Leadership Development: When to hire a coach

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It all goes back to Timothy Gallwey. Before Gallwey, coaches were people who wore whistles around their necks.

Coaches helped people get better at physical tasks. That meant they mostly dealt with sweaty people, except for swim coaches who dealt mostly with chlorine-blind people.

That changed in 1974, the year Gallwey published The Inner Game of Tennis. He shifted the focus from what was happening on the outside, to what was happening in the mind of the tennis player.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history. Gallwey tells the story of the Inner Game on his web site. It's compelling, but it won't answer the question about whether you should hire a coach.

What's important about the Gallwey story is that The Inner Game was the faint beginning of what is now a hot field: coaching. Now there are coaches for all kinds of things that don't involve sweaty physical activities or even whistles.

There are life coaches. There are cooking coaches and writing coaches. There are career coaches. And there are executive coaches like Mary Jo Asmus. She describes why you might want to consider engaging an executive coach.

"The advantage of using an executive coach over other development options such as training is that the learning is customized to specific individual needs and goals."

Mentors do some of the things that coaches do. Many bosses, perhaps including you, have come to understand "coaching" as part of their job. And, sometimes, companies will provide coaching services or direct you to find a coach to deal with a specific issue.

Those can all be helpful. But there are times when you should think about hiring a coach yourself. I asked Susan Mazza, an experienced coach and friend of mine to describe when that's a good idea. Here's what she said.

"Hire a coach when you have a clear and specific idea of what you want to accomplish or become and you don't know how to get there on your own."

Mentors and bosses and the HR department can help you with some things. You can suss out how to accomplish some things for yourself. . Coaches are for those situations where other accelerators won't get the job done.

There's one more thing that Susan said, that's important. "The bolder you are in conceiving your outcome, the more a coach can serve you."

Boss's Bottom Line

The time to spend your money and time on coaching is when you know what you want to accomplish or become, but you can't figure out how to do it on your own.

Check out the following related posts

Becoming a Great Leader is Up to You

Leadership Development: Big Company Programs and You

Leadership Development: Getting the Most from a Class

Leadership Development: Crafting Your Personal Development Plan

Leadership Development: How to hire a coach

The Perfect Leadership Book for You


Wally's Working Supervisor's Support Kit is a collection of information and tools to help working supervisors do a better job. It's based on what Wally's learned in over twenty years of supervisory skills training. Click here to check it out.



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  • 1/18/2010 10:28 PM Scott Eblin wrote:
    Thanks for the shout out to Tim Gallwey, Wally. A long time ago, I actually got a tennis lesson from him in an executive education program at USC. Before I knew it, I was volleying back and forth with him and I'd never played a game of tennis in my life. It's all about one of his core ideas - P=p-i. Your performance equals your potential minus the interference. He has been a huge influence on me as a coach. Thank you Tim!
    Reply to this
    1. 1/19/2010 7:14 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      I bet that was fun, Scott. Thank for sharing that experience and also a bit of Gallwey's thinking about how coaching works. Human beings are capable of many amazing things if we get the interference out of the way.

      Reply to this
  • 1/19/2010 7:52 AM Mary Jo Asmus wrote:
    Thanks for the mention, Wally. I really appreciate Susan's comments, and would like to add to them.

    Because coaching is now used in large high potential programs, many of these high potentials are offered an executive coach as part of the development process in that program. In this case, they "don't know what they don't know" - in other words, they may not be in a position to know as clearly as Susan suggests what their goals are.

    So, a coach will help them to interpret the feedback (360's) they have received and to choose some things that they want to change. Even the best have something they need to work on, and executive coaches (also sometimes called "leadership coaches" in this case) can help prepare these high potential leaders for the next step.
    Reply to this
    1. 1/19/2010 8:55 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for adding that, Mary Jo. The problem of "not knowing what you don't know" is definitely real. Hector Barreto even named it as the core problem for people starting a business in his book, The Engine of America. My own corporate experience as a "Fast Tracker" (what we used to call "high potentials) is that often you get lots of praise but you move through assignments so fast that you never get to wrestle with your own mistakes and shortcomings.


