Selecting Coaches

Forty years ago, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the selection of counselors for public high schools.

I didn’t write it to create a career-defining, landmark study. I wrote it to check off a box for the completion of my doctoral degree in counseling psychology. Little did I know that the profession of coaching and counseling would explode in the next century.

Now, practically everyone either has a coach or is a coach. The question is, how do you select a good coach if you want one? How do you know which coach is right for you?

As it turns out, the heaviest consumers of coaches are professional athletes. Clearly, Tiger Woods would have been better off selecting a life coach rather than a golf coach. He was getting advice on swinging, but apparently he was mis-applying the concepts in his personal life. As I was reflecting on my dissertation at dinner with my younger daughter and her significant other (he asked what my dissertation was), I realized that the provocative position I took four decades ago had more relevance today than it did when I wrote it.

Since I know you can bear the suspense no longer, I will share my conclusions. Essentially, I suggested that choosing counselors required an assessment of their physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual levels of functioning. My outrageous proposal was to line them up and have a push up contest. You may dismiss this idea as preposterously silly, but there was a logic to my thinking as well as a rebellious spirit driving it. Yes, I know, this would have never flown at Harvard. Well, that’s Harvard’s problem—a topic I will discuss in another post.

Photo by Ryan McGuire,
Author: Ryan McGuire, Gratisography

So here’s the logic.

The easiest dimension to change in our lives is the physical dimension.

As one of my mentors once said,

“If you can’t change your physical functioning, what are you going to change—your underwear?”

So, if I’m going to select a coach of any variety (life coach, sports coach, career coach, executive coach, spiritual coach), I will want to know how well they take care of the physical dimension of their life. What is their level of fitness? Are they flexible enough to handle changes in appointments? Do they have enough endurance to listen to my endless whining? Can they bring the intensity required to handle big moments? Please note that I’m not proposing that every coach or counselor should be an elite athlete. I’m just suggesting that someone dispensing advise on how to live your life ought to be attending to their own most basic dimension.

A coach should also be functioning at an acceptable intellectual level. Personally, I don’t want to pay someone to ask me a series of stupid questions. I want a coach to be well-read, informed about a wide variety of topics, and able to ask provocative questions that will enable me to think about my issues in a new light and in a new frame. Growing intellectually is the second most difficult challenge of human development. You have to read, inquire, analyze, synthesize, and innovate. I don’t see much value in a coach who can’t identify themes, patterns, and underlying motivations.

An effective coach needs to function at high levels emotionally. I want a coach who has done the work to explore who they are and why they are who they are. I want someone who has not only gone down and in, but has come up and out. I want someone who has taken a hard look at the past and has a bright view of the future. I want someone who can not only identify accurately their own feelings and values, but also can also penetrate the depth of my feelings and what’s most important to me. I don’t want sympathy, and I don’t want to just hear, “That’s nice,“ or “I hear you,“ or “Ummmm…“ I want to hear, for example, “You feel excited by your possibilities because you have a range of options available to you.”

Perhaps most importantly, an effective coach has to function at high levels spiritually.

This fourth dimension is the most difficult, but it is the most powerful.

I want someone who understands alienation and connection, someone who understands loneliness and community, someone who understands despair and joy, someone who can relate to negativity and positivity. A highly evolved spiritual coach exudes energy and life. This person has done the work and has made the effort to master disciplines such as yoga, qigong, Pranic Healing, etc. This person is a source of love, light, and power. I want someone who is attuned to the essence of life and who knows how to activate and align my own energy. I have been fortunate to have several of these people in my life.

Unfortunately, most of the coaches I have seen in my long career can’t even pass the first test, much less the second, third, or fourth.

Yes, they have their certifications. They know how to ask generic questions and emit sympathetic utterances. But my question is, who certifies the certifiers? I have seen the products of multiple certification programs, and very few are able to meet the basic criteria set forth above. And yet, the demand continues to grow. Why is that?

Primarily, the field is growing because it is satisfying what clients want.
And they don’t want much.

It is possible to scale what consumers of coaching services want.

This scale originally articulated by my friend and colleague Dr. Bill Obrien (the best executive coach I know) explains why there are so many coaches and so many satisfied clients.

5.0: Perform
4.0: Produce
3.0: Position
2.0: Pamper
1.0: Pout

At level one, clients simply want to pout and complain about their situation.

They don’t want to be pushed or challenged. There are many coaches who are perfectly willing and able to hand out Kleenex, sympathize, and ask questions that prime the flow of negativity, self pity, and self justification.

At level two, clients want to be pampered.

They want unconditional love and a supportive ear. There are many coaches who are very good at stroking egos and nurturing self-esteem. In fact, they are in high demand.

At level three, clients want to position themselves for larger roles in their respective organizations.

Positioning is an acceptable goal for clients. They want to learn how to develop and promote their brand, heighten visibility, build social networks, and develop relationships with mentors or advocates who can advance their career. There are many coaches who can respond accurately to feelings and meaning and help their clients achieve their career aspirations.

At level four, clients want to produce better outcomes in their lives and in their work.

They want their coach to ask tough questions and to suggest ways to modify their leadership behaviors in order to create highly energized and engaged teams. There are a few coaches who have the perspective to offer meaningful advice, who can personalize goals, and who are willing to take the risk of speaking truth to power.

At level five, clients want to perform at optimal levels and realize their possibilities.

They want to grow physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually in order to live better, learn better, and work better. And they are willing to make the effort and pay the price. Clients whose goal is high performance are open to new ways of thinking, they are seeking ways to help others succeed, and they are dedicated to creating a work environment in which passionate people choose to be optimally motivated. I know a handful of coaches who are able to achieve that level of functioning. If you are lucky enough to find one, hire him or her immediately. But first ask, what do I really want from this coaching process?

Dusting off the dissertation didn’t make me want to go back and start a new academic career in the theory of selection. It simply reminded me that some ideas have lasting value even if they, at first, appear to be outrageous.

Also published on Medium.

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