Dr. Earl R. Smith II

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You need to be cautious when selecting a potential coach. Here are a few guidelines on what to look for in an Executive Coach:

  1. Tracks in the Snow: When selecting a mentor, I recommend that you start with the 80/20 rule. Actual experience – doing what you are trying to learn how to do – is four times more valuable than ‘book learning’ on a subject. You should be very forceful in interrogating potential mentors on the specifics of their experience – particularly when it comes to accomplishments. A friend asked me to evaluate a mentor that he was thinking of working with. When I analyzed the mentor’s a background I found a series of failed attempts to start businesses. The experience reminded me of that old saw ‘They, who can’t do, teach’.
  2. Experience and Background: To be effective at executive mentoring, it is critical that the mentor has extended and successful experience in the skills that you are interesting in mastering. If a candidate does not have that experience, you are just going to get untested opinion instead of tested judgment. One of the most effective mentors that I occasionally work with has sat in the CEO seat half a dozen times and served as Chairman of two boards of directors. In addition to his deep knowledge and experience in the business of running a business, he has built and managed teams, managed strategic planning, implemented and monitored plans, turned around an organization and much more. Just ask yourself – do I want to learn from somebody who has been there and done it – or from somebody who has read about it and has an untested opinion about it?

  3. Other Engagements: It is a good idea to ask a candidate mentor about his recent and current coaching engagements. A good mentor should be continually keeping their skills and knowledge up to date. Good mentors seek out engagements that push them to learn new things. Beware of mentors those engagements all look the same. I see this pattern with mentors who have read some book and fallen in love with the author’s system. As the client, you need a mentor who will help you diagnose your challenges and develop a mentoring program that will help you make the progress you are seeking. If your mentor sees everything according to a single perspective, what do you think you will get?

  4. Full Time Mentor vs. Part Time Mentor: This one is more complex that it might seem. The very best mentors engage with people in other ways. My own pattern of engagements presently includes service on two boards of directors, chairing two advisory boards and working as a senior adviser to a senior management team. Some of my associates are similarly engaged. We are all committed to full-time engagement. It is important that you always look for a mentor that is professionally engaged on a full-time basis. Avoid the ones who are amateurs and working part-time – when they can get the work. Regrettably, many individuals today are attempting to market themselves as mentors when actually they are really only trainers, speakers, and business consultants, or only do coaching part-time while really doing something else for a living. This type of mentor can do more harm than good for you.

  5. Initial Consultation: In order for a mentoring engagement to be productive, you need to trust, get along, and communicate with your potential mentor. It is important that you have a good relationship with each other. I do offer a free initial consultation. Most professional mentors do – or one at a very low rate. Before committing to a mentor, schedule an initial consultation with them first to make sure that you are good fit for each other.

  6. Fees: Unfortunately, very good mentors do not come cheap. I certainly do not. Like anything else in life, you get what you pay for. The demand for mentoring is always greater than the actual supply of good mentors. Fees for mentoring vary. However, keep in mind that if you have a potential mentor whose fees are much higher than most other mentors, chances are that that mentor will be paying very close attention to you to make sure you succeed! Always go for relevant experience and a history of success – avoid book learning as a substitute.

  7. References: Any good mentor will have a set of references that you can call. Beware of mentors who try to avoid providing you with references. Remember to interview at least two or three references per mentor. Talk to them either on the phone or in person. Do not try to check references via e-mail. Through this diligence, you are seeking a great fit, so you need to listen to your gut instincts. You will know when a mentor resonates with you.

  8. Introductory Phase: It is a good idea to structure a relatively short initial period during the engagement. I generally suggest a ninety-day get-acquainted period. The fees during this period are a bit lower than during the patter part of the engagement. Once the initial period is completed, I require a one-year commitment. However, by then, we have established a relationship which will support such a commitment from both sides. Think of it as dating before engagement. Choosing a coach can be either the best thing you ever do or a lead to a waste of your time and money. At the worst, the wrong mentor can cause you and your prospects great harm. Always focus on the prior experience – particularly successful experience – of a candidate. Avoid pedantic mentors who see the world through a fixed set of lenses. Never commit to an extended mentoring engagement before doing extensive diligence, going through an early-engagement trial period and always insist on a clear set of metrics for the engagement. It is your money – spend it wisely.

© Dr. Earl R. Smith II