Nobody Buys Coaching


Of course people buy coaching. Coaches of all kinds are hired routinely to work with individuals or groups and in organisations large and small. The point is that “getting coaching” was probably not the reason the coach was hired. Coaching was not the end in itself; more a means to an end such as performance improvement, problem resolution or (in some cases) dream fulfilment.

Having worked as an executive coach and consultant for over fifteen years, it is my experience that three great myths surround coaching:

  1. People buy coaching (as outlined above, I doubt that is the case)
  2. Buyers of coaching and coachees have a clear idea of the results that coaching can achieve
  3. Buyers of coaching and coachees are able to make an informed judgement of the capabilities of one coach versus another

Let’s unpack those propositions.

1          I contend that coaching is a means to an end not an end in itself. Two cornerstones of effective coaching are contracting and goal setting. Neither can be accomplished without a clear understanding on the part of both coachee and buyer of coaching (if they are different people) of the aims and objectives of the coaching engagement. If these are ill defined, success cannot be judged and (I suggest) the coaching engagement cannot therefore proceed effectively.

It is perfectly normal for goals to alter during a coaching engagement, but in my view this must be recognised consciously by coachee, coach and buyer of coaching (if that is not the person being coached).

2          Unless both coachee and buyer of coaching are themselves trained as coaches, I have found that expectations of results that can realistically be achieved from a pure coaching engagement are poorly understood.

As an example, I was asked, some years ago, to deliver coaching to all seventy plus Partners in a large Hedge Fund manager with a view to identifying those that could credibly become the next leaders of the firm. The HR Director who had put together the assignment was, apparently a former HR specialist with a major consulting firm that shall remain nameless. Needless to say, I did not take on the assignment.

I have also been asked on occasion to coach senior individuals around “difficult” behaviours – specifically bullying or sexual harassment. I refuse to take such assignments as a matter of principle. However leaving aside my own prejudices, I doubt that coaching is likely to be an effective approach in resolving such deep-seated behavioural issues. I feel that they are more likely to be subjects for psychiatric intervention if not the cause of summary dismissal. There is a view (outlined in books such as Steve Glowinkowski’s It’s the Behaviours, Stupid) that, once the individual is over a certain age (probably early to mid thirties), behaviour patterns are largely fixed, although they can be sublimated to a degree. That being the case, coaching seems unlikely to be an effective solution.

3          Lawyers and accountants (and indeed other professionals) typically sell themselves on the basis of their professional expertise (“I’m a better lawyer…”). In my experience, the client does not care about the differential expertise of any given lawyer beyond being convinced of their ability to undertake a given transaction or provide watertight advice in a specific matter. Their legal expertise is therefore a hygiene factor.

Separately, unless the client (the buyer of services) is also trained as a lawyer, with expertise in the relevant field, they have no basis for making an informed judgement between competing lawyers. I suggest that the same is true of coaches.

In cases where a Procurement function is involved in the buying process, a further complication is usually added in the form of price focus (as opposed to value). The involvement of Procurement often adds a number of factors to the decision process, often in the form of tick-box exercises (in no particular order):

  • Is the coach a graduate of an accredited course?
  • Is the coach qualified in psychology?
  • Which psychometric instrument(s) is the coach qualified to administer?
  • Does the coach undertake regular CPD? (If so what?)
  • Is the coach certified by an “approved” organisation?
  • Can client references be provided?

Each of these may be a perfectly valid question. However, the answers will not usually be simple or binary, nor will they necessarily reveal much about the ability of the coach.

As coaches we often become involved in our inner conversation about the process and practice of coaching, ethical considerations, supervision and doing the right thing in the right way. It seems to me that these are “our” issues and need not trouble the client or the buyer of our services – certainly not beyond a very basic level. If the buyer does indeed seek a way to improve performance or to resolve an issue, the process by which the aim is achieved (i.e. whether by coaching, training, mentoring etc. etc.) is arguably less relevant if not completely irrelevant.

In marketing our services as coaches we therefore need to consider the question: “Are we selling coaching or are we selling results?” I am firmly of the view that we sell the latter and that coaching is but one of the ways the results can be delivered. Rather than focus on the processes of coaching we need, I suggest, to focus more on the delivery of outcomes that benefit the client and that it is this that defines the “fit” for us to work with that client.

Stephen Newton