      I hope some of our readers who are coaches share their perspectives on this one.

      Reply to this
    2. 1/20/2010 10:28 AM Susan Mazza wrote:
      Great points Mary Jo (here and throughout your comments below)!

      I don't necessarily think you have to know your specific goals. I think facilitating that clarity is part of a coaches job. A coach will also often support someone in being even bolder in their aspirations - often a lot bolder than they would be willing to be on their own or when being coached by someone internally who may influence their performance review. But I do believe you will only get real value from coaching if you want to reach for something beyond what you already believe you know how to do. Even if you don't know what your specific goal is I think it is best to hire a coach when you are ready to really reach for a whole new level of performance, growth and accomplishment. Offering a coach to someone who is high potential is gerat but I have seen coaches assigned. And I don't think assigning a coach works. They may be open to advice, and even accept the coach, but may not really be ready to be coached. Whatever the reason someone gets a coach if they really want to get the most value from the coaching they have to choose their coach and choose to be coached for something that really matters to them.
      Reply to this
      1. 1/20/2010 12:04 PM Wally Bock wrote:

        Thanks for persisting in the face of "technological difficulties" and clarifying my interpretations. What I'm taking away from the comments on the post is that effective coaching seems to be anchored in conversations.

        Reply to this
  • 1/19/2010 8:29 AM Anne Perschel wrote:
    Sound advice from Wally, Susan and Mary Jo. Additional situations in which to consider hiring an executive coach include:

    1. When you've been promoted or changed jobs - Why? 40% of newly hired executives choose to or are asked to leave in within the first year due to poor performance.

    2. When you are not achieving desired outcomes but don't know why. Often a coach can add significant value by helping to identify blind spots.

    3. You've been designated as a "high potential" successor. It's time to work on your future development.
    Reply to this
    1. 1/19/2010 8:59 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for adding those great points, Anne. Personally, I'm a strong advocate of using the time of career transitions for serious re-evaluation and re-working of the development plan.

      Reply to this
  • 1/19/2010 9:26 AM Mary Jo Asmus wrote:
    I have one group of clients who bring me in to administer the feedback process for them. Their primary interest is (at least originally) to have someone who can administer and interpret 360 information. However, I won't just nterpret the results - they get some coaching to develop the action plan and figure out next steps before they are turned loose.

    Often I find that CEO's or C-suite employees just need a reflective partner. The saying that "it's lonely at the top" comes into play when they bring in a coach to assist them in thinking and talking through things. A coach can be a confidential partner who is skilled at asking the great questions to assist them in this way.
    Reply to this
    1. 1/19/2010 10:10 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for adding those two situations to the "when to hire a coach" discussion.


      Re the C-suite executives. How does bringing in a coach compare with or complement becoming a member of a peer group?

      Reply to this
      1. 1/19/2010 11:25 AM Mary Jo Asmus wrote:
        I have a peer group and have had coaches, as have many of my clients.

        I think that the biggest difference between the two may come in the form of the conversation. A peer group would be more likely to give helpful suggestions - more of a consulting converstion. A coach would be more likely to ask questions - a coaching model.

        I could wax poetically on the effects of both on the client and how they might be different . I'll refrain for now!
        Reply to this
        1. 1/19/2010 11:51 AM Wally Bock wrote:

          Thanks for that succinct description of the differences. My own perspective is that in most effective peer groups, there's a lot of questioning, but there isn't the one-on-one question and response that coaching provides.

          Reply to this
  • 1/19/2010 10:43 AM Richard Smith wrote:
    I believe a coach should be hired whenever a person wants to make changes in their lives. A coach is there to help a person get to their goals quicker. In reality, a person really doesn't need a coach, they can get there on their own eventually. A coach helps one stay on course and reach their goal faster is all.
    Reply to this
    1. 1/19/2010 10:48 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for adding to the conversation, Richard. That's a good, broad view of coaching for a variety of life's areas.


      I think you're right that most people, most of the time will "get there eventually." But some won't. And it seems to me that coaches are especially valuable for them.

      Reply to this
  • 1/19/2010 10:56 AM Jason Seiden wrote:
    Great post, Wally.

