8 Questions To Ask Before You Commit To Executive Coaching

by Robin Wong, Biz Wiz Coaching

Are you thinking of hiring an executive coach (either for yourself or for your employees)? Here are eight questions you need to ask before you sign on the dotted line.

Ask yourself

1.Why do I want an executive coach?

That might sound like a silly question, but it’s actually very important and it’s often overlooked. You need to think very carefully about what you want to achieve from the coaching assignment.

If you’re the CEO or HR Manager of a company and you’re thinking of hiring an executive coach to work with your employees, is your aim to upgrade poor performers or are you more concerned about succession planning and talent retention? Are you clear about why you want to use executive coaching rather than other management development tools such as classroom training, mentoring or on-the-job training? The whole coaching process is more likely to be successful if you’ve defined your objectives clearly and communicated them effectively to everyone involved.

And if you’re thinking of hiring a coach for yourself, what are you hoping to achieve? Are you looking for someone to “fix” you or are you willing to take responsibility for your actions and results?

2.Do I have a strong desire to grow and improve from where I am to where I want to be?

Making major changes in your life and career requires courage, commitment and dedication. Although your coach will certainly support and encourage you to succeed, nothing will happen without your own personal drive, passion and commitment – your coach can’t do that for you.

From my many years of coaching experience, I’ve found that the biggest challenge is to help my clients gain insights about themselves and how their behaviours affect and are perceived by other people. Clients need to see the benefits of making the changes, and must be willing to step outside of their comfort zone to achieve the desired results.

Sometimes, the process is relatively quick; other times, it takes longer. For many people, their world view, behaviours and personality characteristics have been ingrained over many years, so the role of the coach is to give candid feedback at the appropriate "coachable moments" and to challenge the client's beliefs and thinking in order to facilitate breakthroughs. Sometimes, that also means the coach has to step outside of his/her own comfort zone.

3.Am I willing to share and discuss my innermost thoughts openly with my coach once we establish mutual trust?

Mutual trust and confidentiality are the foundation of success in coaching. Only through open, honest sharing and candid disclosure can the coach help you to gain the necessary personal insights and self-discovery for transformation. So you must be willing to share, to be challenged and to let go of what’s not working for you. Your coach will encourage you to self-critique your personal insights, behaviours, habits, assumptions, expectations, judgements…, and will challenge you to explore new frontiers and paradigms. That can sometimes feel uncomfortable, but it’s the only way you’ll grow.

Trust can’t be built overnight. Your coach will need to earn your trust by behaving with impeccable integrity and authenticity, keeping his/her promises, and demonstrating a genuine desire to help you succeed.

If you’re a CEO or HR Manager hiring an executive coach to work with your staff, you need to be aware that there could be a potential conflict of interest if the coaching framework and issues of confidentiality are not well managed upfront. The best approach is to ensure there’s complete transparency and clarity throughout the process. There should be no hidden agenda in the assignment’s objectives. A good professional coach will decline or cancel the assignment if he/she feels uncomfortable regarding this issue.

4.Am I willing to commit the necessary time and effort to this exercise?

You won’t achieve anything unless you’re willing to work wholeheartedly towards your goals and dreams. The challenge is to develop inspiring, meaningful and important goals, and a challenging yet achievable action plan. If you believe your goals are important enough, you WILL make time to accomplish them. This is not just a “nice-to-have” exercise; it’s a critical part of your future success story.

Depending on the complexity of the assignment, the coaching process usually takes a minimum of three months, but most coaches prefer a commitment of six months. To get the best results, you’ll need to commit to attending every scheduled appointment; dedicating the necessary time and energy to doing the homework and implementing the agreed steps, and ensuring that there are no interruptions during a coaching session. (Be sure to ask your prospective coach to explain his/her ground-rules upfront before the coaching process starts.)

If your coach sees that your commitment level is dropping at any time during the coaching assignment, he/she will work with you to identify ways to re-establish the right focus and drive, and to help you get back on track. It’s about accountability.

If the coaching assignment is being paid for by the company rather than privately by the individual executive, the executive’s supervisor or the Head of HR will need to approve the goals of the assignment to ensure there’s alignment with the company’s business objectives.

And ask your prospective executive coach

1.Do you have the relevant depth and breadth of experience to understand my business, and the necessary empathy to understand my personal-development needs?

