What Makes a Great Coach?
Updated: Nov 2, 2021
"Oh. You're a life coach..."
Sometimes I feel like I should hire a DJ to follow me around and awkwardly scratch the record every time I tell people what I do for a living. Sure, sometimes people are interested and want to know more but most of the time things get fidgety when the word "coach" enters the conversation. There's good reason for it too. The whole industry of coaching is really murky. Every millennial with an instagram and access to inspirational memes seems to be calling themselves a coach and promising a lot of too-good-to-be-true bullshit. If you see that enough, it's easy to dismiss the whole thing outright - I know I did before I started working with a great coach. There are weird corners that just don't feel genuine and it can make choosing a great partner difficult.
Every high performing human has some kind of coach that they will point to as an integral component of their success.
Let me be clear that despite the clear landmines in the industry, there is a world of benefit to having a really excellent coach. Every high performing human has some kind of coach that they will point to as an integral component of their success. Tony Hawk has a coach. Celine Dion Has a coach. As I write this, the 2021 Tokyo Olympics are happening. At those games there are literal super-humans pushing the limits of what we believe is possible in athletics. Behind every one there is a dedicated coach who is essential to their performance. These are just a few examples of the real and tangible benefit that comes with hiring out the RIGHT help to get you to your next level. The question for those who aren't familiar with the industry becomes, how do you tell if someone is the right someone? I was really wary of coaches when I first set out to find one. I knew I needed help getting through a tough life and career change but I had so many bad associations in my brain with coaching. I don't much care for Tony Robbins and everything I saw online felt gross. Eventually though, I found someone who helped me fundamentally shift my life and get connected to things that bring me purpose and fulfillment. Through that experience as well as being in the coaching world for a few years now, I've learned some pretty clear markers of a great coach that you should look out for if you're searching.
Certification or Licensure
What to look for: The most important thing you can look for in a coach is a certification. Certification tells you that the coach has gone through some amount of training and that they are operating from a coaching model. I cannot overstate the importance of being coached through the lens of a proven model of motivation and behavior change. The difference between impactful coaching and a nice conversation is adherence to a model. Most decent models will have the stamp of approval by the ICF (International Coaching Federation) though it's not a silver bullet. There are a few dubious ICF accredited coaching programs but for the most part, the ICF is a good litmus test. What to avoid: Surprisingly enough, the biggest thing you should avoid is any coach who claims to be successful themselves and wants to teach you how to get what they have. It seems counter-intuitive but coaching is about you and your talents. A really good coach probably has a laundry list of accomplishments but they don't bring it up. Instead, they will blend in with the wallpaper, challenge you to be your best self, show up on your behalf, and leave their own egos out of it. Turn on the olympics. The athletes are the stars. The coaches are on the sidelines cheering. That's because good coaches know the program and they know how to put you through it. There's actually a growing body of research supporting the idea that great performers are actually terrible coaches. I won't get into it here but you can click the link to read more about why that's the case.
There's this folk legend out there about how Picasso is sitting in a coffee shop doodling on a napkin one day. This woman across the shop runs over and says, "You're the famous painter Pablo Picasso! Please, may I have the napkin you've doodled on?" And Picasso says she can but asks her for $20,000. This woman is mortified. She says, "But that only took you five minutes! I watched you the whole time!" and Picasso responds, "No, my friend, that took me a lifetime."
What to look for: The moral here of course is that there is a high value on good work backed by a large deal of experience. Right now, a good coach will likely charge anywhere from $300-$1000 a month for a program. Master Coaches will charge much more. Executive Coaching averages about $500 per hour. So if you see that number it likely represents a lot of experience. But do your homework. How long has this coach been training, how many years have they been in practice, how many clients have they worked with? All of it matters. Experience and time teach more than any certification program can so if you're paying a good fee for good work, you'll want to make sure it's backed by experience.
What to avoid: Don't just assume that if the price is high the quality is good. Our brains can trick us into valuing things just because they're expensive. There are people out there who are exploiting this in every industry and selling expensive snake oil. Coaching is no different. So check out the resume. Ask your would-be coach about their background, years of experience, etc. It's absolutely ok to interview your coach before you start formally working together and the right questions will get you to the truth.
Testimonials and Scope of Practice
What to look for: In my opinion, the recommendations of my friends are the best indicators of where I should invest my time. I know my friends. We share the same values. So if someone I love and trust comes to me and tells me they have a coach that really rocked their world, I'm going to listen. But there are specific things to ask your friends about their coaching experience. Namely, the what and the how. "My coach changed my life" isn't enough for me. I want to know what my friend was working on. I want to write a book so if my friend is making progress on her artistic endeavors, my ears are perked. Also, how did it work? Coaching is hard to explain but generally we can connect to some shift that took place or some method. I want to know about that and it's something you should ask your friends about if they've gone through coaching. If they had a good experience they'll likely love to talk about it.
What to avoid: There are "coaches" in the world selling crystal healing, moon water, psychic experiences, and a whole host of other things that can feel really magical and could cause someone you love to come back and rave about how important it was. I get accused of being a hippie a lot so don't confuse my meaning here. I love unexplainable transcendent spiritual experiences. I pull tarot cards because I like them and I take part in the occasional fringe alternative healing practice. When it comes to coaching, none of that is involved. Why? Because I can't tell you what it does or how it works. I just like it. And there's nothing wrong with that. But if you're paying for a coach, don't let a really cool experience get confused for a solid and focused program. The is a whole psychology behind exploiting people's emotions to make money and every industry from coaching to evangelism to marketing has people doing just that. So make sure you stay focused on the what and the how.
The Gut Check
I went into an info session with my first coach with a heavy skepticism about the whole thing. At the end I was writing her a check. Why? Because my gut told me I could trust her and that she had something to offer. It turned out to be right. I knew she was certified. She was recommended by friends. I knew what she did and that she had been doing it for a while. But none of it mattered until we talked. In therapy, the relationship accounts for 50% if not more of the outcome. The same is true for athletics. And of course the same is true for coaching. We know if we like someone in about a tenth of a second and that impression tends to hold on for any relationship. Crazy right? So one really important thing you can do is just get on the phone and talk to your potential coach to find out if you like them. If you do, half of the work is already done.
A good coach will help you change your life. I mean that in the most literal way. As humans we have so much potential in us and if there's anything you can learn from literally any biography of any important world-changing person it's that they had a coach or mentor standing behind them. It's just how we’re wired as a species - we dont get the full value of our humanity unless we are connected to others. You can't do the important, meaningful, and fulfilling stuff alone. But it's important to have the right person. Choosing the wrong coach is a waste of time, a waste of money, and can actually leave you worse than when you started. Just like a terrible boss, there are plenty of people out there who will drop the ball when you really need them to help lift you up. But when you find the right fit, true magic is possible.
Do you have a great recommendation for finding a good coach? Help others by leaving it in the comments below.