Cowboys and coaches

My friend Oscar asked me what sounds like a simple question: “How do you choose a coach for yourself or your team?” Yet there is no easy answer to it.

Professor David Lane, a doyen in the British coach-training industry and active in setting up the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC), was the keynote speaker at the launch of the Coaches and Mentors Association of South Africa (Comensa) a few years ago. He began his talk with a description of medieval guilds.

The criteria for becoming a guild member of one of the 106 professions recognised at that time were:

  • Your body of knowledge;

  • A review of your competences of practice;

  • Your adherence to an ethical code; and

  • Your commitment to pursuing a high standard of client service.
Coaching, however, is a “soft skills” profession and, unlike engineering, accounting or health, it is difficult to pin down the essential “hard skills” that a person practising as a coach should have.

The ethics codes of the International Coaching Federation (ICF), the EMCC and Comensa are known to many coaches, but adherence to a code of ethics is voluntary. There is no process for being “struck off” the roll for breach of conduct.

There’s a Harvard Business Review article titled the “The Wild West of Coaching”.

It is an unregulated profession, with no minimum requirements for anyone to call themselves a coach and set up a practice—not terribly reassuring if you are thinking of getting yourself a coach for the first time.


I think it is important to know whether the person has completed professional training and still better if the courses they have completed are certified and recognised by the coaching bodies mentioned above.

There are many people who naturally have a coaching style in the way they work and I’ve come across people who say: “I’ve always been a coach; it’s just the way I am.”

That may well be true. But I think if someone is serious about earning a living through asking other people to pay them for coaching conversations then it’s a measure of an appropriate humility that they consider that there is something to learn from specialised training.

Even if the person is a clinical psychologist, I think coaching work is significantly different. I would want to know that the person has the additional training.

After that, who you choose as a coach depends a lot on your needs. Personal coach sessions often fall into three categories.

There are people who want to use a coach as a sounding board. There are others who want to explore the “what next?” issues in their lives, or how to finesse their current way of living.

Others, presenting possibly the most difficult coaching challenge, are the people who want to achieve a sustained shift in behaviour.

There are ways of being and working that they would like to change.

As the buyer of coaching services, you are the one who must ask the questions about the person’s training. Life-coach training provides a good basis for decision-making.

Nancy Kline’s Time to Think coach training provides a solid conversational approach both to exploring options and being a sounding board, or a “thinking partner” as she would call it.

If behavioural shift is your goal, coaches who have completed courses that include cognitive behavioural training or meta-coaches who have neuro­linguistic training as foundational to their approach, have considerable success in this area.

Where you meet is an another important consideration. Some coaches and clients are happy to meet in coffee shops or hotel lounges.

Others go to the client’s work place. Some coaches ask their clients to come to their “office/lounge” to ensure a place of privacy, away from distractions.

Some companies have panels of coaches that they’ve “accredited” using their own in-house criteria such as training, experience, supervision and company fit.

Employees may be asked to meet up to three coaches and then make their choice.

Imet someone who said: “I met three. They are all good. I don’t know who to choose.”

They felt a sufficient “chemistry-fit” with each, so what would be the deciding factor?

I asked them: “Who do you think would stretch you most? Who do you think will offer you ‘creative discomfort?’” This was an “ah yes” moment for them. They immediately knew who they would select.

Other clients I know have used “professionalism” as their discerning criterion.

Team coaches need group facilitation skills. It’s essential that they can adjust to the multiple personality styles present in the room and that they set a pace and track the energy momentum.

I hope this gives you, the reader, an idea about questions you might ask. There are so many coaching schools and approaches and there is no blueprint questionnaire.

Besides, some people want a coach who has specific business or sectoral experience.

But if there is one question that overrides such a requirement, it is this: “Will this coach assist me (my team) to do my (our) own best thinking?” After all, in shaping your way forward, you need to own the outcomes of whatever the coaching sessions produce.

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