Choosing an executive coach can seem a daunting decision. Rob Watling offers some simple advice to help make the right choice.

You’ve decided you would like the support of an executive coach. Great, but how will you find the right one? Ask a colleague? Phone HR? Reach for Google? Stick a pin in a directory? This is an important decision and it may seem daunting. But with a little extra effort you can make a well-informed choice.

Firstly, remember that you do not have to make this decision unaided – especially if you are working in the NHS.

The NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement also maintains a national register of quality-assured executive coaches who have all been chosen for their specialist skills and expertise. This register is available online, and you can immediately see who is available to work in your area, and how they can support you.

These coaches will have been selected for their knowledge, their background, and their previous work in the health service. They are all qualified and well-briefed on current health policy issues. Some SHAs and PCTs also still maintain lists of executive coaches who are practising in their area.

But don’t just leap for the first name that springs off the page. Take a moment to read their brief biographies. Most have websites where you can learn a little bit more about them and the other types of work they do. Some will specialise in public sector coaching, and all will bring their experience of working with other types of client.

Make a shortlist and contact the ones you are most interested in. The chemistry needs to be right for both of you. So you may like to have a short meeting (by phone or in person) with one or two coaches to see if you think you will work together well.

Ask them what a typical session will be like. What can you expect of each other? Where will you meet, and how often? Ask them why they coach, and what success looks like in their work. One important consideration is how much they will challenge you and if you are comfortable with this.

Tell them why you want a coach, and why you want one now. Be prepared to say a little bit about your professional context, the issues that are pre-occupying you at the moment, what other forms of support you are getting, and (most importantly) how you feel coaching may offer you something new. You may not be entirely clear about all this yet, but it will help your coach if you can at least explain why you picked up the phone.

While it might be tempting to choose someone who is like you (in experience, style, or approach) it can sometimes be an advantage to work with someone who can help you to think differently, to bring a fresh perspective, or to challenge your assumptions. A coach is not a mentor, and is unlikely to offer you advice. They are far more likely to ask you really helpful questions.

You will obviously want your coach to be well-qualified, but what does that mean? There are many different coaching qualifications available, from a weekend course, through post-graduate certificates to masters and PhDs. You can’t be expected to know the difference between these. So just ask your prospective coaches about the courses they have completed, why they chose them, and whether they are still in training. Check what sort of supervision they receive and ask how that will help their work with you.

And, of course, there is the question of fees. The NHS Institute regularly runs programmes of funded executive coaching. Details of these are available on their website, and will cost your organisation nothing. Otherwise a series of sessions with a qualified coach can cost anything from several hundred to a few thousand pounds. Ask yourself why you are planning to use a coach, and what this is worth to you, your organisation, to the health service and, in the end, to the quality of the services you provide.

You may not be clear what you want coaching to do for you. You may start out thinking you want to achieve one thing from coaching, and end up realising that you need to focus on something else first. Stay flexible and go with your instincts and those of your coach.

So, in brief:

  • Do some initial research.
  • Compile a shortlist.
  • Contact one or two.
  • See how it feels with each one.
  • Choose a coach and start work together.