"Choose the one you don't like!" On finding the right executive coach

Markus sat at his new desk looking out the window on the 12th floor of a modern glass tower in the city-center of Munich. He should be happy. It was his first day in his new position as the head of sales for the public sector in Europe.

When he joined a global cloud computing company five years ago he had the clear goal of getting into a sales leadership role. Being a trained computer scientist, he moved into sales already a couple of years after university, and now at the age of 38 he felt some level of achievement. He reached his goal.

However, after learning he will be promoted, he felt increasingly uneasy about the new position. He knew that he was a good salesman. Clients appreciated him. His manager was supportive. Teammates saw him as a role model.

But he was worried he may not be able to handle the new job with its increased responsibility and grown visibility.

Markus knew that he isn't the best when it comes to office politics, a skill he probably would need in his new role. Also, he hated networking events with its seemingly senseless chit-chat over wine and cheese. In addition, he developed some kind of social anxiety over the last two years which were characterized by remote-working, zoom meetings, and the absence of any real in-person gatherings.

He felt anxious. The many unknowns of the new job were bugging him. But letting this opportunity pass was not an option he wanted to consider. And just continuing with what he is doing now, what he knew best, felt wrong. He was always driven by leveraging his own potential to the maximum.

What should he do about the concerns he had? Markus decided to get a coach!

The goals were clear. To address his doubts; to define specific actions that would help to become successful in his new role; and generally, to have a sparring partner in the process of transitioning into management. He didn't want the company to know about his issues and decided to finance the whole endeavor himself. A quite significant decision as he realized later, when he compared the rates of executive coaches that ranged from 150 to 300 euro per hour.

But how to get started? How to find an executive coach that is a good fit for his requirements and goals?

He spent days googling for "executive coach munich" in various variations. Appending it with "sales leadership", "management transition", "imposter syndrome", "social anxiety", and so forth. The results left him clueless.

He ended up on dozens of webpages of coaches. Some pages good, some terrible. Every coach seemed to have developed his own profession. There where life coaches, career coaches, systemic coaches, leadership coaches, business coaches, presence coaches, mindfulness coaches, transformation coaches, and the list goes on.

In-between he got routed to bus-ride and transportation companies. Searching for "coaches munich" obviously had multiple meanings. It was clear - this was not the way to find a good, the right, coach.

So, he changed his google query, now looking for "how to select the right executive coach". The articles he found were promising. At least he got some guidance on what to look for. The location of the coach to ensure easy accessibility. A certification by the ICF (International Coaching Federation) to prove at least a basic level of education and experience. Checking for industry - and functional experience to be sure there is a general understanding of his context. The availability and the hourly rate of the coach. Of course, getting a recommendation would also help.

Markus still wasn't happy with this. First, he didn't know people who worked with coaches, and he didn't want to ask to offensively. This should stay his little "private project". And second, he felt there is something big missing in the recommended selection process.

Shouldn't the problem I'd like to address be a key factor in choosing the right coach?

Doesn't it make a difference if you're struggling with self-confidence, anxieties, personal resilience, or if you're looking to learn how to navigate in the corporate world or to improve your presentation skills?

Is it secondary for coach-selection, if you want to work with your team, with your organization, with cross-functional teams, or just with yourself?

There must be a way to include the "scope of work" into the search, but how?

One evening he went out with his wife to meet a befriended couple - Gabi and Thomas. It turned out that Thomas is looking into switching from his role as HR leader in a big FTSE 500 bank to become a coach. He was excitedly talking about the latest course he took on "co-active coaching" and his plans to start studying psychotherapy to provide more depth to his coaching. Markus felt relieved, finally he found someone to ask all his questions about how to find the right coach.

It was this evening when he first learned about the four schools of executive coaching. Despite all his google-searching he never came across it. Thomas knew exactly how he felt. Having spent the last years looking into the industry before deciding to make his move.

"Markus, the coaching industry is a mess! It's not regulated - everybody can call herself a coach."

"The really good coaches often don't have a website. And for some others it would be better if they would take their website offline. The blogs and articles you can find are mostly marketing-driven. To find good information, you have to dig deep, find the right forums and read the right books".

When Thomas heard Markus complaining that he can't believe how the type of problem to tackle doesn't seem to play a role in most articles about selecting the right coach, he promised to send him an article from a book he recently read. Thomas kept his promise.

The next evening Markus was deep into reading "Comparing psychodynamic and non-psychodynamic approaches to executive coaching" by Vega Zagier Roberts and Michael Jarrett. The authors introduce a simple two-by-two matrix categorizing executive coaching into four schools. Exactly what Markus was looking for all the way. The two dimensions of the matrix are:

  • The aim of the coaching: Is it to bring external changes or internal ones? External being changes in output or behavior changes. Internal changes being increased self-awareness and learning.
  • The focus of attention of the coaching: is it the individual or a team, group, or maybe even a whole organization.

