The one certainty about finding an external coach is that there are lots to choose from. At least 3,000 coaches are registered with the six leading coaching organisations in the UK. However, thousands more are non-members, so where should the buyer begin?
“There are certain things that need to happen before you even engage the coach,” says Myles Downey, head of the School of Coaching at the Work Foundation.
“Very often, insufficient work is done with internal agencies such as HR to establish what the need is, and there is a danger that people think: ‘Here’s a senior person, let’s call a coach’. We often put senior people into coaching when it’s not the right solution,” he says.
Yet although there is a need for careful questioning and research, Downey warns against a mechanistic tick-box approach when interviewing an external coach.
He says: “Asking how many hours’ coaching someone has done is not as effective as asking: ‘Can this person actually coach?’.”
Downey recommends a route to that answer by asking direct questions such as:
- Tell me what you think coaching is.
- Tell me how it would add value as a whole.
- Can you describe where you have added value and can I speak to the individual and the organisation?
- What did you achieve, and how did the organisation benefit?
Probing questions and research may help find the right coach, but what about their other credentials? Do they have any of the emerging raft of qualifications?
Professor of psychology Stephen Palmer has a few words of caution. He is a director of the Coaching Psychology Unit at City University, which he established to research the psychology that underpins coaching practice.
“It is important that the coaching qualifications are university accredited, and recognised by one of the main professional bodies, such as the Association for Coaching,” he says.
David Clutterbuck, founder of the European Mentoring Coaching Council, says some companies now demand to see qualifications.
“We are beginning to see a trend from multinational organisations across Europe that ‘if you are going to coach our senior people, you must have the equivalent to a masters’ degree’.”
But at fashion retailer Claire’s Accessories, learning and development manager Gillian Ince is unimpressed by qualifications.
“These still don’t tell the buyer anything except that the holder has a qualification,” she says. “They don’t tell you anything about the coach’s style or if it fits the organisation or the coachee.”
The one qualification she would be impressed by is in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) – particularly NLP master practitioners. “NLP and coaching are so close anyway,” she says. “I am a great believer in NLP. It’s about understanding how people work, it’s about getting into someone’s world.”
Ince occasionally acts as a coach for her own organisation when following up 360-degree appraisals. She believes she has an insight into the process and finds external coaches through word of mouth.
Instinct and a sense of whether they will ‘fit’ with the coachee and the culture play their part, but the buyer’s viewpoint has to be sidelined when writing the brief.
“Keep the brief objective,” Ince says. “For example, base your comments on information from a 360-degree feedback and don’t put your spin on it.”
And how will the organisation know if their money is being well spent? Coaching is intended to be a confidential process, which can make it difficult to discuss its effectiveness.
“You have to set some milestones, or a mechanism such as 360-degree feedback,” says Ince. “You also need a timeline or set of expectations for a coach, as coaching is so fluid it can carry on unchecked.”
The massive impact of coaching in the UK workplace over the past five years has created a lot of anxiety over finding the right person. But it needn’t be that way, says Paul Fairhurst, principal consultant in coaching at the Institute for Employment Studies.
“Why is buying coaching different from buying in consultancy or training?” says Fairhurst. “Think what process you would go through to buy them in. Don’t be scared by it.”
Case study: Panasonic
At Panasonic UK, training manager David Gibson starts the hunt for suitable coaches with an internet search for high-profile ones. He compiles a shortlist and asks three or four to come in for an interview.
Gibson recruits coaches to help managers on the organisation’s Future Leaders programme. They are likely to offer some face-to-face and telephone coaching.
He says a certain chemistry is required to make the coaching relationship work and, although Gibson is responsible for the initial introductions, he is not the matchmaker.
“We get people in for one hour with the staff. Then we allow the staff member to choose whom they are prepared to work with,” he says.
Coaches are not employed on fixed contracts – they keep a log of the time spent on telephone coaching and of face-to-face meetings. The meetings are driven by the coachee’s need.
“If someone requires face-to-face or the coach says they need to come in then we don’t challenge it,” he says.
The time spent on the coachee’s personal development feeds directly back into the company, Gibson says. “Our future leaders learn how to coach our internal people. They receive coaching so that we can develop our own people.”