Great coaches help to make great athletes. Basketball coach and mentor John Wooden played a key role in launching the careers of numerous basketball greats, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, and Gail Goodrich. Tennis standouts Venus and Serena Williams owe their success, in part, to their father/coach Richard Dove Williams. While boxing champs Floyd Patterson, José Torres, and Mike Tyson all have Constantine “Cus” D’Amato to thank for their entry into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

What all these coach-athlete relationships have in common is the right chemistry. When you are in the market for an executive coach, look for someone who is not only qualified but is also the right match for you.

Do's and Don'ts of hiring an executive coach

In this post, I provide 10 tips on finding the right executive coach for you.

1. Make a list of what matters.

Develop a list of executive coach attributes that are important to you. For example, you may appreciate an executive coach who:

  • Speaks truth
  • Provides empathic attunement (responds to the client’s perception of reality in the current moment as opposed to his or her own “objective” view of the situation)
  • Fosters a deep level of connection
  • Expects the potential of the client to come forward
  • Holds the client accountable
  • Keeps the client moving forward

Related… here is what a well-qualified executive coach should do for her/his clients:

  • Helps clients discover and become more aware while providing informed choices.
  • Empowers clients to find their own answers, while supporting and encouraging them as they make their own decisions and as they lead others to make theirs.
  • Helps clients build skills that are transferable to their personal lives (and vice-versa).
  • Embraces the end of an engagement with the client feeling they have reached the goals and objectives set forth at the beginning of the engagement. As I discuss below, a good executive coach doesn’t try to sell add-ons — they leave it up to you to decide whether further coaching would be beneficial.

2. Meet candidates face to face.

Schedule an in-person or videoconference meeting, so you have eye contact during your initial exchange. You can use Skype, Zoom, or another video conferencing platform to conduct the meeting if meeting face to face isn’t possible. Although you can expect many of your coaching sessions to be conducted via voice-only phone calls, you should first meet in person or via videoconference, because it offers the best way to gauge the chemistry between you and your prospective coach.

3. Follow your gut.

Consider your initial meeting to be a first date. During a first date, you can usually sense whether you and your date are a good match and whether your date is “real.” Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you and the candidate click? Conversation should flow smoothly without exchanges that feel awkward or clumsy.
  • Does the coach provide a comfortable and safe environment in which I feel safe to share my thoughts and feelings? You may not feel safe enough for full vulnerability yet, because that requires a period of trust-building, but you should have a gut feeling that a safe haven will be established.
  • Do I feel this coach gets me, hears me, reads me?
  • Am I feeling that we can develop a high level of intimacy in a short period of time? This will need to happen fast — for example, over the course of one- or two-hour long sessions during the first month.
  • Is the coach in the foxhole with me? You want someone who’s fighting alongside you, not standing outside the foxhole telling you what to do.
  • Does the coach ask appropriate curiosity-based questions? For example, does the coach ask questions to elicit more details, such as “Tell me more about that.”
  • Does the coach listen as opposed to solve? Good coaches listen and help you solve problems on your own. On the other hand, a consultant tries to solve problems and should not act as a coach.
  • Is the coach really trying to “walk in my shoes?”

4. Ask about the candidate’s coaching process.

All executive coaches should have a playbook or process. For example, at the beginning of every session, a good executive coach may ask one question first: “Are there any 911’s that might affect our time together today? If so, should we start there?

Asking for 911’s upfront (i.e., any pressing issue; for example, marital discord, a serious illness in the family, a teenage son or daughter in crisis, a career in jeopardy, finances at risk, etc.) may be part of a process that the coach finds works in all cases with all clients.

The last thing you want is to work with an executive coach who just wings it or makes up session flow as they go. Ask about the coach’s process and then be honest with yourself about how the process may or may not work for you.

5. Consider only those candidates who recognize that coaching is about more than just what happens as work.

Executive coaching should focus on personal-professional integration or work-life rhythms, because both areas of life affect one another. A good executive coach helps you see the benefits of this integration. No cookie-cutter approach is effective. Look for a coach who hears you and works with you to tailor an approach that empowers and enables you to achieve your personal and professional goals and objectives.

6. Hire a coach who makes you work.

A good coach always gives homework to tackle before the next session — a call-to-action that is appropriate for your timing, such as the month ahead.

Better coaches offer accountability correspondence between sessions to check in and see how things are going. During these brief accountability interactions, coach and client may want to consider whether the initial assignment needs to be modified in some way to achieve a reasonable and acceptable outcome. Ultimately, as a coaching client, you should feel like you’re succeeding/making progress, not feel or experience greater stress as a result of missing an arbitrary coaching deadline.

7. Don’t hire coach who tries to upsell you.

Executive coaching is about coaching you, not selling to you. Check out each candidate’s website to determine whether they are more into selling than coaching, and then avoid anyone who is more into selling.

8. Perform your due diligence.

You wouldn’t hire someone for your C-Suite based solely on someone else’s recommendation. Conduct a thorough background check on the coach you’re thinking about working with. Your background checks should include the following:

  • Ask for and check references from clients with similar profiles as yours.
  • Check the business registry in the state in which the coach practices to ensure that he or she is in good standing with state authorities.
  • Ask about the coach’s insurance coverage. If a coach is not insured, that says something about how the person operates their own business.

9. Ask the coach to sign a confidentially agreement.

Ideally, have the coach sign your confidentiality agreement — prepared by your own attorney or in-house counsel — to ensure that the coach maintains confidentiality on your terms, not theirs.

10. Define what success looks like.

Ask yourself… once the coaching engagement has ended, or at milestones along the way, how exactly will I have benefited from the coaching agreement and/or how will I be a better person or leader as a result? Get granular — be specific. Interview prospective coaches against the outcomes you’re seeking.

At the end of the day, you are responsible for your own success. However, a great executive coach helps you discover whatever is standing in the way of your success and overcome the most daunting obstacles. Be sure to choose an executive coach you are confident will listen to you, hear you, and provide guidance that empowers you to achieve the life you envision — both personally and professionally.