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Finding a Good Executive Coach – Traps to Avoid

Finding a Good Executive Coach – Traps to Avoid

Executive coaching has had a relatively short history, but a successful one, if you consider the many people who now seem to be available to provide coaching to leaders of all kinds in a wide variety of industries and sectors. Unfortunately, this proliferation of coaches has left many individuals who may like to utilize this service wondering how to best choose a coach and spend their money (which can be quite a lot over time) in the wisest way possible. This is not helped by coaches commonly utilizing several marketing practices which are likely to mislead more than anything else. These practices include huge numbers of people coming into coaching as a practice, widespread claims of special authority and expertise that may or may not be true, the criticality of having a coaching with a coaching certification (or in some cases not having this) and a variety of coaches claiming that they are governed by high institutional standard.  Let’s look at these issues in a little more detail.

The large numbers of people who call themselves “Coaches”

Many people now offer their coaching services. Although different studies vary a little it is estimated that there are between 40 and 50,000 business coaches working the US alone, with as many as 50-75,000 operating outside the US. And this is to exclude informal coaches who coach part-time or as an occasional service. Adding to these numbers are over 500 coaching schools/colleges in the US (and as many again overseas) and the courses of varying lengths they offer. These add as many as 25,000 coaches a year to existing numbers in the US and the same outside. This means that by 2020 it is likely that there will be 200-250,000 so-called business coaches in the world.

The problem with this large and fast-growing number of coaches is that there is simply not enough work for all of them. In other words, the number of actual clients willing to hire a coach is finite. What this means is that there is a very large pool of coaches competing against each other for the same client base and what this leads to is a growing number of “niches” in which these coaches offer services to differentiate themselves. Apart from coaches for particular industries (Financial services, Manufacturing, Healthcare etc.) and functions (CEO’s, senior finance people, senior sales people, senior marketing people, and so on) there are also now coaching niches for career guidance, stress management and even life transitions. A few coaches attempt to cover multiple niches and their associated websites read as if they were worried about leaving out a niche which might result in a potential client. Either way, this only makes the selection task more difficult, especially when a good coach may have multi-industry and multi-function experience. The trick here then is to get at least two or three references from past coaching clients. This is best obtained by asking your prospective coach to let you contact these individuals.

Claims of special authority

Not a day goes by without email messages heralding high income, special marketing secrets, blog and article writing skills and client attraction methods, all of which combine to help a coach get more coaching business. A few of these are legitimate coaching practitioners acting to share what they know with peers. However, the vast majority of these are simply encouraging coaches to “blast” potential clients with information they do not want or need, thereby increasing levels of resistance when more legitimate and individualized marketing efforts are made.

The problem, and the reason why this trend may be contributing to the reduction in respect and regard for coaching, is that it’s virtually impossible to distinguish between those offering credible, legitimate services and those offering very little of value, except to confuse prospective clients once again.

The best action plan for a person wanting coaching here is to be suspicious of any coach who is simply sending out a generic newsletter or regular emails that have little or no relevance to your industry, sector, function or other areas of interest. If what is sent is relevant and interesting to you and even better if it is tailored to being about subjects which are highly germane to your interest then you can respond or agree to talk with these coaches and see if they can back up their online writing and persona personally (and not hide behind their third-party marketers).

The Confusion of Credentials

Many good coaches have no direct qualifications in coaching as a discipline while others have a specialized certification. And when they do have a coaching certification, some of these are well-designed and may be competency-based, require many hours of course work, and/or require careful supervision by an expert or someone experienced who has already attained the credential.  But on the other hand, some other certifications rely only on self-assessment, reading a few books, or coaching a few friends or family. This does nothing to help the potential clients of coaches as they get quickly confused about who they should choose and whether or not a credential is worth the paper it is written on.

In practice research shows that potential coaching clients select a coach on experience rather than credentials, so a prospective buyer of coaching services should not be put off when a coach says they do not have any direct coaching qualifications. In this case though, you should check general qualifications and look for direct coaching experience at your level in your industry or sector. If the would-be coach does say they have coaching qualifications you can look these up to see if they look credible and valuable (but once again don’t put much store by these in any cases versus other qualifying factors).

The claim for high standards

At face value, standards and minimum competencies in any profession are usually a good idea, and may be critical in areas like law or medicine or accounting, for example, where risks of incompetence tend to be high. Such standards are typically the domain of professional oversight bodies like institutions or associations which often oversee training and qualifications for the industry they govern. However, in the wider business world such controlling bodies, and the standards they govern, are often not as rigorous (and may have few employees, peer benchmarking or quality standards for themselves) and in coaching in particular this is often even more the case. For a start there are at least 12-15 international coaching associations, which all claim to limit, restrict or control coaching practice. These associations typically exclude each other when developing standards and often have self-serving membership policies and requirements (and costs of participation). In addition, most of these associations have weak membership exclusion criteria and standards and this means that a wide variety of people can quickly gain access, even when their direct coaching knowledge and experience is very low.

Once again, most clients do not necessarily need or want strong professional bodies in purchasing coaching services. However, where a coach is claiming to be a member of one of the coaching intuitions or associations, a would be recipient of coaching may want to ask what the coach has done to gain membership and what initial and ongoing training or qualifications they are expected to attain and retain.


The four key issues, described above, which tend to confuse the buyer of coaching services are not, in most cases, direct attempts to coach and confuse and are actually a signal that this sector is trying to professionalize itself. Unfortunately, rather than helping would-be clients these issues tend to make the job much more difficult. Each individual who is looking for a good coach therefore needs to use considerable caution and make sure that he or she interviews the would-be coach and takes up past client references to make sure that he or she is a great individual fit.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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One Comment

  1. MeaganMarch 8, 2016 at 2:36 pm

    I’m glad you shared this. I do way too often get emails about different coaching services available and I get overwhelmed. I’m glad I know what to avoid now. Thank you for sharing!

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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