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When to hire an executive or leadership coach

4 min read


In my early years as an executive coach, I naively thought everyone could use coaching and would engage with gusto in the work and time it takes. The truth of the matter is that there are optimal times for someone to work with a coach, and then there are times when working with a coach isn’t the right solution.

It isn’t optimal for someone to work with a coach if they don’t have the mindset or the desire to do the hard work being coached takes; much of the work can be emotional. It requires behavioral “field work” between coaching sessions that can take a lot of courage and persistence. It’s also an expensive proposition if the individual is resistant to being coached. So it makes sense for a leader who is thinking about bringing in an external coach to consider whether the return on investment will be realized.

We often see managers considering a coach for someone who reports to them. If you are thinking about a coach for yourself or someone else, here are some criteria to consider.

Do hire an external coach for the person when:

  • Someone is high potential to move up in your organization: often these individuals have been identified through a succession-planning process. They tend to be driven to achieve high personal and leadership standards which will be beneficial in the coaching process.
  • You observe untapped potential in a good leader who could transform into a high potential with the proper guidance of an experienced coach. Although they may have significant strengths, something is holding them back from being their best. This “something” is often a behavior that a coach can help them to change.
  • They have a good solid career ahead of them but may have some behaviors that require a change in order to be at their best.
  • They are open to working with a coach: this means they are willing to take personal responsibility for the changes they need to make, and are open to doing the sometimes time consuming and difficult work it takes.

Do not hire an external coach when:

  • It’s a last-ditch effort for someone who needs significant remedial work as a final step before you let them go. I see less of this happening than when I first started coaching executives, but it still happens. Consider whether this person needs another intervention that requires something other than a coach.
  • The person hasn’t been given feedback or a performance review from you on the behaviors that need to change or get better. It isn’t fair to them or the coach to simply shift your responsibility for being honest about what you see going on.
  • They may not stay. If you are receiving signals from this person that they are looking for other work elsewhere, it may not make sense to shell out the time, effort and cost to bring in a coach.
  • They don’t take responsibility for what they can do to become a better leader. This takes a lot of forms: denial, resistance, blaming others. These are signs that the person you’re thinking of getting a coach for may not be a good candidate for the work.

When you hire a coach for someone who reports to you, make sure that they understand why you are considering a coach rather than another type of training or intervention. A good coach can be a catalyst for change, but they cannot “make” someone change. The person who will be the beneficiary must be mentally ready and willing to take on the emotional courage and to spend the time it takes to have a successful engagement with a coach.

Finally, if you decide to bring in a coach for someone who reports to you, give them the option of saying “no.” If you press too hard to make the case, resistance may set in as well as doubt about your motives.

Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 12 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive-coaching firm that manages Fortune 500 corporate-coaching initiatives and coaches leaders to prepare them for bigger and better things.