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How to Find the Right Coach

Find a coach that works for you.

Finding the coach that's best for you is easier said than done. "Unemployed executives used to say they were 'consultants,'" complains James Flaherty, a 12-year veteran of the executive coaching business. "Now they say they're 'coaches.' The coaching business isn't regulated by anyone, and that's hurting us."

To combat the rampant appropriation of the term "coach" by has-been therapists, Flaherty has developed a coach certification program through his San Francisco-based firm, New Ventures West. His certification course takes one year to complete. Total graduates to date? Five.

At least two other businesses have launched certification programs of their own: Success Unlimited Network, a Reston, Virginia-based firm that's certified 20 coaches since 1987. The San Francisco-based Coaches Training Institute, co-founded in 1992 by Laura Whitworth and Henry House, has certified about 50 coaches. Then there's Coach University, founded in 1992 by Thomas Leonard, who claims a "couple dozen" graduates of his two-year, Internet coaching program.

All these firms offer free referrals to coaches who've completed their programs. But to find the right coach, you need to be resourceful and do a lot of your own research, too.

When it comes time to interviewing prospective coaches, here are five questions to ask yourself — questions that will take you beyond the obvious:

1. Is this person really a coach, or just a consultant in disguise?

"Consultants give you answers. Coaches ask you questions," insists James Flaherty. "Hiring a coach is not like hiring a lawyer. It's not about getting an expert. If your coach claims a level of expertise that you can never attain, that's a big red flag."

2. Does the coach have a strict code of ethics?

To get the best results, you'll need to be completely honest with your coach. Look for a coach who insists on total confidentiality, as unbreachable as the attorney-client privilege.

Flaherty has developed a model for coaches that resembles a psychologist's code of ethics: it includes absolute confidentiality and respect for the boundaries set by a client, and aims to leave the client with the capacity to improve — without further help from the coach. Check to see that your coach has a similar code.

3. What will this coach actually do for me?

To get specific results, be specific about what you need. "Say to your prospective coach, 'Here's what I want to do. What do you know about it, and how can you help me?'" advises Whitworth. Try to establish a level of detail where you know exactly what will happen if you work together. Will your coach meet with other managers in your organization? With your team? Your boss? If things aren't working, is there a contingency plan? Asking for specifics helps you avoid a coach who's strong on charisma and weak on substance.

4. Does the proposed program match my needs?

A coach's game plan must be consistent with your real life, says Flaherty. If you've been asked to make an unreasonable time commitment, or to change your lifestyle in ways that don't feel doable, look for another coach. Thomas Leonard, for example, trains coaches to operate almost exclusively by email or over the telephone, in deference to managers' busy schedules.

5. Is the financial picture clear?

"What's your fee?" shouldn't be your first question, and it shouldn't be your last, either. Advises Flaherty: "Make sure you understand exactly what it is you're paying for."

Coordinates: New Ventures West, 800-332-4618; Success Unlimited Network, 703-716-8374; Coaches Training Institute, 415-274-7551; Coach University, 800-482-6224

A version of this article appeared in the October/November 96 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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