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"Finding A Coach"

Matt M. Starcevich, Ph.D.
CEO Center For Coaching & Mentoring, Inc.

(For individual use only, not to be reproduced or used in any way without permission)

Our writing and teaching efforts have concentrated on the responsibilities and roles of a coach. We have published two books about how effective coaches interact with others and conduct a two day workshop on developing coaching skills. Our work with over 30,000 leaders and managers in helping them become even more effective coaches, has been very rewarding. But this is only half the equation. What about when you are a player, when there is a situation in which you feel awkward or unsure about what to do, or where you would like to get a sanity check on whether you are focusing on the right issues?

All top performers attribute a significant importance to the coaches they have encountered in their careers. These top performers initiate the contract with their coaches, hiring, firing and searching constantly for that coach which will give them the competitive edge.

Successful coaching is not limited to sports. Privately held businesses often seek outside members for their board of directors to bring a fresh insight. As a matter of church law, the Pope has to have a spiritual advisor. One of the cornerstones of the effectiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous is not only the climate of support and encouragement established in group meetings, but in establishing a culture where members are encouraged to seek out and work with "sponsors" who guide individuals in actually implementing, on a one-on-one basis, the steps of recovery.

Some organizations have formalized, providing mentors to a select few high potential employees. The mentor is usually not the person's immediate manager but one who is knowledgeable about the norms of the organization, they know the ropes, are successful in their own right, and are able to provide that gentle guidance, advice and counsel to help this person fulfill their capabilities.

We believe that a person, regardless of their potential or talents, who is concerned about learning and growth, should seek out and retain the services of a coach. This takes coaching out of a top down activity and makes it your responsibility to seek out and cultivate coaching relationships.

Imagine the tremendous competitive advantage an organization would have if all the employees felt responsible for engaging and utilizing the services of a coach to help them learn and grow. Wouldn't it be refreshing if your manager asked you, "What have you and your coach been learning that is of value to you, our team, and our department"? Imagine the implications if this were true in our school systems. Each student would actually assume responsibility for their learning. As Senge notes, the discipline of learning starts with dialogue. Argyris contends that learning occurs when we detect and correct errors. The implication is that learning is internal and facilitated by others - a coach.

Okay you say, I believe I can benefit from finding and utilizing a coach. Where do I start?

"Hiring" a coach - selection criteria

When you go looking for a coach, you are not looking for a clone of yourself - you've already got you. You are looking for someone who has experience or insight you don't have in dealing with a particular subject. The best results will be when you use specific coaches for specific problems or challenges. A good coach can be found anywhere, in or outside of your present organization. The key is how well five specific criteria are met:

  1. Your credibility. The coach has got to believe in you, to be convinced that you can be trusted. Generally, when you have this credibility, it is because you continue to and have supported this person in the past. The first thing to ask yourself is: "Am I seen as supportive of this person?"
  2. The Coach's credibility. A coach cannot be of value unless they have a unique perspective and information. Information is only reliable and available to those who are trusted by others. The second question to ask yourself is: "Does the organization trust this person?" Equally important is the question: "Do I trust and value them?"
  3. A desire to see you succeed. A crucial distinction between your coach and other acquaintances is that they want to see you succeed. Their motivation is not important. It can be to further their self interest, a desire to help others, or a range of other drivers. Therefore the third question to ask yourself is: "Does this person see a personal win in this relationship?"
  4. They are a teacher. I don't mean by profession. The issue is, do they enjoy seeing others grow and develop? Are they secure enough to be challenged? Do they have the patience to allow others to discover both the questions and the answers or do they have to always provide and tell others what to do? Therefore, the fourth question to ask yourself is: "Does this person enjoy teaching others?"
  5. Your feelings. As a final test, trust your instincts. If you are uncertain about a potential coach, trust those uneasy feelings. If the information and guidance the coach is providing still feels wrong, look at the coach again. If you are uncomfortable with the guidance, you're not talking to a real coach. The fifth question to ask yourself is: "Does it feel right to work with this person?"

