It’s probably no surprise to anyone reading this post that the coach-client relationship plays a key role in the outcome of any executive coaching engagement. After all, the best definition of executive coaching I’ve come across – from Jonathan Passmore and Annette Fillery-Travis — defines coaching as “a Socratic based dialogue between a facilitator (coach) and a participant (client) where the majority of interventions used by the facilitator are open questions which are aimed at stimulating the self-awareness and personal responsibility of the participant.”

For such a dialog to be effective, there must be good chemistry between coach and client.

Executive Coaching Chemistry Graphic

And while that may seem obvious, we have several research studies that highlight the important role chemistry plays in the outcome of any coaching engagement. For example, in “A Critical Review of Executive Coaching Research: A Decade of Progress and What’s to Come,” Passmore and Fillery-Travis conclude:

  • “It is now recognized that the most consistently identified factor seen as contributing to the success of a coaching engagement is the quality of the relationship between the coach and client.”

Citing another study by Louis Baron and Lucie Morin, The Coach-Coachee Relationship in Executive Coaching: A Field Study, Passmore and Fillery point out:

  • “Results indicate that the coach‐coachee relationship plays a mediating role between the coaching received and development of the coachees’ self‐efficacy.”

Finally in another study, “A large-scale study of executive and workplace coaching: The relative contributions of relationship, personality match, and self-efficacy,” Erik de Haan, et al. conclude:

  • “The coachee–coach working alliance mediated the impact of self-efficacy on coaching effectiveness, suggesting that the strength of this working alliance — particularly as seen through the eyes of the coachee — is a key ingredient in coaching effectiveness.”

Of course, good chemistry is not enough. A coach also must help a client identify his or her  goals and/or objectives are, challenge the client by assigning suitable tasks toward achieving them, and provide the means for accountability. In other words, while the coach and client must “click,” the relationship should not be too comfortable — the coach must be continuously pushing the client toward increasingly higher levels of professional and personal growth. And the client should feel some degree of frustration or “growing pains” in the process.

Gauging your chemistry with a prospective coach

When evaluating prospective coaches, chemistry should be one of the top criteria on your list (along with other criteria I cover in my previous post, “Hiring an Executive Coach: 10 Do’s and Don’ts”). Because chemistry contributes so significantly to the success of the coach-client engagement, both you and the coach should be evaluating chemistry during your very first conversation, in person (preferably), via videoconference, or over the phone — not via email or text.

Though any relationship of trust requires time and a safe environment, look and listen for what I like to call “compatibility clues” by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Does the coach seem sympathetic to the issues I need to address or the goals I am seeking to achieve? Does the coach ask about my issues and goals?
  • Do I feel comfortable discussing my problems or areas of weakness? Am I afraid to say what I would normally withhold but needs to be said?
  • Do I have good rapport with the coach? Do we “click”? Or, do I feel uneasy or overly scrutinized?
  • Do I get the feeling that the coach is listening and hearing (understanding) me? Does the coach seem empathetically attuned to me and my situation?
  • Do I feel confident this coach can help me develop in the areas that need to be addressed?
  • Do I get the sense that this coach is primarily positive? Did our conversation end on a positive note? (Pro Tip: By the end of the conversation, you should feel encouraged, not discouraged.)
  • Do I feel receptive to following this coach’s guidance? If my firm has suggested executive coaching, I may be reluctant to work with a coach initially, but now that I have spoken with and met this coach, do I feel more or less receptive to the idea?
  • Do I share the same values with the prospective coach? Are there any values expressed or implied by the coaching prospect that clash with my own values?
  • What do I like about this coach? What do I dislike and how much of what I dislike can I live with?
  • Does the coach ask pertinent questions, such as:
    • What troubles you or what would you like to improve?
    • What might trouble other people about you?
    • Are you open to trying new things?
    • Are you open to negative feedback?
    • How do you feel about completing homework assignments between sessions?
    • Can you articulate your strengths and weaknesses?
    • Can you describe a past or present success?

Keep in mind that any executive coaching engagement requires time to develop. Good chemistry does not develop overnight. However, you can get a pretty good sense, during your initial conversations with prospects, which coaches you can and cannot work with. When evaluating on first impressions, follow your gut. If a coaching prospect doesn’t feel like the “right fit,” cross that candidate off your list and continue your search until you find one who does.

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About the Author: Jan Moorad, a former Deloitte management consultant and Major League Baseball team partner, is a Newport Beach, Calif.-based executive coach who helps C-Suite executives and their spouses pursue and achieve personal and professional fulfillment.