How to Buy Coaching

Published in People Management 11 March 2004. Co-author, Graham Lee

Anyone responsible for buying coaching will be aware of the challenge of meeting the needs of both the organisation and the individual being coached. The process outlined below should help you strike the right balance and source the best possible coach.

1 – Identify the Purpose of a Coaching Programme

Unless the purpose of coaching has been clearly defined, it will be difficult to select the right person to carry it out. Coaching is commonly used to develop leadership potential, enhance individuals' influence and improve interpersonal skills. It is also widely used to promote team effectiveness and support individuals during career transitions.

When identifying the purpose of a proposed coaching programme, you may find it useful to consider:

  • What are the developmental goals for the organisation?
  • What are the developmental goals for the individual?
  • What will happen if the organisation does not provide any coaching?
  • What effect do you hope the coaching will have?
  • Should the coaching be aimed at one individual or a group of people?

In the case of underperformance we would offer a word of caution. Coaching can be effective where individuals have previously shown potential but need to be supported through a difficult patch. A coach can also help those who have rare strengths or talents but may not perform well in all aspects of their roles. But using coaching to raise the performance of people who are actually in the wrong job can be a poor use of resources. While an organisation may choose to help individuals decide on alternative careers, this kind of support should be distinguished from coaching.

2 – Select the Coach

The selection of a coach is linked to the individual’s development needs. A key question to consider at this stage is whether available coaches are able to provide a blend of psychological know-how and technical skills knowledge. If you need to make a trade-off between these capabilities, you will have to decide which is most important for the individuals being coached. The panel (facing page) compares what each type has to offer.

Two types of coaches

The psychologically minded coach’s purpose is to:

  • link individual style to the practical achievement of organisational goals;
  • facilitate self-awareness as the foundation for change;
  • build self-belief, confidence and interpersonal competence.

Psychologically minded coaches need:

  • evidence of psychological and businessmindedness, and relationship development;
  • ability to translate insights into change.

The skills coach's purpose is to:

  • impart specific knowledge and technical skills;
  • examine strengths and weaknesses;
  • help managers handle situations more effectively.

Skills coaches need:

  • relevant expertise and experience of the manager's industry, organisation and functional role;
  • an encouraging and motivational interpersonal style.

Evaluating the psychological ability of a coach is perhaps the most important part of the process. If a coach is to act as an enabler, he or she should have a solid grounding in the theory and practice of one-to-one working. This can be gained in various ways, with a qualification in counselling or coaching usually a minimum requirement.

A coach almost always needs to have an understanding of the complex dynamics within organisations. So the person would ideally have experience of working in organisations in different capacities. Anyone working one-to-one with clients on their selfawareness, thinking and behaviour patterns should have invested a significant amount of time in developing their own selfawareness. That usually means spending at least a year in personal counselling or psychotherapy.

It is considered good practice – and in our view essential – for a coach to work with a supervisor. This is someone with extensive experience of counselling or psychotherapy who acts as a coach to the coach.

Identifying the technical skills required of a coach is more straightforward. In addition to expertise in the areas the client wants to develop, anyone in a coaching role needs excellent communication skills.

3 – Manage the Process

The role of the organisation in managing the coaching process can significantly influence its success. Areas that need attention include:

Agenda setting
If the organisation expects coaching to bring about change, this should be communicated to the individuals concerned. They will need to know what changes their employer hopes to see, how these will be measured and what the consequences will be if those changes do not occur. The coach needs to be involved in setting the agenda to ensure it is achievable. Input from line managers, colleagues and customers at this stage can greatly enhance a programme.
Confidentiality
For coaching to succeed, a formal confidentiality arrangement between the individual and coach is essential. Once coaching has started, the coach needs to deliver all feedback directly to the individual being coached.
Evaluating the coaching
It is important to decide before coaching starts how it will be evaluated. Where the aim is to change negative behaviour patterns, you will need to monitor how often negative incidents occur and how extreme they are. Before the end of the programme it is useful to review progress with those who set the original agenda. This ensures effective evaluation of the coaching, while allowing the coach to address any outstanding issues.
Organisational attitudes
People are likely to be more receptive to the offer of coaching if they can see it is used in a variety of situations. If coaching is used mainly to tackle underperformance or is linked to compulsory role changes, there is likely to be resistance.
Individual attitudes
If individuals are to gain from coaching, they will need to be willing to reflect on how they do things and have the motivation to change. So consider how each candidate fares in these areas, and set expectations accordingly.

Professional standards in the coaching ‘industry’ vary widely. We would therefore strongly advise organisations to manage all of the above areas themselves and not rely on their suppliers.

Questions to ask a prospective coach

  • What training have you undertaken relating to your coaching practice?
  • What work experience do you have?
  • How have you gained your understanding of organisational dynamics?
  • Do you have your own coach or supervisor? If so, what are their credentials?
  • Have you undergone your own counselling? If yes, for how long?