How to Choose a Business Coach

Before you run off looking for coaches, step back for a minute and think about what problem you’re trying to fix in your business.

Coaches can play different roles, but not all coaches can play any one role.

Here are some examples:

1) The Sounding Board Coach: Are you socially a bit isolate, don’t have a board of directors, and are so close to your own situation you can’t think logically?

If you generally know what to do in your business, but are way too emotionally involved, what you need is a sounding board. Someone to bounce ideas off and to challenge your thinking.

If this is your primary need, a lot of coaches can play the sounding board role. They don’t need to know much about your business. They just need to know how to ask good questions.

You want the person who can spot an inconsistency between say your business plan and your life goals. Or a conflict between your marketing message and your hiring practices.

A sounding board coach is really a good listener, question ask-er, and skeptic–challenging you on your decisions, forcing you to think them through.

If you’re not sure what to do next in your business – even if you had someone to bounce ideas off of – then you don’t need a sounding board, you need a coach with expertise.

In general a sounding board type coach helps you make the best decision possible given your skills and expertise.

But what if your problems go beyond your skills and expertise? In that case you don’t need a sounding board, you need someone with some expertise.

This is an entirely different kind of coach–and frankly one that is much harder to find.

There are three kinds of expertise coaches: a) “methodology based”, b) “soft skills based” and c) “hard skills based”

2) The Methodology-Based Coach: This type of coach is usually an employee of a larger coaching company, or a local franchisee of a national coaching company. These individuals have a wide ranging background by are all working from the same “playbook” so to speak.

The national franchisor has provided a number of coaching templates. If customer has a declining sales problem, do step 1, step 2, step 3, etc… In this situation the range in caliber of talent is enormous. You might get someone good who knows what they’re doing, you might get someone who has no expertise at all but can follow the recipe book.

When you are hiring a methodology-based coach you are principally buying into the methodology… not the coach. If the method is sound and the coach can follow it, then the value derived is from the standardized method not necessarily the individual themselves.

Think of this type of coach as a “study partner”… like in school when you were studying for your chemistry exam and your buddy had already read ahead a few chapters. Your study partner isn’t an expert in chemistry, but is a bit better versed in the ideas presented by the author of the text book.

If you know the methology is what you need, this kind of coach can be helpful.

3) The “soft skills” coach is one that can be part of a bigger company, but is often an independent operator. The vast majority of business coaches operate in what I call the “soft” skills arena. This would include leadership skills, conflict resolution, people management, and communication skills (as opposed to the so called “hard” skills like finance, strategy, etc…).

These kinds of coaches are very popular amongst Fortune 500 companies. The CEO hires a “soft” skills coach to work with the company’s top 50 executives — basically to help reduce the politics within the company. In a small business, if you know exactly what you need to do to make your business survive/grow, but are having difficulty working with your staff to get it done, a “soft skills” coach can be helpful.

If you get feedback from your employees that you’re a “difficult” boss (e.g., you’re a jerk, but they are too polite to say it to your face), you need a soft skills coach.

4) A “hard skills” coach is one that has expertise in the kind of decision or dilemna your business is facing. Is your cash flow in the tank and is a big account screwing you over on payment terms? A sounding board coach can’t help you. A methodology-based coach can’t help you if that particular scenario wasn’t written up in his/her playbook. A soft skills coach can help you communicate the bad news to your team and solicit ideas, but can’t give you the answer.

In this case you need a hard skills coach. Someone with a grasp of the specific problem you’re facing and one that has ideally faced it and solved it successfully before.

A common problem in today’s economy is one around company direction. How should one navigate one’s company given all the chaos out there. This is fundamental a strategic question. But instead of using the MBA term of strategy, which everyone has heard of but nobody seems to really understand, I prefer using the term business direction/navigation.

Imagine you are out in the ocean, captain of your own ship. Suddenly a big economic storm comes and you’re not sure what to do. Do you head to the North or to the South? Do you race ahead to beat the storm or get ready to hunker down? What is the timing of each of your moves?

A good “hard skills” coach that’s particular well versed in strategy, ends up being the ship’s navigator. He or she’ll tell you to head North for 15 miles, then turn 16 degrees to the West for 26 miles, etc… Do this and you avoid the worst parts of the storm (economic or otherwise).

Putting it all in context.

In general the more routine the problems, the wider the variety of coaches that can be helpful. The more severe, unexpected, and the problem is of a “do or die” nature, there are fewer and fewer types of coaches who can help you.

Worst Case Scenario Example:

Imagine you’re the captain of the Titanic. You see a big iceberg ahead. You ask your sounding board coach what you should do?

He’ll ask you back what are the options? What are the pro’s and con’s? What’s your gut say? What’s the downside risk of each decision? What about the upside?

If you ask the methodology-based coach, she’ll say the manual says the Titanic can plow through any size iceberg. You should not feel the need to change course.

If you ask the soft skills coach what to do, he’ll say let’s get the team together and ask them. Or I’m not sure what you should do, but I can help you do it faster and more efficiently. So if you decide you want to crash through the iceberg, I can help you motivate your engine room team to pick up the speed so we can do it faster.

The hard skills coach will do an analysis and tell you you’re an idiot for taking the chance. Steer clear – there’s no downside to doing so, but the downside of ramming through an iceberg using an unproven technology has a huge risk. The upside is you might save 3 minutes on your travel time over a 1 week trip.

In a worst case scenario type situation / problem, the hard skills coach is most valuable.

Once you have business direction set (and are sure it’s right), the other types of coaches become useful. So if you’ve already decided to steer clear of the iceberg and have a morale issue with the crew, the soft skills coach is your answer and possibly the sounding board coach.

If you encounter a problem that you’ve never seen, but is actually quite common amongst other ships, a methodology based coach can be helpful for solving commonly occurring problems that you haven’t the opportunity to encounter previously (but the more unusual the problem, the less likely such a coach can help…and in these cases can often be harmful).

How to choose a business coach depends first and foremost on what role you expect the coach to fulfill in your organization. So figure out the TYPE of coach you need first, then look for specific coaches to evaluate.

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