Professional coaching – a buyers’ guide

At this time of year, just about every email that lands in my mailbox heralds a new opportunity to buy that perfect present for a special person in my life.

While my response to this marketing bombardment is usually a groan of ‘bah humbug’, I am (secretly) grateful for the early prompts. It always feels much more productive to plan my gift shopping in advance than spend a frenzied Christmas Eve armed with a long list of recipients but zero inspiration.

And the same principle applies when selecting the right professional coach: appointing a coach will be a poor use of resources if you do not give yourself time to assess the needs of your organisation, the developmental needs of the individuals concerned and the different coaching options.

I first wrote about the challenge of buying coaching1 with my fellow coach Graham Lee ten years ago. Back then we suggested a three-stage strategy:

1.   Identify the purpose of a coaching programme
Be clear about the outcome you want e.g. developing leadership potential, improving interpersonal skills, promoting team effectiveness, addressing under-performance. It’s also important to decide whether you are buying 1:1 or group coaching. The latter might be a more cost-effective way to make coaching more widely accessible across your organisation.

2.   Select a coach
Check a prospective coach’s credentials and relevant experience. They should have a high level of self-awareness; be able to apply their knowledge of the psychology of change to the real world of work; and most importantly, they must have their own supervisor to help them work to the highest ethical standards. If in doubt, ask for a short coaching session to address a challenge you are facing. Not only will you be able to assess their skills for yourself but it’s amazing what you can learn in 5 minutes.

3.   Manage the process
Work with the coach and your employee to set an achievable agenda with clear objectives and determine the evaluation criteria. Once a coaching programme has started, a coach’s ethical duty of confidentiality obliges them to feedback directly to their client. So make sure you express your expectations clearly – otherwise you may be disappointed when you meet with both to review progress according to the agreed criteria and discuss any outstanding issues.

While this advice is still valid, coaching is an evolving specialty and I would argue that today’s organisations have an additional choice to make: whether to work with a coach who is prepared to address wellbeing.

It is widely recognised that wellbeing is an important contributor to an employee’s long-term productivity and outlook at work. What’s more, employers are increasingly being encouraged to promote wellbeing within their organisations to foster a healthier and more engaged workforce.

In my opinion, coaching provides an excellent opportunity to help people manage their own wellbeing in a confidential setting, while helping them overcome difficulties that may be holding them back.

However, coaches have traditionally been reluctant to work with individuals on personal matters, even if these are affecting their performance at work. Indeed, many still prefer to direct these clients to a counsellor or avoid addressing these issues altogether.

There is nothing wrong with this approach but it does place the onus on you to be clear about what you want from a coach, research the options and ask the right questions. When it comes to buying coaching services, success is 90% preparation and 10% perspiration. Much like finding that perfect Christmas gift.


1 How to… buy coaching, Graham Lee and Liz Pick, People Management Magazine, 11 March 2004