    When engaging as a coach with an individual, I look for clients who fall into one of the three following circumstances:

    1. “I have a known, specific issue that I need help with right now;”
    2. “Something in my world is amiss, I’ve tried to fix it, it hasn’t gone away;” and
    3. “I have been told I have an issue.”

    If there's no specific goal, then there's no guarantee of commitment, no way to measure performance that won't be "renegotiated" moving forward, and really, no need to customize development at the individual level.

    From an *organization's* perspective, there are a few other times when engaging a coach for someone could be useful, such as when interpreting feedback for hi-pos. B/c while there's just know way to predict that the individual will benefit from the coaching (if the person isn't ready for the feedback, then the conversation will feel great but won't stick), sometimes the investment in the coach itself is enough to signal to the employee: "You matter to us." That alone can be worth something to the bottom line.

    Also, providing execs with the "reflective partner" Mary Jo describes can also be useful... but let's be clear: the coach's value in that setting is probably less about the coaching methodology, and more about the relationship, which to be effective at this point needs to be marked by (1) trust, (2) objectivity, (3) a pattern of listening, and (4) a history of accountability. In short, it's not the coaching anymore, it's the coach's presence that reminds the executive not to try to BS his/her way through the situation. The coach who reaches that level with his/her clients is a special person indeed.
    Reply to this
    1. 1/19/2010 11:06 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for adding those sharp descriptions to the discussion, Jason. I appreciate you adding language that I immediately identify. I also appreciate the thought that bringing in a coach can signal to a person that "you matter to us." I think sometimes it also signals, "you've got something that needs fixing."

      Reply to this
      1. 1/19/2010 11:31 AM Mary Jo Asmus wrote:
        Wally, I see the use of coaches for "fixing" (i.e., the manager or HR brings in a coach to fix someone) declining. A recent study bears this out. Coaches are being used more for developing leadership skills and less for fixing specific problems. As a result, having a coach is often seen as a sign that an up and coming leader is being groomed for greater possibilities.
        Reply to this
        1. 1/19/2010 11:53 AM Wally Bock wrote:

          Thanks for sharing the industry trend, Mary Jo. I worry that the line between "fixing" and "developing" is often not a clear and bright one.

          Reply to this
  • 1/19/2010 11:18 AM Ian R McAllister wrote:
    Wally - good blog, and it almost gets there, but not quite for me.

    Quote: "But there are times when you should think about hiring a coach yourself. I asked Susan Mazza, an experienced coach and friend of mine to describe when that's a good idea. Here's what she said.

    "Hire a coach when you have a clear and specific idea of what you want to accomplish or become and you don't know how to get there on your own."

    Mentors and bosses and the HR department can help you with some things. You can suss out how to accomplish some things for yourself. . Coaches are for those situations where other accelerators won't get the job done."

    So if that's the case, then I can think of very few situations in the job development arena where you would/should hire a coach.

    Here's where I think the answer is: hire a coach when your learning style is different to your bosses; or where your short/medium term goal is different to your companies; or where you want change-pace beyond that deemed necessary by the company.

    My concern with coaching is still that there are too many unqualified coaches out there doing the good one's down, and that often the answer form a coach is sales mode is always coaching. But there are times when coaching helps, and your piece here goes a way towards explaining the situations where it could be a useful tool.

    Good Luck!
    Reply to this
    1. 1/19/2010 11:49 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for adding your perspective, Ian. They certainly enrich the conversation. I'd like to pull two points out for comment.


      Writing about my suggestions for hiring a coach, you say "I can think of very few situations in the job development arena where you would/should hire a coach." I agree with that. I think a hired coach is one of several options and that it's the option that's best for big and important change.


      You also lament the number of unqualified coaches. I'll join in that song. Right now anyone can claim to be a coach. The industry does not appear to do an effective job of self-regulation and even the word, "coach," often has multiple meanings. I see the proportion of the unqualified declining, though, primarily because effective coaches are more likely to get asked back for another engagement. The ineffective ones move on to what they perceive as "the next big thing."


