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  • Aaron Zaslofsky

How to choose an executive coach

As an executive coach, I’ve had many “chemistry sessions” with prospective clients searching for the most comfortable and illuminating partnership. Some folks arrive well-prepared with questions and discussion topics to identify the best match for themselves. Others prefer an informal conversation without a specific agenda. And some people defer to a leader or HR partner who has experience with the coach, their philosophy, and style.

Any of these approaches can work and I never judge an individual for their style because they know themselves best. That said, it’s important to consider your approach to a chemistry session.

With this in mind, here’s what I’ve learned from these exploratory meetings and what clients say was most important to them when evaluating their options.

Consider each of these factors when you decide on the coach you’ll trust with consequential discussions about your personal exploration and goals.

1.     Chemistry. Chemistry is an intangible feeling you have and the belief you develop in another person. Ultimately, chemistry with a coach comes down to whether you like and trust them as a person. Ask these questions of yourself after an initial chemistry session with a coach:

  • Is this someone with whom I’ll enjoy spending time? Do I like them?

  • Do they inspire trust?

  • Do they seem genuinely interested in me as a person?

  • Do they ask formulaic questions or are they adapting their approach to the specific conversation unfolding in front of them?

The more comfortable you are, the more likely you’ll be to have deeply reflective conversations that lead to your growth.

2.     Differentiation. Some coaches are affiliated with large consultancies like Korn Ferry or smaller, regional firms. Other coaches are independent entrepreneurs and responsible for their own training, continuing education, and approach to coaching. The difference in approach may be apparent as you’re talking to coaches who are affiliated or independent.

So, when you’re checking chemistry with a coach, ask what differentiates their personal approach, not that of the firm, if they’re affiliated. Then, ask yourself if you find their points of differentiation compelling and useful based on your needs. Good coaches work in all types of settings, but make sure you’re buying the individual and their personal approach vs. that of their firm, which will have little bearing on you as a client.

3.     Silence. Silence is a tool coaches use to prompt deeper thought and help you process your feelings in the moment. While silence is certainly not comfortable for everyone, it’s something to covet in a coach. Ask about the coach’s use of silence as a tool for you to discover wisdom within yourself. Will they provide you space to let your mind wander or rest? What’s their approach to silence?

Silence may not seem worthy of a list of primary considerations for selecting a coach. However, it’s impact is seriously underrated when you’re having coaching conversations of real consequence to your life and career.

4.     Truth-telling. This one is hard to gauge in an initial meeting, but a coach should be willing to tell you the truth, even at the expense of the relationship. You want, and deserve, a coach who puts your needs above discomfort they may feel telling you how they see a situation that paints you in an unflattering light or questions your judgement.

Your chemistry with a coach should be able to withstand hard truths that make you uncomfortable. After all, growth comes from discomfort, whether that’s hearing the truth from a coach or telling the truth to yourself.

5.     Training. What’s the source of a coach’s methodology? Is it important that your coach is trained and certified by bodies like the International Coach Federation or European Coaching and Mentoring Council? Or, would you prefer a coach who has shared professional experience and has dealt first-hand with issues you’re likely to discuss? Are both important to you?

There’s no right answer when it comes to training your coach has completed and their professional background. You may find yourself drawn to a coach with a focus on equity and inclusion, one who specializes in working with professionals of a certain level or function, or a coach with expertise in a specific area (e.g., communication skills, team leadership and development, or building trust).

So, ask a coach about their formal training and professional experience. Then, ask how it will contribute to your personal growth and development.

Executive coach styles are as varied as the clients we’re fortunate to serve. This means that the right coach is out there for you, but that responsibility is yours for finding the best match.

Look for an upcoming post with additional factors to consider like:

  • Coach understanding of their own personal biases

  • The coach’s process and style

  • How a coach talks about past clients

  • Creative use of rhetorical questions

  • Balance between macro-level and micro-level conversations


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