Tips to Pick an Executive Coach

Professional coaching, once a sign of a struggling leader, is now considered a positive development tool designed to tackle the stresses of managing a business in a complex global economy. It has also grown into a lucrative industry — the most recent figures, as shown in a new study by the International Coach Federation, has global revenue for the profession at nearly $2 billion.

Picking an executive coach, however, isn’t simple. Just as recruiting a high-ranking executive is a tedious process, selecting a good coach for one requires an equal amount of diligence on the part of stakeholders.

First, the selection group — usually a team of HR managers and other stakeholders, perhaps a CEO or other executive — must determine what kind of situation the coaching calls for. George Bradt, founder and managing director of executive on-boarding firm PrimeGenesis, envisions each possible coaching situation as a four-by-four matrix where “personal transformation” resides on the horizontal axis and “organizational transformation” on the vertical (Figure 1).

Source: George Bradt, PrimeGenisis

The situation on each axis is either going to be “simple” or “complex,” and the selection team needs to know the exact situation before they begin examining potential coaching candidates. “There are a lot of different [types] of coaches, and different coaches are appropriate for different situations,” Bradt said.

For instance, say the organizational transformation is simple — business is chugging along just fine — but the executive transformation is complex — an executive is being promoted into a stretch role, and coaching is required to ensure that his or her development into that role goes smoothly.

In another situation, the organizational transformation might be complex — a firm is going through a rough patch; maybe it is restructuring — but the personal transformation is simple — a moderate transition accelerator coach is needed to help a standing executive through the process.

Then, of course, there’s the prickly situation when both the organizational transformation and personal transformation are complex. Bradt called this the “nightmare” situation. Say a new company is welcoming in a new chief executive, but that individual has never held such a position or hasn’t had to manage his or her own department, let alone an entire company. The company may also be going through a difficult transition. Bradt called this type of coach a full-on transition accelerator.

There is also the situation when both transformations are simple — the executive is simply looking for a mentor to move along his or her professional development.

Once the situation is defined, the next step is for the selection party to look for experience that matches the situation, said David Brookmire, founder of management consulting firm Corporate Performance Strategies Inc.

HR managers should then interview coaching candidates with a focus on each candidate’s leadership development philosophy and coaching framework. “It’s less of a [typical] job interview,” Brookmire said, and more about assessing each candidate’s knowledge of business communication skills. Specifically, the interview should consist of targeted questions about what the coaching candidate would do in certain situations.

The interview should also aim to assess whether or not the coaching candidate uses the same HR tools as the company, according to Alyssa Freas, president and CEO of the Executive Coaching Network Inc. “It’s important for the coach to work with HR, and the coach has to understand the system that the organization is working in,” Freas said.

As for assessing the coaching candidates’ chemistry with the executive to be coached, the three vary on the subject. Bradt, of PrimeGenesis, said good chemistry is vital, especially if the situation is complex on both levels. “If you force a coach on somebody, it’s a recipe for disaster,” he said.

Corporate Performance Strategies’ Brookmire, meanwhile, was a little more lenient, saying personal chemistry is important, but isn’t the most important thing to consider in the selection process. Freas, of the Executive Coaching Network, said she’s somewhere in the middle. Chemistry, she said, is more or less important depending on the situation.

In any event, Freas added it’s important for HR managers to vet potential coaches’ methods for sustaining success after the coaching relationship has ended. Some questions HR managers should ask are: “How do you know you’ve done a good job?” “How do you tie coaching back to the business outcomes? ‘What do you do [as a coach] to keep yourself sharp?’”

All three agree that any coaching relationship will need to have a strong sense of trust — even if the coach and executive aren’t necessarily the best of friends throughout the process. “It can’t feel like an arranged marriage with no freedom,” Freas said.

Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Talent Management magazine. He can be reached at