In theory the first sign should be a qualification. ICF, EMCC, ILM and the Association for Coaching are the main accrediting bodies for leadership coaches. They all exist to uphold a certain standard of coaching, and require that coaches exhibit self-awareness and relational skills, and learn accepted models, techniques and ethics, but two coaches with the same accrediting body can still have very different approaches to coaching.
For instance, we offer ICF, ILM and EMCC accredited courses to the coaches we train. But our method is interactive, as much about personal self-development as learning skills to teach others. Our approach produces a very different kind of coach to lecture-based courses with the same accreditation. So if qualifications aren’t the clearest indicator of an effective coach, what should you look for?
1) They have a personal approach
There really isn’t a substitute for this. The wisest person in business can be teaching you, but it isn’t effective coaching unless it deals specifically with the individual. Inspirational talks and large group sessions are valuable. But they do not allow a person to grapple with their underlying issues: their dualities, doubts and fears. A face-to-face approach creates space for such things to come to the surface so they can be addressed.
2) They listen more than they speak
If a coach is secure, they don’t need to prove they are an expert. Beware of coaches that are overly-quick to diagnose or to give their opinion. They are likely to be afraid of dealing with the unknown or with nuances. Maybe they are even more worried about losing their reputation as the one who knows everything. But coaches shouldn’t know everything. In fact, they should be very comfortable with the fact that they know very little. Any ‘answers’ will come with time and probably not from a coach’s external perspective.
3) They are curious and open-minded
Remaining curious allows a coach to keep asking questions instead of arriving at a premature conclusion. Every coach will come to a situation with a narrative of what they suspect is going on. It is their job to ignore that narrative, to recognise their own judgements as partially or totally false, and to stay open-minded. When a coach has this capacity, dialogue can progress to a place where new perspective can be gained by both coach and coachee.
4) They address beliefs above behaviour
There are so many principles that can be taught, so many behavioural tendencies to find and correct. But the overall effect of this kind of coaching is to pile additional weight on an already-fractured back. Unless underlying beliefs are given far more attention than symptomatic behaviour, any ‘progress’ made through a coaching session will likely be short-lived and shallow.
5) They are growing themselves
Every coach needs to be coached. On an ongoing basis. If a coach feels they have outgrown their need for coaching, empathy will come less easily to them and they may have forgotten what it feels like to be in the hot seat. Coaches can also only take you as far as they have gone themselves. It’s not worth having a coach who hasn’t gone far and it is worse still if a coach feels they have ‘arrived’.
6) They are authentic
The best coaches are the fullest versions of themselves. The haven’t hidden their humanity under a cloak of pseudo-professionalism and expertise. Conversation with them leads quickly to a click – a real connection with a real person. You feel at ease in their presence and they help you bring your authentic self to the table too.
7) They understand your context
“No baby without a mother, no leader without a context”, says Manfred Kets de Vries. Every leader is both limited and empowered by their organisation to varying degrees. If a coach understands exactly how, they will be far better equipped to deliver meaningful coaching. At the very least, coaches need to understand organisational structures and how they work.
8) They don’t oversimplify
Coaches seem to love their acronyms. Especially if it sounds catchy or motivational. They generally seem to be made up of 4-5 letters as well, which means there are only 4-5 easy steps before you are PURE or become SMART. Memorable learning has its advantage. But it also has its limits. Tools have the potential to be helpful but humans are complicated creatures whose lives seem to colour outside the lines of formulae. Be careful of coaches that don’t recognise this.
9) They don’t give the answers
To quote Manfred Kets de Vries again, “When I coach teams, it regularly happens that I look around and ask myself ‘What in heaven is going on here?’ Then I just wait. Waiting is the art of letting the answers come up.”
Any meaningful answers will come from within an individual or team. And usually after they have wrestled with some difficult, probing and personal questions. A coach needs to be comfortable with the awkwardness of offering nothing but another question. This way, everybody experiences discomfort for a while – sometimes a long while – but on the other side something of value is often discovered.
10) They have a holistic approach
If there seems to be little separating your leadership coach from a life coach, it’s probably a good sign. Leaders are people before they are leaders. And their business practices will come from their very personal sense of identity. Work can be an opportunity to bring meaning to life and a flourishing life can result in successful work.
11) They have a clear objective
Is the focus of a leadership coach to increase performance or wellbeing? Is it to encourage personal growth or to unlock creativity? Are they all linked? Work out what your own objective is and see if it aligns with what the coach claims to offer.
12) They know what they can promise
If a coach claims they can change anything quickly or totally, they are overpromising. Coaching is a part of a greater process that takes time. Coaches are not magicians, even if they put on their best wise-wizard performance. A secure coach who has a lot to offer will be humbly realistic about what they can give.
13) They invest in the long game
The best coaches are looking to benefit you years down the line, long after you have forgotten them. They are not after producing a fast result that proves their market value. They are about doing the hard work that brings about lasting change slowly.
14) They have clear vision and values
A great coach will not compromise their values if you ask them and they will certainly know what those values are. They know the difference they want to make in the coaching and business world. If a coach doesn’t know this, it is unlikely they will able to help leaders stay true to their own vision and values.
15) They know how to create transitional space
Creating a safe place to experiment and explore the unknown is not easily done. But a great coach will have done exactly that for years on end. If everyone feels free to be candid, to be vulnerable, to uncover the new – then hold onto your coach for all they are worth. They won’t give all the answers, work miracles or make everything easy. But they will create space to ask better questions. And who knows where that might lead?