How to Pick the Best Leadership Coach for You

In many ways, coaching is the new black. I realise leadership coaching is not exactly new as formal coaching arrangements have been increasing since the turn of the century. Much has been written about how to coach, however, there isn’t much guidance on how to choose your coach.

Why is leadership coaching on the increase?

In a time when corporate budgets are tightening and a plethora of inexpensive or even free business education content exists online, the necessity to go on a formal, residential course to improve one’s leadership skills may seem an optional luxury. Some companies are even starting to de-emphasize formal leadership training programs for large-scale coaching interventions.

The use of video technology has also had an impact on coaching efficacy. Through technology a coaching experience can be extremely cost and time effective. It is relatively easy to fit a one hour video call into a busy week and you don’t have to pay for a consultant’s travel time or expenses.

Finally, the perception and focus for individual leadership coaching has shifted from a way for ’fixing’ poor performers to a method for refining leadership skills and enhancing performance.

A personal leadership coach can offer a development experience tailored specifically for an individual’s needs. A few large companies have the luxury of having internal team building, coaching and organization development resources. Employees of the company who specialize in performing this service.  Other companies are providing leaders a budget with which to hire their own external consultant or coach. Some offer both.

Given the choice, internal or external, which should you choose? In this post I will provide my thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of each.

3 Reasons Why an External Coach is Better

  1. The Outsider Advantage. External coaches bring an outside perspective. They regularly work across different companies, industries and functions.  Having access to best practice and an unbiased, fresh perspective is valuable.  They don’t live with you. Their strength comes from being outsiders. They will also go away at the end of the day. This can be useful when political cover is needed for tough decisions.  I had a client once who preferred external coaches for relaying the toughest messages. His logic was that upon delivering the message their reputation would be burned forever and that he couldn’t afford dong this to his permanent, internal staff. I’m not sure that this is sustainable, but, it fit the culture of his company.
  1. Internal Staff Augmentation. By hiring external coaches a company can scale with the needs of the business. Have a pressing need for development and extra room in the budget?  No problem. Hire more external coaches. Don’t know where to find a coach? No need to worry as there are companies that serve as bureaus and will find coaches for you. Having a tough quarter?  Never mind being concerned about excess headcount as the coach isn’t on your payroll.
  1. External coaches are specialists. This is all they do, every day. Most days of the year. They are experts. This isn’t part-time work they fit in while managing other programs or budgets. When you need someone to prepare your tax returns you don’t hire a plumber, even if they charge less for tax preparation services than an accountant.

It’s not all Sunshine and Rainbows. External coaches can have their problems. I have covered reasons why external coaches can go wrong in a separate post.

Caveat Emptor

One last thing. This famous Latin phrase applies to coaching as it applies to everything else, ‘Let the buyer beware.’  For the purpose of this post I left pricing out of the discussion.  Pricing can literally be all over the place. I am surprised how little some coaches charge and I am astonished that anyone is willing to pay the exorbitant prices charged by others.

Assuming that the coach is qualified and that they possess up to date skills, remember, make sure you shop around and compare. One of the professional bodies for coaches (International Coach Federation, International Society for Coaching Psychology) may be a helpful resource.

That’s one side of the story, what about internal coaches?

3 Reasons Internal Coaches are Better

  1. The Insider Advantage. Internal coaches understand the business and the company’s culture. They will know the competitive landscape and pressures. They also understand the norms, mores and psychological reality of the company. It is vital to understand the person within their surroundings as behavior is a function of the person within their environment.

  As they ‘live here’ they are also highly invested in the success of both the leader and the company. In a sense, their own  livelihood is impacted by their own success. Because they operate within the same environment they can also quickly take advantage of immediate learning opportunities and interventions. In today’s fast-paced world the contextual dynamics can sometimes change overnight.

  1. They are not selling. One thing I cannot stand about external coaches is the propensity to sell. This is their income and livelihood, I get it. However, few coaches can resist creating a dependency when there is financial gain.  I have seen situations where the coach is involved in so much of the decision-making process of the leader one wonders whom the company should be employing to lead.  In another post, I have written about the perils of coaching, what to look for and when one should fire their coach.
  1. Compound Benefits. There are also other benefits for using internal coaches and these can compound to offer synergistic effects. The internal coach can often offer higher engagement and client-service as they are not doing the same thing 40+ hours per week. They can approach each coaching conversation afresh and devote considerable emotional and psychological energy to the engagement. Some coaches will see this as job enrichment and will be an important part of their own engagement and development.

I have deliberately left pricing out of this analysis. However, one significant advantage of using internal coaches is that, if organized and managed properly, the use of internal coaches will have a positive impact on operating margin.

Finally, an army of internal part-time coaches across the business can offer a multinational company global deployment and scale which is cost-effective and strategically aligned. A coach in Europe can work with a leader in the Americas or Asia. The combinations are endless and, using technology, you can literally follow the sun.

Will they take the risk?

It has to be mentioned that one area of concern for using internal coaches is whether or not they will take the risk that is necessary to have impact. To be an effective coach you sometimes need to confront someone’s attitude or behavior. It can be challenging to confront a coachee’s behavior when this person is your organizational superior or it may put your job at risk.

When I was an apprentice Psychologist I received an excellent piece of advice from one of my mentors.  ‘When you are telling truth to power you have to be prepared to put your job on the line every day.’  An internal coach may not want or be able to take this risk.

One way to handle the situation is to only use skilled and highly experienced internal coaches. The other way around this is to have them coach in a part of the business where they don’t formally report for their normal responsibilities.  This will help to ameliorate the potential risk for both coach and coachee.

Which to choose: external or internal?

Ultimately, it’s a personal choice based on your goals. Unfortunately, many leaders spend more time comparing vacation destinations than investigating the background, motivation and approach of someone whose advice they will follow or whom will guide their team’s decision-making.  What is important is to understand why you want coaching, what you want to get from it and then choose the most appropriate professional for the goals you have.

Robert Kovach is the Director of Leader Success for Cisco’s Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area. He has been an advisor to leadership teams of Fortune 500, FTSE 100 and FTSE Global 500 companies on driving business strategy through executive leadership effectiveness and organizational agility. The opinions expressed in this blog are his own and not those of Cisco. Contact him for speaking enquiries.

Illustration courtesy of FlickrCC and Wonderlane.

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