What we're talking about

A coach is someone who offers guidance and training to help you develop both personally and professionally, and work towards specific goals you've set. Coaching is similar to mentoring, but it takes a more formal, training-based structure, rather than mainly imparting personal experience. Roughly every fortnight, for an hour or two, a coach will tease out your organizational goals, help you identify what's standing in the way, act as a sounding board as you strategize and hold you accountable. 

Why it's important

Being your own boss can be isolating; you often have nobody to turn to if you're unsure of the direction you're taking or are questioning your decisions. Hiring a professional coach can be an incredibly useful investment in yourself. A coach won't tell you what to do, but they can provide motivation, practical suggestions and an impartial but informed perspective. Ultimately, that affects your bottom line – a study undertaken by professional services firm PWC indicated that those with business coaches can increase their net income by an average of 46%. 

Yet finding a good coach requires money, time and energy – three things those running a business are often short of. And there are plenty of underqualified chancers out there, who overpromise and under-deliver. Beyond the waste of time and cash, the wrong coach will only add more complication into the mix, rather than helping you clarify things.

Things to note

Invest at a level that suits you. Coaching can typically cost anywhere from $75 to $200 per hour, so you need to weigh up how much you're prepared to spend and what exactly you're expecting to get back. Ask the tough questions to find an option that's worth the upfront cost: how much is resting on this? Are you hoping to learn any hard skills? Is there a guarantee if you're not satisfied? 

Experience is king. Separate the coach from their PR. You should base your choice on their coaching portfolio and previous achievements. You need someone who can do more than ‘inspire’ you, so prioritize qualifications, testimonials, business knowhow and their knowledge of tried-and-tested frameworks. 

Look for personal qualities as well as credentials. You're going to have to spend a lot of time with this person so, even if they're perfect on paper, you might not click. There are certain ‘green flag’ traits you should look for in your introductory meetings. These include a passion for teaching and sharing knowledge, question-asking and listening skills, optimism and candor. Your coach should share your values and understanding of business, and be easy to access when you need a chat. 

There are other ways to get advice. If one-on-one coaching fees are prohibitively expensive, you still have options. Mentoring is less structured, but still very valuable. There's also group coaching, online classes, business books and blogs, events... and Courier's very own Workshop newsletter and guides.

How to find the right business coach 

1. Pick the right moment. There's a case to be made for working with a business coach wherever you are on your journey – but there are certain moments when coaching can be pivotal. It could be that you're starting up and want another viewpoint on early decisions; you need to get out of a rut; or your business is shifting in its evolution and you need to develop some new skills. 

2. Set some goals. Write down a list of areas for improvement, accompanied with pointers on how you expect a coach would help. Remember that your coach isn't a silver bullet; they're an individual with a set of skills that you can make use of. Goal-setting now will help you determine if one-on-one coaching is the right option – and what background and expertise you should be searching for. 

3. Clarify your constraints. Work out how much money you can afford to put into this and the ROI you're expecting. That doesn't mean getting a calculator out, but rather envisaging what success or value for money would look like to you. Likewise, check you're prepared to commit the time. Coaching should go on for at least six months to a year to see tangible results – with a session every couple of weeks. 

4. Ask around. Start your search for candidates that meet your criteria (eg, cost, time expectation, form and level of experience, personal background and so on). Ask any other business owners you know and other relevant people in your network for recommendations and referrals – don't be reluctant to contact people a few degrees of separation away.

5. Cast your net wider. Even if your network has thrown up some great options, don't skip this step; you want to get a proper sense of the lay of the land before committing. Try search engines and social media with specific terms, and search any relevant databases – like the Business Coach Directory, Noomii and the ICF's Credentialed Coach Finder

6. Do a deep dive on a few contenders. With your shortlist, do some background research on each member to check things stack up behind the marketing. You don't need specific certifications to be a coach, but this might be a plus for you. Delve into the quality and quantity of their experience, and the size and credibility of the businesses that they've worked with. Look at their online footprint – be that thought leadership pieces they've published or simply client testimonials. 

7. Meet face-to-face. In plenty of cases, you'll be offered a complimentary session – don't commit to anything long term without testing the water with an intro. Meet with two or three coaches and find a personal alignment. Observe how good at listening and how candid they are; drill them on their style and methodology; ask them why they think you would be a good fit for them. Can they summarize your problems and goals, and their opinions on them, back to you? 

8. Chat with former clients. If possible, ask to be introduced to past clients or find and contact them independently. Ask for their view of the coach in question: would they do it all again? How has their business been tangibly impacted? What are the coach's weaknesses? 

9. Pick your coach. You should have whittled it down to one standout option who suits your personality, needs and constraints. Confirm you'll be working with them (and not another member of their organization) and get full transparency on fees, how often you'll be in contact and what's expected of both of you. If you're satisfied, get moving. 

Key takeaways 

• A coach might seem like an unnecessary cost, but consider it an investment in yourself – one that can affect your morale, creativity, direction and vision. 

• You'll need to put the work in to find someone with the right experience, both in the small business world and as a coach – and with the references to back it up. 

• Compatibility is key – before committing, talk in person to check your values and personalities align, and that you feel energized in their company. 

Learn more

Perspective. In this article, The Stack asks six business coaches questions such as: ‘What's your advice for anyone looking for a coach?’ and ‘What should you look for in a coach?’ 

Example. From the leadership team at customer experience platform Groove: ‘We hired a business coach, and here's what happened.’

Tool. Here's a 10-point checklist for hiring a business coach, from the MD of coaching services company ActionCOACH.

A version of this article was first published in the Courier Workshop newsletter. For more deep dives into essential business concepts, sign up here.

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