      Reply to this
  • 1/19/2010 12:14 PM Dorothy Dalton wrote:
    Another worth while thought stream Wally. I would go along with Mary Jo and Anne and suggest that coaching is especially helpful and effective when people feel blocked, but don't know why. They need support in establishing what their goals even are and then crafting a workable plan.

    I find this group far outweighs the individuals who have a clear cut idea and just struggle with the component parts. It's just too bad during a recession in times when managers and leaders need support the most, many coaching programmes have been the victim of budget cuts and reduced or even cut completely.
    Reply to this
    1. 1/19/2010 12:32 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks, Dorothy. As I read the comments, I'm wondering if Susan's phrasing and the phrasing of Mary Jo and Anne don't reflect two different instances of the same issue. It seems that they're both variants of "Things aren't the way I want them, but I'm not sure what to do about it."

      Reply to this
  • 1/19/2010 1:36 PM Jennifer Conaway wrote:
    Great blog. I agree with one addition. I've worked with people who have no idea where they want to go but KNOW they aren't going in the right direction.

    Working with a coach can help you work through issues surrounding why you aren't content now, how to identify where your true passion lies and how to make that passion your reality.

    Thanks again for the great post!
    Reply to this
    1. 1/19/2010 1:40 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks, Jennifer, for your insight and the kind words. I have to note, though, that the real quality in the post comes from Mary Jo Asmus and Susan Mazza and their willingness and ability to talk about what they do.

      Reply to this
  • 1/22/2010 10:28 AM Pablo wrote:
    Is there any scientifc study supporting the use of coaching in the field of leadership?
    Reply to this
  • 2/1/2010 1:22 PM Mike O wrote:
    Wally – Good read, thanks for sharing.
    I can’t fully understand the idea of a career coach. I get the need for a cooking coach or a writing coach those who can’t cook or write need to learn somewhere and by someone. I take issue with the idea of my employees needing to look for outside help to further their careers. You either have “it” or you don’t.

    As a manager, if I found an employee or an interviewee was actively involved with a career coach this would throw up a red flag. Why does this person need help with their career? After I hire them will they be able to function without this coaching helping them with sound bites from a self help book? I have no problem with career development and advancement, but the idea of being “coached up” is alarming.

    Reply to this
    1. 2/1/2010 1:42 PM Wally Bock wrote:
      Thanks for bringing that perspective, Mike. I confess that I have trouble with broad descriptions like "life coach" or "career coach." But I don't see them as a red flag if a candidate or team member is using one of those coaches. I would want to know more about why they're using a coach, but, from my perspective, it could be a big positive. Most people who use coaches well seem to me to use them for specific learning, but many coaches describe themselves in very broad terms.

      Reply to this
  • 2/11/2010 2:31 AM Leadership development wrote:
    Great post Wally, coach is the most important person anywhere in the world, Coach is the person who leads the team and also suggests some valuable information to their team to achieve the goal. So if some one don’t know anything and want to get more information or learn new things then we should about a coach with good leadership skill.
    Reply to this
  • 2/20/2010 4:27 PM Jason Wilton wrote:
    At what point do you think you really "don't know" how to get something done and should call on a coach? It seems like some self-help is usually in order before calling in the cavalry. Curious about what you and others think... Should someone first try more research, reading, etc., or should they skip ahead to calling a coach early in the process?
    Reply to this
    1. 2/21/2010 10:07 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      You make a good point, Jason. Let me try to answer in two parts.


      I think the process is often a matter of personal preference. I have a friend who would, in your phrase, "call the cavalry" right away. He prefers the kind of one-on-one learning that happens in coaching and he enjoys having a coach help him sharpen his idea of what needs developing.


      I'm very different. I prefer to do some research and try to work on the issue myself, then call in a coach if a) I've got a clear idea of what needs work and b) either I'm not making progress or not making progress as fast as I'd like.


      So, part of the answer is that the process for bringing in a coach will vary a lot from one person to another. It may even vary for the same person depending on the issue or over time.


      That said, there are two things that I think are important. I think good coaches are single purpose tools. For general help and advice, I think mentors and friends are more effective. I also think it's important to only concentrate on one key issue at a time.

      Reply to this
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