
  • What are the reasons your least successful clients don’t get better results?

An experienced coach with a track record of results will answer these questions transparently with examples of both client successes and failures.  If the answers you get are non-specific, subject to extensive qualification, or in denial of any negative client experiences / results, buyer beware.

6. Look for some type of guarantee
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The purpose of any guarantee is to lower a purchaser’s risk, whether perceived or real.  Ask your prospective coach if they offer any form of guarantee and, if not, why not.

Although business performance guarantees of results like profitability or growth rate are relatively rare (after all, you are the one running your business, hiring/firing, and calling the shots – not the coach), satisfaction guarantees – often including a “money back” component – are more common.

Skin in the game speaks volumes.  That’s why confident, competent, experienced coaches are willing – in some form or fashion – to lower your risk in the form of a written guarantee.

Conclusion
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While there can never be a 100% probability of success, careful screening against these 6 factors will absolutely stack the deck in favor of a solid outcome from your coach evaluation and selection process.  Consider them your secret weapon against mediocrity as you seek professional guidance from a qualified coach to accelerate results and success.