Effective Coaching Blog

Kevin William Grant- Counsellor / Life Coach

How to Hire a Competent Coach—What does the research say?

  • Kevin William Grant


The Harvard Business Review (HBR) surveyed 140 coaches and invited five expert coaches to comment on the findings. Industry experts and coaches felt that the standards need to be raised in various areas for the coaching industry. In other words, coaching is in the process of maturing, and coaching has not fully arrived as a discipline. Experts in the HBR survey generally agree that the reasons individuals engage coaches have changed. 

Ten years ago, most individuals hired a coach to help fix problematic behaviors and issues. Today, most coaching develops the capabilities to perform at a higher level-- both personally and professionally. As a result of this broader mission, there’s fuzziness around such issues as how coaches define the scope of client commitments, how they measure and report progress, and the credentials needed to be an effective coach. Other coaches so this differently and view mental health as part and parcel of coaching.

Do professionals receive value from their coaches?

When the HBR asked coaches to explain the growth of their industry, they said clients return because “coaching works.” Coaching has some blurred lines between what is the domain of coaching and what is in the realm of mental health. The purest definition of coaching focuses on the present, and coaching is not counseling or psychotherapy.

Coaches also have some unproven mechanisms for monitoring the effectiveness of a coaching engagement. There are no clear benchmarks for success and quality standards in the coaching industry at this time.

Does your coach give you value for money?

Forty years ago, no one talked about coaching. Twenty years ago, coaching helped talented but abrasive clients who were likely to be fired if something didn’t change. Today, coaching is a popular and potent solution for ensuring top performance from an organization’s most critical talent. Almost half the coaches surveyed in this study reported that they are hired primarily to work with clients on the positive side of coaching—developing high-potential talent and facilitating a transition in or up. Another 26% said that they are most often called in to act as a sounding board on organizational dynamics or strategic matters. Relatively few coaches said that organizations most often hire them to address derailing behavior.

The HBR research revealed valuable insight into what clients ask coaches to do and what they end up doing. Consider work-life balance-- clients rarely hire business coaches to address non-work issues (only 3% of coaches in the HBR survey said they were hired primarily to attend to such matters).

More than three-quarters of coaches report the cross over into the personal territory of a client’s life at some time. This is particularly true of clients who spend grueling hours on the job and are often on the road and away from home. Many of them feel some strain on their personal lives.

More coaches can tap into a leader’s motivation to improve his or her home life; the higher and more lasting the impact of coaching is likely to be at work.

All coaches recognize that they should be making their clients more competent and self-reliant. If the coaching relationship isn’t doing that, you’re likely becoming overly dependent.

The Rules of Hiring a Coach

There are two basic rules for hiring a coach. First, make sure that the client is ready and willing to be coached. Second, allow the client to choose whom he or she wants to work with, regardless of who in the organization initiated the engagement. The survey data support this emphatically: Willingness and good chemistry were by far the most frequently cited ingredients of a successful coaching relationship. Beyond that, respondents had strong and sometimes divergent opinions about what matters most in hiring a coach.
The surveyed coaches agreed, for the most part, that you need to look for someone who had experience coaching in a similar situation but hadn’t necessarily worked in that setting. You should also take into account whether the coach has a transparent methodology.

The Importance of Openness About The Coaching Methodology

According to the HBR survey, different coaches value different methods. Some coaches begin with 360-degree feedback, for example, while others rely more on psychological feedback and in-depth interviews. From an organization’s perspective, the methodology is an excellent way to winnow the pile. If a prospective coach can’t tell you precisely what method he uses—what he does and what outcomes you can expect—show him the door. Top business coaches are as clear about what they don’t do as about what they can deliver. For example, a good coach will be able to tell you upfront whether or not she is willing to serve as a sounding board on strategic matters.

If a coach can’t tell you what methodology they use—what they do, and what outcomes you can expect, it may not be a good sign.

Certifications Matter More Now

Coaches split on the importance of certification. Although several respondents said the field has charlatans, many of them lack confidence that certification on its own is reliable.

Part of the problem is the number of different certificates: In the UK alone, about 50 organizations issue certificates; buyers are understandably confused about which ones are credible. Currently, there is a move away from self-certification by training businesses and toward accreditation—whereby responsible international bodies subject providers to a rigorous audit and accredit only those that meet strict standards.

Although experience and clear methodologies are essential, the best credential is a satisfied customer. A full 50% of the coaches in the HBR survey indicated that individuals select coaches based on personal preferences.

Coaching Is Not Therapy, But Mental Health Issues Can't Be Ignored During Coaching

According to the majority of coaches in the HBR survey, clients tend to be mentally “healthy,” whereas therapy clients have psychological problems. In the HBR respondents’ view, coaching does not seek to treat mental problems, such as depression or anxiety.

Coaching does not and should not aim to cure mental health problems. However, the notion that candidates for coaching are usually mentally robust flies in the face of academic research. Studies conducted by the University of Sydney, for example, have found that between 25% and 50% of those seeking coaching have clinically significant levels of anxiety, stress, or depression (Anthony M. Grant, Director of the Coaching Psychology Unit at the University of Sydney in Australia).

I’m not suggesting that most clients who engage coaches have mental health disorders. But some might, and coaching those who have unrecognized mental health problems can be counterproductive and even dangerous.

The vast majority of clients are unlikely to ask for treatment or therapy and may also be unaware that they have issues requiring it. That’s worrisome, because of contrary to popular belief, it’s not always easy to recognize depression or anxiety without proper training. A client is far more likely to complain of difficulties related to time management, interpersonal communication, or workplace disengagement than anxiety. This raises important questions for clients hiring coaches—for instance, whether a non-psychologist coach can ethically work with a client who has an anxiety disorder.
Organizations should require that coaches have some training in mental health issues.

Given that some clients will have mental health problems, you should require your coach to have some training in mental health issues—for example, an understanding of when to refer clients to professional therapists for help. Indeed, businesses that do not demand such training in the coaches they hire are failing to meet their ethical obligations to care for their clients.

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