Hiring An Executive Coach? Be Aware Of These Five Risks

One of the biggest problems for the coaching "industry" is that there are no barriers to entry—anybody can hang out a shingle. The lesson? Proceed with caution.

Coaching is having a moment. Whether reflected in pop culture—episodes of “Silicon Valley” and “Billions” come to mind—or through a quick scroll of your LinkedIn feed, it seems that lately everyone is either seeking an executive coach or claiming to be one.

While it’s great for a spotlight to shine on the value of developing better leaders, there is a risky side to coaching’s popularity as well. CEOs who are thinking about hiring an executive coach need to be aware of these risks in order to avoid potentially disastrous results for both their organizations and themselves.

Consider this real-life situation. A senior partner at a major private equity firm had received negative feedback about his ability to delegate. While he did not really see this as a problem, the firm got him to agree to meet with an executive coach to work on this essential leadership skill. The coach had come highly recommended, and the two shared an instant rapport and started meeting frequently. But what emerged over the next few weeks was not what the organization needed or had expected. It turned out that the executive reminded the coach of her beloved, recently deceased father. As a result, the coach lost all objectivity and fell into the role of an advocate, essentially reinforcing her client’s incorrect beliefs that the negative feedback he received was unfair and not rooted in fact.

The coach may have been well-intentioned, but the unconscious and unrecognized feelings between them resulted in driving a deeper wedge between the executive and the other senior partners. This caused enduring internal conflicts at the organization and damaged the credibility of the chief human resources officer, who had brought in the coach but was now being forced to lobby against this external expert she once endorsed. Because of this misguided and likely under-trained coach, the executive saw no need to change his behavior and the entire matter was abruptly and awkwardly dropped. Turnover on his team rose over the next few months, leading to reputational damage and collegial relationships getting harmed beyond repair.

One of the biggest problems the coaching “industry” faces is that there are no barriers to entry. Anyone can call themselves an executive coach. This carries considerable risk for the individual being coached, for the sponsor and for the firm. Undertrained or unscrupulous coaches can make false promises or follow instincts that are blatantly self-serving and do real damage to leaders and organizations. Here are some pitfalls that organizations must stay aware of and what they can do about them:

Risk 1: Overpromising, underdelivering

Executive coaching is essentially a framework to help motivated professionals learn new behaviors. Learning and adapting to new practices takes time and effort, so be wary of anyone who offers simple solutions or quick fixes. Executed effectively, coaching results in what psychologist Dr. Robert Kegan refers to as ‘transformational learning,’ i.e., significant growth in key aspects of oneself and one’s leadership behaviors resulting in meaningful individual and organizational change. Coaching involves intimate knowledge of the environment surrounding the executive and an awareness of the behavioral reinforcements and cultural variables that can function as roadblocks. A credible coach should be able to identify and articulate all the forces that maintain behavioral patterns and come up with a cogent plan to address them.

Risk 2: Looking for a gravy train

Coaching should never occur in an open-ended, unstructured, ‘what-do-you-want-to-work-on-today?’ context. From the outset, the coach must talk to the client about the end point, the finish line, and the measurable goals the working relationship needs to achieve together. Always consider coaching within a fixed time limit with compensation driven by measurable results. Many self-serving coaches are quite effective at creating dependencies in otherwise highly accomplished and senior executives. Whether unconsciously or consciously, a coach can manipulate the relationship to draw out the professional service relationship. An active sponsor, such as a chief human resources officer, and a regularly reviewed, written coaching plan with milestones helps keep both parties on target to the finish line.

Risk 3: Ignoring internal dynamics

As noted above, coaches can’t successfully work with a client unless they fully understand the structure and culture of the organization in which they are working. Leaders don’t exist in a vacuum; leadership and culture are two sides of the same coin. I recall a situation where a coach was brought into a “born digital” organization to work with the head of sales – a tough and very specific job for which the coach had expertise. This organization was based on a flat structure and had a fast-moving culture where teamwork and collaboration were paramount, while the coach’s experience and style were rooted in more hierarchal companies. As a result, the coach’s formal and chain-of-command approach was a complete mismatch and he couldn’t convey and transfer his knowledge and advice effectively. The lesson: culture must be part of the assessment process during selection. A coach who has been successful in one environment will not necessarily be successful in another.

Risk 4: Not understanding how people change

Coaching in business is a different discipline from other forms of professional training. Coaching requires knowledge of psychology and adult development, and while coaches don’t have to be psychologists to be effective, it certainly helps. At minimum, coaches should be able to demonstrate more than a superficial understanding of how working adults learn and grow. Coaches who are not trained to identify the executive’s unspoken or often unconscious needs and defenses will inevitably collude with them (consider the example at the beginning of this article). For executive coaching to have meaningful impact, consider a coach with a background in psychology, someone who understands that your past experiences are key to who you have become, one who has credible experiences in the business world, and who can constructively and empathically confront both your strengths as well as your weaker areas.

Risk 5: Neglecting their own sensitivities

Finally, a good coach must not only be adept at understanding others – their motivations, insecurities, personality strengths, weaknesses, and the like – but also at understanding themselves. An essential prerequisite is a coach who has not only been trained in how people can change their behavior, but one who is self-aware of his or her own motivations. A good question to ask when selecting an executive coach is whether he or she has been coached before and what that experience was like.  What did they learn about themselves and what was surprising? They should know what it is like to receive 360-degree feedback, for example, and have substantial experience as part of successful organizations and teams. They should also be comfortable discussing coaching engagements that didn’t go well for them.

A Checklist for Hiring an Executive Coach

1. Not ‘one and done’: Interview at least three candidates. Chemistry matters, as does interpersonal style and the ability to listen and to discern what is really being said. Coaching quality varies widely, so give yourself the benefit of choice.

2. Use your network: Personal endorsements based on past direct experience are key. Many executives have some experience with coaching and are happy to talk about it.

3. Check references: Ask the coach’s former clients what they did that was effective and whether they would re-engage with them. If a coach won’t offer at least three references, do not consider using him or her.

4. Understand their background: Ask more than cursory questions about training. One coach I met made sure everyone knew he had a Ph.D. degree. When I pressed him about what specialty he took his degree in, he said with a grin, “Art history, but I let people think I’m a psychologist.”

5. Begin with the end in sight: Have the coach walk you through a typical engagement. This should include some form of initial assessment, a goal- and milestone-setting process, a review process with other stakeholders, a schedule of progress review meetings, and a clear end date.

6. Anticipate the challenge: Be prepared to describe for the coaching candidate something you wish to get better at or a behavior you seek to understand more fully. Have them walk you through their approach.

7. Write it down: Make sure there is a one-page written coaching plan with goals and objectives. Review it monthly. Don’t go off-track or off on a tangent.

8. Set an end date: Before you begin, know when the coaching will end. Don’t move the date unless it is well justified. Watch for signs of increasing dependency on the coach. Remind yourself – and the coach – that this, too, will end.

While the risks involved in hiring a coach are real, they can certainly be managed. Ask the right questions, do your due diligence, and follow a few rules of thumb. For me, those are based on the three C’s: chemistry, character and competence. By giving equal attention to each of these areas while bearing in mind the potential pitfalls, you will maximize your chances of having a coaching experience that delivers lasting results.