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How to find a quality coach: Tips for the buyer


Seeking some assurance of quality from executive coaching providers can be a minefield for buyers. Sue Young gives her advice on how to get it right.

Looking for the kind of quality assurance provided by professional bodies in other more developed professional spheres is still a somewhat confusing maze. As coaching grows in popularity within organisations so does the demand for quality-assured standards of practice.
The four major coaching bodies operating in the UK are the Association for Coaching (AC), the International Coaching Federation (ICF), the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC), and the Association for Professional and Executive Coaching and Supervision (APECS).
Currently coaching accreditation by most of the main bodies is still largely evidenced by the number of self-certified coaching hours and accredited courses attended. It is possible to tick the apparent 'accredited' boxes and still not be an effective coach in practice. Outside of the major coaching bodies, 'accreditation' is a status claimed by a plethora of courses, awarding certificates and diplomas. The CIPD runs both a certificate and an advanced certificate in coaching and mentoring.
But how is the buyer meant to understand the differences and what should they look for?
There are currently no industry-wide standards that the buyer can use as a 'quality mark' and know what it will assure. With such a wide range of courses and coaching qualifications offering the 'accredited' label, the only option for the buyer is to study the content of these accredited programmes. Coaching accreditation processes are typically very general and aimed at the core skills of coaching, not explicitly demonstrating the capability of delivering what corporate buyers are looking for.
Sometimes organisations will outsource their coaching to an external provider organisation. In this context the buyer will need to understand and specify the standards by which it will accept individual coaches on to the coaching faculty.
The HR and learning and development buyer in an organisation typically needs more quality assurance in the territory of management and executive coaching. This target market has very particular demands, and the issue is compounded by the fact that 'coaching' covers such a wide range of practice including 'life' and personal development.
Currently, of the coaching professional bodies, only APECS explicitly requires evidence of knowledge and practice in the three areas of psychology, business/organisations and coaching practice.
So, whatever the claimed accreditation, given the lack of clarity around coaching standards, organisational buyers of coaching services, usually HR based, need to be reviewing and probing on a number of key credentials, as with any bought-in service provision:

1. Personal recommendation and references

Business buyers of coaching services typically buy coaching through a number of established relationships with individuals. In a highly relationship-based field, word-of-mouth personal recommendations are widely used.
Where contracting with another provider organisation supplying a coaching faculty it is recommended to review credentials and screen individual coaches. Client testimonials would be important evidence to look for here, and for senior management coaching, personal interview screening is highly recommended.


2.  Evidence of contribution to tangible organisational outcomes and benefits, where coaches have enabled their clients to achieve improved performance

Case examples and client references are good ways to provide this, and they should probe the outcomes achieved for the individual and for the business. For example, effective executive coaching may help individuals achieve outcomes in relation to business objectives through improved:
  • Thought through strategies and tactics in relation to business objectives
  • Confidence, self-awareness and self-management capabilities
  • Interpersonal effectiveness leading to more productive working relationships, improved team leadership capabilities and effective relationships with a wide range of stakeholders
These can be translated into tangible benefits to the organisation in terms of cost and resource efficiencies, increased revenue streams and ultimately improved ROI.
For specific skills coaching such as personal impact or interviewing skills, buyers should look for evidence of results achieved through improved skills - for example, have prior participants won business or gained board approval?

3.  Demonstrating an understanding of the organisation’s business and organisational culture, and the environment it is operating in

For middle and senior management coaching in particular, it is critical that the coach brings credibility and the understanding that will help create rapport and build trust with the manager around the nature of the business challenges and issues that they are bringing to the sessions. While their track record should be a good indication, it's always better to organise a meeting to provide the opportunity to gain a deeper sense of the experience, perspectives and potential 'fit' with the organisation's business and culture.

4. Evidence of relevant professional knowledge in the area of focus for the coaching

Effective coaching of executives requires particular knowledge, as well as skills. For example, typical organisational issues and pressure faced by managers, understanding of the psychological aspects of personal, interpersonal and organisational development; how people learn and change, and using approaches that work with this. Be wary of coaches that rely on and promote one tool and approach rather than having the experience and capability to provide a variety of approaches.
Qualifications can demonstrate professional commitment and rigour. These should ideally be equivalent of chartered status or post-graduate to represent achievement of high standards of professional relevant knowledge, either in a linked field e.g. business, organisation development or psychology or for a specialist professional field such as accountancy or law. They should also be preferably practitioner based rather than purely academic.
This knowledge should be made explicit and readily understood. How can a coach be effective in helping others learn if they are not able to readily communicate their knowledge in terms the client can understand? There is much jargon and 'fads' used in this area so be prepared to probe if not clear. Do not be intimidated by use of language you don't understand. Always probe for how the coach sees their professional knowledge adding to the value they bring in their coaching practice.


5. Demonstrating awareness of ethical and boundary issues

It's essential that the buyer manages both the coach, and the coach 'matching' process. They should be considering how the coaching contract is structured, how line management is involved, how they retain the individual's confidentiality and how coaching outcomes are reported back to the organisation. Finally, review points should be built in at regular intervals to allow ongoing monitoring of the coaching process.

6. Evaluation - evidence of the impact of the coaching for individuals and the organisation

Evaluation may take the form of feedback from coaches and their line managers, 360-degree feedback, prior to and after completion of the coaching and/or evaluation by HR. Evaluation of coaching activity should link back in to the organisation's performance management system.
Unfortunately there are no quick, easy solutions to quality assurance in the field of executive coaching. However, buyers can use these guidelines, together with their own experience to establish their own framework for selection for coaching providers.
Sue Young is principal consultant and executive coach at Berkshire Consultancy management consultants specialising in people-led performance improvement. Much of their work is carried out in collaborative partnering relationships with their clients.

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