What people professionals should consider when choosing an executive coach

By Paul Berry

Client testimonials can help HR practitioners understand a coach’s process – but only if they look for the appropriate information, says Paul Berry

Coaching is now well established as a people management offering, and has grown into a multibillion-dollar global industry. Despite this, the decision of how to choose an executive coach remains problematic.

Executive coaching can be expensive and HR professionals have a duty to all corporate stakeholders to invest in these services wisely. Their credibility with colleagues is also at stake. So what is the best way to decide which coaches to work with?

The current practice broadly relies on two factors to inform decision making. One is to require accreditation from a professional body. The other is to draw on client testimonials, which is what this article will focus on.

The benefits of testimonials

The logic of using testimonials is understandable. Given that there is no single governing body and the huge variation in type and duration of coaching qualifications, what better way to discover a coach’s abilities than by asking their clients? Enough positive reviews will provide confidence that the coach knows what they’re doing and you can trust them to deliver results.

The drawbacks

Leaving aside the assumption that client testimonials are not fake, I see three broad drawbacks with testimonials:

  • Coaches aren’t tradesmen
    Unfortunately, the logic of testimonials is based on the premise that coaching is comparable to ‘trust a trader’ services, where reviews are indicators of quality. It’s an inappropriate comparison, which can lead to poor decisions. When you hire a painter and decorator, the judgement as to the quality of the paint job is reasonably unambiguous. The difference between their estimated and the actual completion date is clear.

    These considerations aren’t transferable to coaching. For example, how do we decide what a good outcome is in coaching? More importantly, who decides? It’s quite possible that a client considers the coaching to have been effective, providing the coach with a favourable testimonial. Yet the client’s colleagues are wondering why they are still a nightmare to work with, and consider the coaching a waste of money. This is an example of how a coach and client can non-consciously ‘collude’, a kind of co-dependency. It’s one reason client testimonials can be unreliable.
  • Confirmation and survivorship bias
    Another problem with testimonials is related to the increased confidence they generate in HR professionals. The greater the number of favourable testimonials one reads, the more it generates confidence in the coach’s quality. We are then less inclined to seek disconfirming evidence.

    This is known as confirmation bias, a common trick of the mind that leads to poor decisions. What may really be going on here is a growing false sense of confidence. It is unlikely that a coach will provide unfavourable client testimonials – is that because all their clients think they are excellent? Or did the coach choose not to ask clients where things didn’t go so well for a testimonial? An HR professional relying on testimonials needs to be aware of such ‘survivorship bias’.
  • The contradictions inherent in being outcomes focused
    The most fundamental problem with testimonials relates to the issue of who takes responsibility for the coaching outcome. Think about when you feel unwell and visit your GP. Blood tests reveal an infection, the GP then prescribes antibiotics, which clear the infection. In this case, we can conclude that the GP, through their decisions, was largely responsible for the final outcome.

    But most coaches don’t describe themselves as applying a ‘medical model’. Rather, they nearly always say they form collaborative relationships with their clients, where the client is the primary agent of change. The coach merely facilitates the process. In which case, is it ethically appropriate for coaches to use testimonials based on outcomes to demonstrate their abilities? You can’t on the one hand claim to be a collaborator, and then claim ownership of the results. To do so suggests you are playing the role of the expert.

Are testimonials redundant?

Far from it. Client testimonials can still play a useful role in helping understand a coach’s practice. But only if we look for the appropriate information. Instead of using testimonials as a means of trying to validate a coach’s quality by looking at outcomes, HR professionals should use testimonials to analyse a coach’s process. They should get coaches to ask previous clients questions such as:

  • What was the experience of being coached like?
  • How would you describe the relationship between you and the coach?
  • What did the coach do during the sessions? Did they mostly listen or ask questions?

The purpose of these questions is to gain a deeper understanding of the lived experience of their coaching. This is important, because trust in an executive coach should come from confidence in their process rather than their outcomes.

The information can then be used to compare and contrast with information a coach provides in an interview as to how they describe their approach to coaching. A coach who doesn’t think through how they go about their practice will, over time, produce poor outcomes. But looking at outcomes alone can be misleading, result in a waste of scarce resources and tarnish the perceived credibility of the HR purchaser in the eyes of their colleagues.

Paul Berry is director of Human Performance Science

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