Selecting and using an executive coach

Selecting and using an executive coach

Executive coaches are used mainly by senior managers or professionals, to help them work on specific aspects of their performance. As a relatively expensive resource, it’s important to understand why you will benefit from having an executive coach, what the outcomes of the relationship will be and what kind of executive coach you require.

When to use an executive coach

  • When you would find it difficult to be sufficiently open to an insider
  • When you are looking to tap into specific expertise or experience not available within the organisation (this could be functional expertise or psychological expertise)
  • When there are no appropriate role models within the organisation
  • When the relationship is intended to be a short term intervention (ie six months or less)
  • When there is value in direct observation and feedback by an external resource, who is not influenced by the internal culture and/or politics

When NOT to seek an external coach

  • When an understanding of the organisation is important to the role
  • As a reward (fashion accessory)
  • When there may be a counselling need
  • When the intended change is not clear and measurable

Different types of executive coach

There are at least three types of executive coach, depending on whether the focus of learning is skills (for example, giving presentations), performance in a particular job role (eg leadership coaching), or broader personal development (See Anthony Grant‘s Three types of coaching). In addition, some coaches, who have a strong background in psychology and/or psychotherapy, help executives deal with emotional issues that hinder their performance.

Some executive coaches believe strongly in observing their clients and giving feedback – for example, by attending team meetings and watching how you lead or participate in them. Others believe in working solely with the client’s own observations.

Clearly, it’s important to work out in advance what kind of coaching you want or need. A useful exercise is to write out a business plan for the investment of time and money. This would define:

  • What is the issue to be resolved?
  • What is the benefit to the organisation, the team and to me of resolving this issue?
  • How will I and other people know if the required changes have occurred?

The more the benefits can be quantified against the costs (in time and money), the more confident you will be about coaching relationship and its costs.

Because this is a big decision, talk it through with other people – for example, trusted peers, or human resources. Wherever possible, let HR do the initial finding for you – they will have more experience of seeing through superficially convincing applicants.

How do I know whether the executive coach is right for me?

Assuming you have defined closely what kind of executive coach you need, you should be able to narrow down the field. It’s a good start to ask for qualifications.

However, just going on qualifications isn’t a very reliable method. Even if the coach has good overall skills and knowledge, they may not have the right personality or background to work with you. Spend time talking with them and consider:

  • Did I feel I could trust and open up to them?
  • Did I come away with deeper personal insights, even though it wasn’t a formal coaching session?
  • Do I feel sufficiently challenged and clearer about what I want?

If you feel confident try some of the questions asked in formal assessment of executive coaches:

  • Has this person a sufficient grounding in both behavioural psychology and coaching/ mentoring technique?
  • Do they have a wide portfolio of approaches or are they limited to just one or two?
  • Are they subject to formal and regular professional supervision (by supervision we mean peer discussion and review of experience in the role)?
  • Have they been practising for at least two years? (Part of the development of a professional coach or mentor would normally include a substantial period of unpaid practice.)
  • Can they provide a convincing description of their mental model of coaching/ mentoring? Can they distinguish between the two?
  • Do they have effective skills of listening, conceptual modelling, questioning, suspending judgement and so on?
  • Are they able to demonstrate strong commitment to their own learning?
  • Have they achieved an appropriate level of insight into their own mistakes as coach/ mentor?
  • Do they work within an appropriate ethical framework?

Probationary period.

All effective executive coaches will be pleased to agree to a trial period of between one and three meetings. Use this time to review the relationship and decide whether this coach really is right for you.

Further reading

Clutterbuck. D, (2005) Coaching and mentoring at the top, Clutterbuck Associates

Schwenk, G, (2007) Selecting ‘world class coaches’, Clutterbuck Associates

Clutterbuck. D, (2005) Caveat Emptor, Clutterbuck Associates

Clutterbuck, D, (2006) Mentoring the small business, Clutterbuck Associates


David Clutterbuck

selecting an executive coach


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