There’s been a lot of debate about whether an executive coach needs to have solid corporate experience to conduct effective coaching. But look at it this way: champion golfer Tiger Woods has a coach. While that coach isn’t expected to be a world-leading golfer, he does have to have a thorough understanding of the game of golf, sports psychology, the business of golf and the pressures that world-class golfers face.

So a top-level sports coach provides expert, unbiased observations about the player’s strengths and weaknesses. He/she offers valuable feedback so that the player improves at both the physical and the mental game and becomes ready to make the next breakthrough.

I believe the same applies to an executive coach - in order to be credible and trustworthy and to establish rapport, an executive coach needs to have a solid track record in business, leadership and management. Whenever I work with a senior executive on a coaching assignment, I want him/her to be totally confident that I have a firm grasp of their key business challenges, and that I’ve successfully tackled similar challenges myself.

2.What will actually happen during our coaching sessions, and how long will the process take?

Different coaches may have different styles of working, but this is generally how a coaching assignment might work:

First, you’ll work with your coach to identify the most critical and important personal development, leadership and business challenges you need to tackle – because those are the areas that will motivate you to take action in an urgent and focused way, and offer you the biggest payback. This stage usually takes between four and six weeks.

Next, you’ll map out some practical and inspiring goals, and identify the steps for getting there (this will probably take three to four weeks). Then you’ll take action, discuss the results with your coach and make adjustments as necessary. The final step is to celebrate your successes – that’s always the best part!

The coach’s role is to provide the right amount of motivation and monitoring; to challenge you with probing questions; to help you gain insights into your own behaviour and psyche, and to hold you accountable for what you’ve committed to doing and being. This coaching process may seem very linear and left-brain, but as in life, it often has its ups and downs and fascinating, rewarding detours.

So coaching isn’t just a “nice-to-have” exercise; it will become a critical part of your own future success story, and the success of your organisation.

3.How does coaching differ from consulting or therapy?

As a potential client, you need to be sure that your prospective coach will work in a way that suits your needs.

A coach partners with a client, as an equal, so that the client identifies his/her own personal insights and solutions. If you’re the client, you must take responsibility for accomplishing the goals you’ve set for yourself – it’s not about the coach imposing his/her own knowledge, theories, opinions or methodologies.

In my experience, clients sometimes want the coach to provide ready-made solutions based on the coach’s previous business knowledge and experience. Although most executive coaches are certainly able to give advice, I find this is not the most effective approach, because the client has no sense of ownership. Also, if the coach does not have detailed, in-depth knowledge of the specific dynamics of the client's business (which can take months to develop), the advice could be misguided, irrelevant or inappropriate.

In a coaching situation, I always ask for permission before I give consulting advice. Only then I will share my personal experience and offer it as just one possible option for consideration. This helps my client to think for himself/herself and reflect more deeply before deciding on his/her own action steps.

  By contrast, a management consultant is usually called in by a company or organisation for a short-term assignment to diagnose its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and to recommend and implement solutions. The focus is not so much on the goals and personal development of individuals within the company or organisation.

A therapist usually works with clients who are facing psychological distress or an emotional crisis. The process of therapy is quite different from that of coaching or management consulting (among other things, therapy can last for several years), and the relationship between a therapist and his/her client is quite different from that between an executive coach or management consultant and his/her client.

So in a coaching assignment, it’s vital that both parties understand the coaching process and dynamics before proceeding. Although your coach might sometimes wear a different hat (for instance as a mentor or consultant) if that seems appropriate to the situation, it’s important for both of you to establish a clearly defined coaching framework before the coaching process starts.

4.What are your coaching qualifications?

Ask your prospective coach whether he/she is accredited by a reputable, internationally recognised coaching training/accreditation organisation (e.g. Coach U, Corporate Coach U, the International Coach Federation etc.). Being an effective professional coach requires a lot more than just being an empathetic listener or doing a feel-good, one-weekend personal development workshop.

Who is Robin Wong?

Robin Wong of Biz Wiz Coaching provides confidential, one-on-one executive coaching for senior and mid-career professionals in large companies and organisations. He is a licensed facilitator with Corporate Coach U and a member of the Hong Kong International Coaching Community.

He says: “I’ve always been passionate about seeing people grow and develop, and I played a key role in mentoring and coaching people while I was working in the corporate world. Now that I’m undertaking coaching in a more focused way, this has given me the impetus to fine-tune my coaching skills to develop more executives and business leaders. I feel this is the best way I can contribute and pay back what I’ve gained and learnt.”