The article also highlights that in most executive coaching sessions many aspects, from internal to external, but also from individual to team are covered. It's not separate baskets but rather a continuum between the four quadrants. Markus found this to be a great way to start thinking about what experience and education to look for in a coach.

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Figure 1: The four schools of coaching
by Vega Zagier Roberts and Michael Jarrett

When thinking about the main aim of the coaching - external or internal - things got complicated. Of course, the main goal was to see a change in output. He wanted to act with more confidence and to fully embrace the opportunity that was given to him.

But at the same time Markus knew, or better said felt, that there where things "under the carpet" that were driving his uncertainty. And instead of going for the symptoms he wanted to lookout for the root causes.

He thought about this for a couple of days and decided to start searching for an executive coach with education and experience in the bottom-left quadrant: a therapeutically informed coach.

Suddenly the search was getting easy. Markus started to look for executive coaches that also had a formal education in psychotherapy. He created a short-list of three, based on all the criteria he learned through his earlier internet searches, but extended it with the therapeutical education requirement. Luckily, Thomas was also able to provide him with two more names that could be a good fit.

Markus approached all short-listed coaches to have a first conversation. He was open about his approach of "shopping around" and to have this first conversation to learn about the coach, her approach, and most importantly to see if he likes the coach, or at least if he could imagine working with this person for months if not years.

He knew this would be a longer engagement. When working on ones "inner theatre" there are no quick fixes. It turned out that the coaches he selected where all more than happy to have a first non-committal discussion. Most actually said that they would have asked for this anyways. It's also important for them to see if they really could be of help.

Being diligent as he is, Markus started to build a spreadsheet to rank his shortlisted coaches based on their experience with therapeutical-backed coaching, their certifications, their experience in his industry and with similar roles, their availability, the cost, and finally the sympathy he felt based on the first meeting.

Markus was happy with his progress and his ranking. He made up his mind and wanted to reach out to the "winner" straight when he was back from a further-education session at his Alma Matter - a business school south of Paris in a beautiful little city called Fontainebleau.

When he came back Markus changed his mind. He didn't select the top-ranked coach, but instead went with the one in third place. What happened?

While on the beautiful campus in Fontainebleau he met one of his former organizational behavior professors. Speaking about his struggle to find a good coach, his aha-moment in finding the four schools of executive coaching, and his ranking method.

The Professor succinctly stated:

"Be careful in selecting the coach you feel most sympathy for. You will like each other. You will enjoy your sessions. But you might not address the real issues at hand, the tough ones. The issues under the carpet."

Ouch! He never thought about that. Could it be that sympathy inhibits improvement? Could it be that working with someone who you don't like is the better choice?

His professor told him that, of course, he shouldn't feel complete antipathy or aversion for his coach. He would have to be able to develop a proper working relationship. But strong feelings of sympathy, understanding, and alignment can be a warning sign when selecting an executive coach.

One the flight back from Charles-de-Gaulle to Franz-Josef-Strauss airport, he thought about the discussion with his professor and reviewed his ranking. In the light of these new thoughts a coach named Adam could be the right choice.

Excellent references, lots of experience working with mid-career professionals, but he got a low sympathy scoring. Adam has been an executive in the IT industry himself before turning into coaching. He had an impressive educational record with multiple coaching certifications and a psychoanalysis degree. He also practiced as an independent psychotherapist.

Markus remembers that he felt awkward during the first session, as Adam took a long time to think before responding and asked questions that seemed to make little sense at first glance. Conversations with Adam were slow paced and with plenty of silence. Something that Markus was not used to, and honestly a bit scared of.

But maybe that's exactly what the professor meant. Markus knew that Adam would touch the difficult and tricky topics, and that he'd drill deep with his questioning. Slow but targeted.

Fast forward a few months and Markus is happy with his choice. He still vividly remembers that evening sitting at his new desk with all his concerns about the new role. His assumptions about Adam proved to be correct - so far. Working with Adam was not the easy path. Markus got surprised by how "deep" the conversations with Adam are going, how emotional he is becoming, and what's appearing from "under the carpet" - his unconsciousness.

But Markus feels safe, he knows he is in good hands, and with every session he learns more about himself, his coping mechanisms, and his "red buttons" that trigger unproductive behavior.

He learned how to better navigate office politics buy understanding the bigger picture of his role in the organization. He has now a working strategy for the social gatherings and networking events he previously avoided.

And, surprisingly to him, he found that his increased self- awareness gives him more confidence to live with the uncertainties that the new job brings.

The coaching just started, it's not an easy journey. Often emotionally tiring. And changing one's behavior is truly hard work. But as the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow said:

"In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety."