You're interested in working with an executive coach--but how do you find one? And once you've identified some options, how do you choose the coach who's right for you? I've had to answer these questions just once--in 2001 a mentor on my board advised me to get a coach, and I turned immediately to one of my best professors from business school, Mary Ann Huckabay, who maintained a coaching practice in addition to teaching (and who's still my coach today).

But I'm well aware that most people don't have someone like Mary Ann in their lives, and I talk regularly with prospective clients who've never worked with a coach before and don't know how to determine whether a coach will be a good fit for their needs. So here are some steps to follow and questions to ask:

Step One: How to FIND a Coach

This is the easy part: Ask people you trust and respect if they've worked with a coach. If they have--and they had a good experience--they'll be eager to refer you. The amount of time you'll need to dedicate to this step will depend on your industry, your role and your location. (So if you're a tech CEO in San Francisco, this should take about 10 minutes.)

If you're getting referrals from trusted members of your network who've worked directly with that coach, you don't need a large number of options--3 is sufficient. If you're getting referrals from friends of friends or from people who haven't worked directly with that coach, get a few more.

The key here is taking the initiative to ask. While coaching is an increasingly common experience, it's also a very personal one. In most places coaching has come to be seen as a perk for high-potentials or an investment in one's own development, rather than a corrective measure for underperformance, so few people have a sense of shame or embarrassment about seeing a coach. But coaching still involves intimate conversations about meaningful topics, and while we're often willing to discuss these experiences with trusted friends and colleagues, we don't typically bring them up unless we're asked.

Step Two: How to CHOOSE a Coach

This is harder--but it's still not that difficult. If you have a large number of referrals, you may want to do some pre-screening, but I'd avoid ruling coaches out purely on the basis of factors such as industry background or certification. A good coach doesn't need to know much--if anything--about your field or your organization to do a great job. And the best and most experienced coaches I know aren't certified--coaching certification programs offer many benefits, but you can't rely on them to ascertain whether a coach will be a good fit for you.

Once you have a manageable number, contact each coach directly. You should expect to have an introductory conversation so that both of you can determine whether it's a mutual fit before committing to a formal engagement. Bear in mind that you're not just assessing the coach--they're also assessing you to decide whether their approach is likely to meet your needs.

These days most coaches work in part or entirely via video or phone, but even if you expect to meet in person this initial conversation will probably be virtual. The coach may have a preferred medium, but if not give some thought to whether you prefer video or phone--they can both work well for coaching, but they do offer a different experience. You'll be able to ask about the coach's background and approach, and they'll certainly have some questions for you. I typically ask prospective clients the following:

But it doesn't just have to be a conversation about coaching--it may be possible to dive into a topic and do some actual coaching. The coach may suggest this or you can request it, although it will be helpful for you to have a clearly defined issue in mind. In this event, note that the goal isn't to reach a resolution or achieve an epiphany in a matter of minutes--that's unlikely to happen and can put unhelpful pressure on both of you.

However you proceed, the purpose of the conversation is to give you a sense of what it might be like to work with this person, because ultimately the most important factor in choosing a coach will be your subjective judgment. The most impeccable credentials and decades of experience are meaningless if a coach doesn't feel right to you. And a lack of credentials or minimal experience are similarly irrelevant if someone does feel right.

Below are ten sets of questions related to different aspects of coaching that you might find useful when talking to potential coaches. Some of these questions can be posed to the coach directly during your conversation, while others are intended for your personal reflection afterwards. I wouldn't use it as a checklist and try to address each and every question during the call, but rather as a pre-conversation guide to help you determine the factors that are most important to you.

  1. Trust
  2. Approach
  3. Advocacy
  4. Mission