Others who are "helpful" but don't meet these criteria

  • The friend. Clearly liking someone makes coaching more enjoyable but this is not a sufficient condition. You want your coach to like you for a particular reason - because you have supported this person in the past and they trust you. To provide you with helpful guidance requires more than just friendship. Their trust in you is the first but just one of the four criteria of a good coaching candidate. It is doubtful whether a friend can provide that impartial positive and negative feedback that is such a critical part of the coaching relationship.
  • The meddler. The coach doesn't provide just advice or hearsay information. They provide reliable information and perspective that is both unique and useful. To be unique, the information and perspective can only be provided by the coach. However, it must also be useful in helping you achieve your self interest. The meddler cannot meet these two conditions.
  • The mentor. A mentor is not necessarily a coach. Just showing you the ropes or grooming you to follow in their footsteps, doesn't help you assume responsibility for achieving your self interests. You might have only one mentor but multiple coaches. The coach is more focused on giving you the guidance in those areas where they can provide unique and useful information. You might work with one coach on your professional skills, another on your interpersonal skills, and yet another on your business skills.
  • Your boss. Ideally, this person should be your head coach. But, this does not always work out that way. If your manager actively provides you the coaching assistance you need, great! If not, don't wait, take the initiative and find those coaches that can help you. An interesting phenomena will be to share with your boss the way these coaches have helped you to learn and grow. Who knows, by example, this experience may rub off and help your boss become a better coach for you and those other employees he/she supervises. The message to remember is that just because your immediate boss doesn't, or won't, provide you the coaching help you need, doesn't cut off you seeking other alternatives for this help with your growth and development.

How many coaches?

Reflecting on your own journey through life should answer the question - at least one coach for every major area of your self interest. The objective should be to have a pool of coaches you can draw on to give you the guidance on specific needs. The best sports teams have many specialty coaches - offensive coordinators, defensive coordinators, batting, pitching, quarterbacking. The list goes on. Why? Nobody know everything. The prudent approach is to develop a network of coaches who have particular knowledge, insight, and experience that is useful to you. The more people you turn to for coaching the better able to triangulate their information and guidance with your own personal values. The more reliable coaches you nurture, and develop the better your position to assess which ones to turn to for help and guidance.

Some coaching may be very specific and short in nature. The author can recall asking a senior executive to critique a memo he was about to send to various executives introducing some needed changes in the performance appraisal system. This coach was chosen because of their experience and political savvy. The coaching feedback was very direct and impactful. All they did was circle the number of times "I" appeared in the memo with a note, lets discuss. Although unintended, the overuse of "I" created a very self serving, self engrandizing tone to the memo. The authors good intentions would be lost by the alienating effect of the overuse of "I". The author was blind to this until it was pointed out. The memo was changed and well received. A short, but critical lesson that has remained with him to this day.

Contracting with your coach(s)

A sincere request for coaching is flattering and many people will cheerfully offer their insight if asked in a way that makes it clear that you will not abuse their time nor their confidence. Although your contract is informal, a number of things need to be articulated, understood, and agreed to by you and your coach.

The terms. In real life, few coaches get life-time contracts. While you are looking for long-term relationships, don't put yourself in a position where a coach's feelings will be hurt and support will turn to resentment if you stop asking for coaching or have to reject the advice. Be clear on what help you are asking for and realistic on the time you are asking for. Our experience is to ask for a trial period of three to six months then reevaluate if both parties still feel it is a win-win relationship. Since you are asking for very specific help not coaching on everything, you should be able to keep your requests on the other persons time to a reasonable level. Ideally, you would interact with many coaches over your career.

The focus. The coach should not only know what specific areas you are seeking help in but be able to disqualify themselves. Although flattering, the option to not become your coach should always be there and available without any feelings of guilt. It is also helpful to define your focus.

The ground rules. Make explicit your preferred way of being coached. You want advice and insight but you also want to make the final decision on accepting this advice. You are not asking them to do your job for you, just to provide a unique perspective for you to consider in your decision making process. Don't seek advice you don't plan to use. While the decision will be yours, you should only seek advice where you plan to weigh it seriously. Don't waste people's time if you don't intend to listen fully to what is said and have reasons for not following the advice.

How will it end. Define how we will know when the coaching relationship has run its course. Either party should have the right to call it quits, without any hard feelings. Our advice is to set up specific evaluation dates when the question will be asked: Are we both still getting value out of this relationship and should we continue?

You're the only stumbling block left.

If you've honestly assessed your strengths and areas where you could use some coaching help, thought through a list of candidates and narrowed them down to those you think could be good coaches for you, the only thing remaining is to ask for their help. This may be the hardest part of the entire process. The only one who can take this step is you. The first attempt will be the hardest but we are convinced that the benefits of supportive coaching and help from a valued other, will far outweigh your uneasiness about initiating this contact. Even though it feels unnatural, our best advice comes from a well know advertising slogan - Just do it!


For thousands of years, it has been considered an act of wisdom to seek guidance and advice, as indicated in the following quotes from Proverbs (New International Version)

Pride only breed quarrels, but wisdom is found in those who take advice. (13:10).

Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed. (15:22)

Listen to advice and accept instruction, and in the end you will be wise. (19:20)

Make plans by seeking advice; if you wage war, obtain guidance. (20:18)

For waging war you need guidance, and for victory many advisers. (24:6)

Contact Matt Starcevich at
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