Finding a coach: The perfect match

Making sure coach and subject are well-matched should be a key objective for those charged with arranging coaching. The experts give their tips for success. By Stephanie Sparrow.

Coaching marriages are not made in heaven, but actually in the boardroom or on the telephone. So, without divine intervention, what is the guarantee of success? What will assure the perfect match? As the profession strives to find the perfect formula for return on investment calculations, does a similar equation exist to facilitate the perfect coaching relationship?

Such questions preoccupy David Gray, professor of management learning at the University of Surrey. Gray has researched the process for matching coach and coachee in a sample of 200 managers and the eventual impact of coaching on the business. He wanted to reveal the decisions behind the choosing and using.

Gray’s starting point was the premise that the coachee needs to know everything about the potential coach on offer and about the sponsor’s aspirations. “We believe it is important to set up a rigorous system that is transparent to everyone,” he says.


As a result, he offered each coachee a booklet of the coaches’ biographies, which included photographs, qualifications, philosophy and experience.

“Each coachee was asked to select three potential coaches, who they then contacted by e-mail, phone or in face-to-face meetings to see if a natural empathy existed,” says Gray.

Initial findings indicated that gender was a trigger for expectations about empathy. The qualitative data suggested that female coaches were preferred by both sexes: the female coachees felt their own sex were good role models, and the men felt that a female coach would be the best option when discussing personal issues.

But the statistical analysis found no evidence of bias to male or female, and upon talking to the coachees, Gray discovered that even when given a lot of information about the coaches, they based their choice on quite subjective criteria. “The factors were instinct and empathy – they define empathy as similarity of outlook – and the word ‘intuitive’ is also important,” he says.

So where does this leave the sponsor or ‘bill payer’? What can they do to ensure a successful match?

“First of all, it comes down to offering sufficient choice,” he says. “Make the biographies transparent to the coachee, and then decide whether the matching process will be done through psychometric testing or, and this is my preference, that they meet up and discover whether they have a rapport.”

Gray admits that the matching of coaches and coachees is unscientific, but is adamant that it is worth spending the time on getting it right. “It takes time,” he admits. “But a mismatch costs more and potentially can do a lot of damage to people and organisations.”

At Psychological Intelligence, part of ADInternational, managing director Julie Hay says organisations need to get away from some of the practicalities, such as journey time between coaching sessions, which often influence coaching matchmaking.

“It often wrongly comes down to geographical and hierarchical issues,” she says. “But organisations need to be thinking of the coach’s skills.”

Hay, who is also president of the European Mentoring and Coaching Council, is wary of trying to get an exact character match.

“Matching on personality style is too cosy and looking for a contrast is too much of a challenge,” she says.

The idea of personal chemistry can be problematic, says professor David Lane of the Centre for the Study of Coaching at the University of Middlesex. “It can’t be measured and it is a catch-all,” he says.

He says that it is time to get away from the chemistry label. “It is better to think in terms of a philosophy match rather than a personality match. A clash of values can sit underneath what people talk about in terms of a personal chemistry.”

Lane has some advice on the mutual values that a coachee and sponsor should look for in a potential coach. He says: “You need to look at the extent to which the coach understands the organisation’s vision and mission, and how far the coach and coachee have similar ideas about development and learning.”

Lane says that the coachee and sponsor should also take into consideration the specific objectives for coaching, and the type of coaching process, such as whether it should be focused on performance or growth, which the coach would have to offer to meet that particular need.

So the coachee needs to follow a line of questioning, but so does the coach, as Robin Linnecar, founding partner of the Praesta consultancy, points out.

“Whenever I am approached by a potential client and asked who I can provide [as a coach], I ask if they have had coaching before, and what do they understand by coaching,” he says.


Linnecar says that before a consultancy can even field a few candidates, it is important to know whether the requirement for coaching has been driven by personal or corporate needs.

Yet even if the coaching is corporately driven, it is still up to the coachee to have the final decision. “The coachee should drive the agenda and should have the choice of coach,” he says.

Linnecar has highlighted the dilemma that lies at the heart of the corporate coaching experience: how much influence should the bill payer have, and to what aspects of the coaching relationship should they be privy?

At the Association for Coaching, vice-president Gladeana McMahon advises that clear parameters are set in place to manage the boundaries of the relationship.

“There should be a behavioural contract, which sets out the overall objectives and outcomes. And at the same time, the coaching client, the coach and the sponsoring organisation need to work out what feedback mechanism they will use,” she says.

McMahon plumps for a written report on feedback, with the types of “quotable feedback” decided in advance of the sessions. She also recommends the use of mini feedback at the end of each coaching session. “Fast and regular feedback can help keep the coaching relationship alive,” she says. “If the coachee isn’t responding because they don’t really want the coaching, then the coach can refer back to the behavioural contract.”


For McMahon, successful matchmaking depends on preliminary research. This would involve understanding the coaching issue that the coachee is presenting and recommending a coach who has the appropriate sector experience, and above all a “chemistry meeting”.

McMahon, who is a partner in Fairplace Consulting, says that there has to be a personality match and that the coachee has to be given enough choice.

“Some people like to choose a couple of coaches whose profile they like, or they meet with two coaches and see what appeals to them. That meeting consolidates their view, because in coaching you can have the right credentials and background, but if you don’t gel it won’t work.”

Lots of choice is crucial, says Jeremy Cross, senior consultant at performance development consultancy Lane4. Cross presents his HR clients, who sponsor the coaching, with a pool of ready-screened coaches who have provided profiles. He also subscribes to the concept of a chemistry meeting.

“The first key pillar of coaching is building a relationship. At the end of the meeting, I would ask the coachee: ‘Do you trust the coach? Would you be able to disclose enough?’. Our coaching model says that building rapport is the most important thing.”

Top tips:

David Gray has these top tips on successful matchmaking and for keeping the coaching marriage on course:

  • Look at the coach’s ethics and make sure they are compatible with those of your organisation.
  • Establish a steering group for any coaching programme. Its aim is to outline and identify the objectives. The group should contain key stakeholders from senior management in the department that is receiving the coaching, the HR sponsor and a representative of the consultancy delivering the coaching.
  • Set up evaluation processes and a feedback loop. This does not mean the coachee’s confidentiality should be compromised, but that emerging themes can be highlighted without revealing the coachee’s identity.

Further info

Psychological Intelligence (part of ADInternational)


Association for Coaching


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