“What would you like to walk away with by the end of our meeting?” I asked the newcomer. It’s a standard question for my initial “chemistry call” with potential clients, designed to ensure their needs are met.
“Um, I’m not sure,” she said. “Maybe you could tell me about your coaching approach?”
“Absolutely!” I replied. “To provide some context for my answer, what are you hoping to get out of coaching?”
“Hmmm. I don’t really know,” she said. I saw her shoulders sag and felt her energy dip.
Sound familiar? First, some reassurance. When you reach out to a new coach, such uncertainty is completely normal, and welcome! Coaches are experts in the coaching process, so expecting us to bring some structure to a conversation – even an initial one before you sign on – is reasonable and part of our job.
Second, some guidance. Choosing a coach that’s a good fit is an important decision. “Fit” affects the quality of the work you do together, and any outcomes you (and your boss or organization) gain from that work. Finding a coach that’s right for you is as critical a decision as finding the right hairdresser or barber for your head—and the effects of coaching are deeper and longer lasting than a haircut! Putting in the work to find a good fit is therefore well worth the effort.
To help you along, here are some tips to prepare you for those initial “chemistry calls” and the decision you’ll make after you’ve interviewed all your candidates.
Reflect on the following questions:
- What do I want to accomplish in coaching? What goals do I have, if any? What outcomes would make me (and my boss or organization, if they’re sponsoring) feel like the time and money were well spent?
- What do I know – and not know – about professional coaching? (If little-to-nothing, read this!)
- What experience do I already have with coaching? If I’ve been coached before, what worked well for me about that coach’s approach and our relationship? What didn’t work well?
- What has worked well for me with other “helping professionals” (therapists, clergy, mentors, etc.) What has not worked well for me?
- What communication style, values, personality, or identity (race, gender, etc.) feel like a good fit for me? What qualities or traits will inspire me to like, trust, and respect my coach?
- What are my “must haves”?
- What are my dealbreakers?
Ask your potential coach some or all of the following questions:
- How would you describe your ideal client?
- Tell me about your favorite client, ever. What makes them your favorite?
- What are the top benefits or results your clients say they get from working with you?
- What experience have you had with coaching a client like me (in terms of challenges, identity, work role, field, etc.)? What successes or outcomes did they gain from working with you?
- What brought you to the coaching profession? What do you enjoy or love most about it?
- Where did you get trained and certified? Why did you select that program?
- Which ICF credential do you hold? (If none, ask why they haven’t pursued a credential.)
- How do you continue to grow and learn as a coach?
- Is there a particular structure, model, or process you follow in sessions? Across the coaching engagement?
- What are your views on the value of coaching goals?
During, and after your “chemistry call”, give some thought to the following questions. Listen to your gut, heart, and intuition as well as your mind.
- How is the coach responding to my questions? (Curious, enthusiastic, generous, calm, clear? Or dismissive, defensive, indifferent, vague?)
- How do I feel in my body while talking with this coach? (Relaxed or tense? Open or guarded? Did physical pain or discomfort appear, increase, or dissipate? What are my eyes, hands, and legs doing?)
- How much do I trust this person? How safe do I feel?
- How much do I like this person? How is our chemistry?
- How much do I respect this person (in terms of their humanity, values, competence)?
- How much do the coach’s answers resonate with me? How much do I see myself in their answers?
- How well do the coach’s words match what their face or body are expressing? How well do their words align with what I saw on their website, bio, or social media?
- How well does this coach’s communication style work for me?
- How much do this coach’s answers fit what I know about myself (from my answers to the “Prepare” questions, above)?
- Who does this coach most remind me of (past or present, work or life, reality or fiction)?
Once you’ve gathered your “data” and done your “analysis”, consider the following guidelines to make your final decision:
- Sleep on it. Give yourself time to metabolize all the input from the coach vetting process. Normal human biases can cause you to favor the first coach you interviewed, the last one you spoke to, or the person with whom you spoke the longest. Allow your mind and body to settle for a bit before you make your final decision.
- Prioritize trust, comfort, and ease. When done well, professional coaching is deep work that requires tremendous trust and safety. While trust is always built and nurtured over time, initial rapport is a key shortcut to kickstarting the process. Why waste time, or add an unnecessary obstacle to an already challenging experience like coaching? Choosing a coach is not the time to stretch into your discomfort zone. For instance, if you’re white, avoid picking a coach of color primarily to demonstrate your commitment to racial equity. In general, avoid selecting a coach mainly because they check a box for you (woman, person of color, worked in your field, former senior leader, etc.). Professional coaches aren’t mentors or advisors, so our demographics and knowledge are less useful than our listening skills, process skills, and emotional intelligence. If checking a box is critical to your trust, however – many BIPOC clients prefer a BIPOC coach for legitimate reasons of trust and safety – don’t ignore it. Your reasons for the box and its importance are more important than the box itself.
- Go with your gut, not their resume. You are not hiring a coach to complete a task, demonstrate technical expertise, or give you advice. Therefore, a coach does not need to have been in your organization, role, or field to be a highly effective “facilitator of your self-discovery”. Many organizations and clients make the mistake of requiring coaches to have worked in their same industry, or the mistake of requiring an executive coach to have been an executive themselves. Not only do such requirements eliminate excellent coaches from the pool, they’re based on a misunderstanding of what coaching is, creating narrowness that may not serve you. While enough similarity between you and your coach is important to build trust and rapport, too much similarity can prevent your coach from posing truly provocative questions or providing mind-opening feedback. Your blind spots will also be theirs.
In my experience, coaching clients who follow these suggestions are more likely to choose a coach that’s a good fit. Fit provides the foundation for a safe, yet rigorous coaching relationship – and that relationship provides the container where transformation happens.
And isn’t your transformation worth the effort to find the right partner to get you there?