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Selecting a Coach: What Industrial and Organizational Psychologists Bring to the Table

Executives use coaches for themselves or for subordinates for a variety of reasons. These reasons, however, often boil down to one thing: the belief that an individual will be more effective if he or she changes. The need for change can be urgent as in coaching a candidate who has put a promising career in jeopardy. Or, the need can be subtle as in dealing with a talented individual facing a new challenge requiring new and untested skills.

Many individuals market their services as executive or management coaches. How can you find those who are most likely to promote lasting change in the needed direction? Understanding individual behavior, the organizational setting in which the person works, and the demands that they place on individuals as managers and leaders requires in-depth knowledge and professional expertise. Knowledge becomes expertise only through practical relevant experience gained in the work place as well as the classroom. Whom should you call for the knowledge and expertise required for the development of a potential star, the recharge of a prodigy who has reached a plateau, or the rescue of a derailing executive?

Effective coaching requires expertise in a wide array of fields including assessment, measurement and evaluation, change management, adult learning and development, leadership development, performance management, organizational behavior, and team dynamics. Because psychologists educated in Industrial and Organizational Psychology (I-O) have a doctoral degree and a thorough education in these fields, they are particularly qualified to provide effective coaching assistance. Equally important, I-O psychologists have in-depth relevant experience in organizational settings. I-O psychologists typically have served internships in organizational settings. Most I-O psychologists subsequently assume managerial and/or consulting roles in organizations. Some work as internal consultants and are employed by an organization; others establish independent consulting practices and serve as external consultants to organizations. I-O psychologists, who choose careers in teaching and research, almost always consult with organizations in some fashion, staying involved in current issues and keeping research and theory relevant to contemporary concerns.

Effective coaches can be found through many sources. For example, this web site offers a Consultant Locator Service that contains a list of I-O psychologists who offer coaching services. Often word of mouth is an effective way to identify capable consultants. Regardless of how potential coaches are found, the user must evaluate their skills and expertise. Here are some questions to help evaluate potential consultants:

  • What is your training and experience in the following areas?
    • Individual Assessment
    • Measurement and evaluation
    • Performance evaluation
    • Change management
    • Training and development
    • Organizational behavior
    • Team dynamics

Comment: Many people call themselves coaches, and their education may range from a one-day continuing education course to a doctoral degree from a major research university. (See the SIOP website for information on doctoral and masters level programs in I-O psychology.) Many organizations certify coaches although the meaning of many of these certification efforts is not clear. We believe the most effective coaches are well educated in the areas of I-O psychology listed above and encourage an organization to ask detailed questions about education and experience.

Assessing the knowledge, skills, and abilities of individuals is of special value in delivering coaching services. Many coaches rely heavily on assessment instruments as the foundation of their approach to coaching. Unfortunately, some very popular and easily accessible instruments have little or no data to demonstrate their value or their usefulness. Ask questions to determine if the coach can separate the faddish and trendy tools from the truly useful. Additionally, find out what assessment instruments the coach may use since many are only available to doctoral-level psychologists or professionals working under their supervision.

  • How much and what kind of experience do you have in organizations?
  • How much and what kind of experience do you have in this industry and with individuals in this role (e.g., line management, staff functions, professionals)?
  • Can this coach work well in your culture?

Comment: The answers to these questions will help you learn if a coach understands your organizational behavior in general and the particular challenges individuals face in your industry and can work well in your organization and with the individuals targeted for coaching.

  • How many people have you coached?
    • How did you identify the problem(s) of the individual?
    • How do you assess the individual?
    • What tools do you use? What experience have you had using them?
    • What kind of action planning process do you use?
    • What kinds of developmental activities do you employ?
    • How do you evaluate progress? How? When?

Comment: Determining what the individual needs to work on is a fundamental part of the coaching process. Ask questions to determine how thoughtful, objective, and strategic the coach is in identifying the most important issues for both the individual and the organization. Coaches normally gather information from a variety of sources rather than simply accept one persons diagnosis of the situation. I-O psychology is a databased professionI-O psychologists make decisions based on information rather than their own beliefs, values, or perceptions. Ask what kinds of tools the coach will use to gather information. Watch out for gimmicks and one- size-fits-all solutions. Make sure the coach is using tools that are valid, i.e., have evidence of their usefulness for their intended purpose, and appropriate for the individual and setting.

  • How do you evaluate the effectiveness of your coaching?
    • How often do you evaluate the effectiveness of your coaching?

Comment: Coaching should result in long-term, sustainable changenot quick fixes or superficial changes. Ask questions to determine how the coach evaluates whether the goals of coaching have been accomplished.

  • How does the coach handle ethics of confidentiality?
    • Who sees data collected in the coaching process?
    • What information is shared with others (e.g., CEO, Board, other manager, HR)? Who?
  • What ethics code guides your work?
  • How does the coach handle ethical problems?
    • Who is the client?
  • What are your limitations in terms of the people and organizations with whom you work?
    • What kinds of people would you NOT work with?

Comment: Several ethical questions frequently arise in coaching relationships. First, coaching often involves sharing sensitive personal information. The person being coached needs to understand who else will have access to such information and the coach must share how such information will be protected. Second, coaching often involves two clients the person being coached and the organization requesting the coaching who sometimes have conflicting needs. Ask questions to determine how the coach will go about resolving possible differences in the persons needs and the organizations. Third, few if any coaches can handle all situations and all people. Find out what coaches perceive as their limitations.

One short hand method for assessing the ethical conscientiousness of the coach is to simply ask what ethics code guides his or her work. Psychologists who are a member of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) must adhere to the American Psychological Associations Ethical Code.

  • What are the business terms of this relationship?
    • How much does coaching cost?
    • How long will the coaching last?
    • What happens if the person being coached or the organization is unhappy with the process or the results?
  • What are your references?

Coaching is also a business relationship. Before engaging a coach, be sure to define the terms and conditions under which the coach will work. Finally, ask for references from other clients so that you can evaluate the effectiveness of the coach.

Selecting an individual coach (or a coaching firm) is an important and sometimes time-consuming process. Make sure that you take the time to find an individual (or firm) who has the skills and approach that works for your organization and your needs.

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