The frog prince

Gives tips on how to choose a coach
Karen Moloney

Choosing a coach can be a minefield but by asking some probing questions and listening to what they say, it need not be a nightmare

You should read this article if you are looking for a coach, either as an individual, or on behalf of an organisation, or if you’re a coach who is curious about how people choose your services. You will also find it interesting if you like kissing frogs. Quite simply, there are two ways of choosing a coach: the formal competitive tender and the “scratch and sniff” method. The first is familiar to most of us and involves a thorough process resulting in a full appraisal of options and, hopefully, a clear brief and agreed contract. The second draws you into a journey of discovery, which can involve achingly tedious meetings with misguided do-gooders, people with their own “issues” and those who just want to tell you what to do: the good, the bad and the ugly. This second method may, but only if you’re lucky, eventually result in the discovery of your ideal coach; the frog may turn into a prince, but what are the odds? Using a mixture of the two methods usually improves them.

The first trawl for names

Both approaches begin with the same first step: asking around for suitable names. If you’re already in the HR business, then you should have contacts who have used coaches before. In this case, you shouldn’t have to spend more than a few hours on the phone unearthing some suitable coaches. But bear in mind that they will be the usual suspects; on the circuit, familiar with your type of business, familiar with the process. If you’re looking for something more unusual, or want specific industry expertise, or you’re picky (must be a female vegan with automotive experience), you may have to dig deeper. But where?

A search of a coach database might yield more names than your contacts can come up with, but most of them simply list their members’ details and there’s little quality assurance. One exception is the International Coaching Federation, which assures coaches by accrediting the length and quality of their training, the length and depth of their experience and by a testing assessment ( But again, these names will come without the personal recommendation you may need to feel secure.

Asking the right questions

This brings me to step two. Once you’ve created a list of names, you need to contact them to see if it is worth meeting them. Their websites will yield quite a bit about their approach, but you will need to talk to see if you feel comfortable with them. Remember, there are many different types of coach (life coaches, executive coaches, business coaches, those who work with individuals, those who work with teams… even Relate counsellors who offer their services to businesses helping colleagues improve their relationships with each other). So be clear what kind of coach you need for your particular challenges.

The best questions to ask are those you remember after you put the phone down, so do prepare in advance. Just like any interview, start with open questions to get the coaches talking, then narrow them down, interrogating their answers, giving them the third degree until you’re sure you’ve got a clear picture of what it would be like to work with them. Of course, you’ll be interested in their answers, but you are also looking for other clues as to the kind of person they are and what good they will be to you. So listen to the things they choose to say first, for these are often their priorities.

Listen to the silences between the lines, for these occur when they have to think, which could suggest either a lack of knowledge and experience or a careful consideration of your question and an unhurried approach. Listen to how they describe their experiences and their referees. Are they careful about divulging confidential information? Have they thought about who will give you the most objective, representative picture of what they can do? A good coach wants to be helpful, so give them the opportunity to say no if they feel they’re not right for you. Those who simply chase your business are unlikely to be experienced enough, confident enough or busy enough to be worth having.

Lastly, make sure they are interested in you and your problem. Make them get it out of you – be stingy with information, and see how good they are at opening you up. Try throwing in a few contradictions to see if they notice and a few confusions to see if they clarify them before jumping to conclusions. Test them out. After all, if they can’t handle your questions, can they handle your answers?

Kissing the frog

When you’ve found a few who match your criteria, it’s time to meet. In the competitive tendering business, this is called the beauty parade, where suppliers can strut their stuff and purchasers can test out the chemistry. Meeting face to face, especially if they agree to a free first meeting, is vital. You should be looking for these things.

  • An appropriate style: if it’s clarity you’re after, choose someone who is less directional and happy to listen, asks the right questions and is supportive and patient. If you feel you need a kick up the pants, choose someone who will nag you, challenge you and not accept excuses.
  • The right qualifications: if you need help with issues such as low self-esteem, sense of identity, burn-out or severe stress, you might be better with a professional counsellor or psychotherapist rather than a coach, so check out the person’s qualifications to handle such issues in depth or ask them to refer you to a suitably qualified clinician.
  • Empathy: a good coach will push you to think deeply about issues, confront your demons, listen to what is being reflected back to you, be honest, surmount obstacles and reflect on your life and career to find patterns of behaviour, so look for someone who will push you but at the same time support you, care for you and pick you up when you stumble.
  • Clarity: don’t skimp on the contracting phase: coaching needs to have a ring-fenced budget or it can become open-ended, so be sure what you will be getting and how much you will be paying for it.

The cheaper option, costing you only the price of a coffee or dinner, is a sympathetic friend. But remember that with a professional coach you are paying for privacy, discretion, personal attention, skilful inquisition, wisdom and someone who listens without answering back or waiting for their turn to speak. Friends can’t guarantee all those things. So go ahead, if you’re looking to choose or change your coach, kiss a few frogs. If you’re a frog, make sure you smell good enough to be scratched and sniffed, and then, you never know, you may get kissed.

Your list could include:

  • What do you aim to achieve with your clients?
  • Can you describe the way you like to work?
  • Is your approach based on any particular school of thought or theory? Do you use any particular techniques or processes? How do you decide which ones to use for which clients/circumstances/events?
  • How much experience do you have in my area/sector/level?
  • Can you describe a particular coaching assignment you’ve completed? What were the challenges? What were the outcomes? What did you learn from the experience? Have you changed the way you do things since?
  • Have you got any qualifications in coaching? If so, what are they and what did you have to do to get them?
  • Can you put me in touch with anyone who has used you in the past?

And the all-important question (particularly if you are paying for these services out of your own pocket):

  • How do you charge and what is it likely to cost?

Lastly, it’s always worth asking whether they would be happy to meet face to face before you commit.