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Coaching: What it is, when to hire, and when not to

Updated: May 9, 2021

What comes to mind when you think of coaching?

The first time I heard the term outside of athletics was in 1999. I was a young professional and a colleague resigned from her position to “go be a coach.” I had no idea what that meant, and this was before under-the-table-Google-searches existed. I remember looking around the room and noticing I wasn’t alone. No one else seem to understand what she was talking about either.

Little did I know that 22 years later I would be credentialed coach and still, people seem to be uninformed or ill-informed on this type of coaching.

Yet, the field has ballooned into a now billion-dollar industry with research and academic journals. Bachelor’s and master’s degrees are now offered as well. Moreover, coaching has been shown to be an effective strategy to build skills, increase self-awareness, and improve performance (Journal of Positive Psychology, 2013).

I personally have benefitted from hiring a coach and almost daily see the benefits coaching brings to others. However, coaching is not for everyone. I have also seen coaching fail.

This week we demystify coaching and address what it is, when to hire, and maybe more importantly, when not to hire a coach.

What is coaching?

Naturally, people will think of an athletic coach. The person on the team who calls the shots, prescribes workouts, and even disciplines the players. Athletic coaches tell the individual or the team what to do to win and take a good portion of the credit for success.

This is much different than the type of coaching we are reviewing today.

Professional coaching is a one-on-one engagement with a trained individual who helps you make a change, learn, and grow. Change does not necessarily mean correction, however. This does not imply that something has to be wrong to hire a coach. The context is broad such as changing the way you think, defining a new career, building confidence, getting organized, maintaining focus, communicating effectively, developing a team, prioritizing self-care, etc.

What makes this different from athletics is that a professional coach will not tell the client what to do. The coach asks questions, listens, challenges perspectives, suspends judgement, notices patterns, and offers learning activities to help the client think differently. This approach is built on the belief that the client is creative, competent, and resourceful. The answers are already within the client, the coach just helps tap the answers with this method.

By thinking differently, the client acts differently. This enables and, more so, empowers the client to make the changes they want to make.

Yet adjusting behavior takes effort and time. It requires practicing new techniques, discussing emotions, taking risks, and questioning judgement. Because of this, coaching engagements are often six months to a year, sometimes longer or shorter.

Results from coaching benefit from momentum. This means that coaching sessions take place on a regular schedule, often bi-weekly but sometimes weekly. Sessions may be 30 minutes to 60 minutes, give or take. Committing to the schedule is important. Ad hoc coaching, or once in a while, is far less effective to meet a specific goal.

There is almost no recognition or credit taken by the coach. No buckets of Gatorade are tossed onto a professional coach’s head, nor should there be. The changes made are solely the client’s and they take full ownership and celebration of them.

Here’s the catch, coaching is an unregulated industry, and anyone can call themselves a coach. There are, unfortunately, some bad coaches out there. An easy sign of an unqualified coach is if you hear the phrase "You know what you should do?" This is the classic, and often innocent, line before someone tries to solve a problem (one they identified) for you. Almost, the opposite of coaching.

The gold standard is certification through the International Coach Federation. This credentialing process is rigorous (education, practice hours, and supervised coaching) and results in levels of certification. These coaches will have an ACC, PCC, or MCC certification (see here for further explanation). In addition, certification mandates a commitment to a Code of Ethics. These are ethical principles and standards of behavior for all credentialed coaches.

Coaches are not cheap because you are paying for experience and a specialized skill set. Coaches with more experience (hours coaching), advanced degrees and with extensive experience in a particular industry will cost more. The market matters too. Coaches in NYC are more expensive than coaches in Fargo. Life coaches tend to be less expensive. Although, many are not (hello Mr. Tony Robbins). Expect to pay generally $100-$500 per hour depending on the context and situation.

When To Hire A Coach

The time to hire a coach is when you have a strong desire to change. The desire is so strong that you want to financially invest in it. That is how important the change you want to make is to your fulfillment or well-being in relation to work or life.

This means you are ready to reflect on your own behavior and examine your way of thinking as well as willing to experiment with new actions and behaviors. It also means you are open to feedback and hearing new perspectives. You are ready to do the work required.

For some, the time to hire a coach is also when they need to prioritize and dedicate time just to think about themselves and their effectiveness. Coaching sessions are protected time dedicated to your growth and development with someone who will not only hold you accountable but listen and support you.

When your time comes to hire a coach, here are four tips:

  1. Interview at least three credentialed coaches. Ask people in your network for referrals. The best way to find a great coach is to ask people who have direct experience with them.

  2. Ask the coach to describe coaching, their process, and methods. Look for someone who can articulate it in a way that you clearly understand. In the words of Einstein, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

  3. Inquire about additional services. Some coaches offer free emails and text messages between sessions or will write a robust recap of each coaching session for you. Others will not. Get a clear picture of what is included in the coaching engagement.

  4. Look for chemistry with your coach. The person you select is the person you trust and with whom you are excited and motivated to work.

When Not to Hire A Coach

The most frequent request I receive for coaching is for someone else. Meaning, a boss calls me and wants me to fix or improve their direct report. Candidly, the same thing happens with spouses. One contacts me to provide coaching for their partner. When coaching is the idea of someone else, it is far less effective. In these cases, the person who is identified for coaching can reach out and speak directly to coaches themselves.

  • Do not hire a coach for someone else unless that person is fully informed of the reasons why the coach is being hired and is motivated to reflect, learn something new, and own their behavior.

Sometimes, a coach is called to help someone through emotional pain. Such as, from job loss, divorce, or an overall feeling of being stuck in life. This is common and coaches are very helpful in this space but if the person is coping in ways that are unhealthy (drinking or eating too much, abusing drugs, sleeping excessively, not sleeping at all, etc.) or possibly has a past trauma that has not been addressed, then coaching is likely not the right intervention.

  • Do not hire a coach when you are coping in unhealthy ways or have not processed or healed from a past trauma. A therapist or psychologist may be the right choice.

It is important the client be able to contemplate and process what impact their thoughts and emotions have on their behavior. This is reflection and some people are more reflective than others. Those who are not reflective may not benefit from coaching.

  • Do not hire a coach if you are not interested in discussing your thoughts and emotions. Coaching will not only waste your time but the coach’s time as well.

Finally, sometimes, a client just needs some advice or an expert to provide direction. For example, I was working with a leader who was failing at their job. After a few meetings, it became clear the leader lacked skills in budget management. We concluded the coaching engagement so that he could invest in financial consultant.

  • Do not hire a coach when you really need the advice and guidance from a consultant, mentor, or expert.

Here’s the good (and slightly murky) news, many coaches are also consultants, like me. I have experience and expertise in leadership development and team dynamics. Many of my clients hire me for both coaching and consulting. Some do not want or need to be coached. Rather, they want specific direction on how to build a team and that is when I consult. Then, some (often the same leaders) want coaching. They want to be challenged, empowered, and given the space to think and process in the presence of someone who will really listen.

To be completely transparent, many of my clients don’t know or even care when consulting or coaching is taking place. Clients care more about getting results than what intervention is being employed. Which speaks to the importance of hiring a skilled and experienced coach.

All of that said, you may still have questions and if that is the case, ask a coach! Coaches are passionate people who are committed to improving the lives of others. Every coach I know will conduct a free consultation.

Coaches are an extremely valuable resource for an organization and for your life. The technique of coaching is specific and requires a specialized skill set. Being clear on what coaching is and the situations when coaching is the appropriate intervention is important to ensure that the intended results are achieved.

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Until next time!


Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leadership and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm.

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