When to consider hiring a business coach and how to choose the right one

As business owners and managers, we’re often told that success comes from working ‘on the business’, rather than simply ‘in the business’. But that’s often easier said than done. So, in an effort to gain a competitive advantage, many have started seeking external help in the form of business coaches. 

But what exactly does a coach do? And is a coach right for your business?

When should you engage a business coach?

When it comes down to it, the main reason people hire a coach is because they want their business to grow. At least that was what prompted PNP Solutions CEO Patrick Northcott to engage a business coach.

“I was really focused on growing the business and I was working with a mentor for two hours a month. But I just didn’t find it enough,” he says. “Besides, a mentor is very focused on the individual rather than the business whereas a business coach works with everyone.”

Michelle Saunders, Director of Perth-based accounting firm Cooper Partners says she was looking for a business coach for different reasons. Like many accounting firms, Cooper Partners has multiple directors with a stake in the business - all of whom are practising accountants. In this context, it made sense to get an outside, independent perspective on the best way forward.

“We are all very experienced and so we all have very fixed ideas on what works with our clients when it comes to business development,” she says. “To move beyond that, we really wanted someone who would hold us to account and challenge our thinking.”

This led Cooper Partners to formally engage a business coach.

From the coach’s point of view there are also businesses and business owners who are suited to coaching and those who are not. “If the business owner thinks they know everything, it’s not going to work. You need to go into the process with an open mind; otherwise you might as well save your money,” says business coach, Sean Collins.

How do you choose a business coach?

Because coaching involves a level of trust, perhaps the most important factor when choosing the right person is that you respect them and the advice they give. For many people that means it’s important that the coach understands how your business works, as well as the industry you work in.

As Cooper Partners plays in a niche part of the accountancy field - and counts other accountants as its clients - Saunders says that an understanding of their industry was the decisive factor in choosing a business coach.

“We wanted someone from a big accountancy firm background,” Saunders says. “So they knew what we were talking about.”

Meanwhile, Northcott says he was focused on other factors. “I spoke to several coaches but I deliberately chose a coach who had experience building up his own business first,” Northcott says. “I think a lot of teachers or educators fall into it because they can’t do it themselves.”

Northcott also wanted someone with flexibility, the ability to listen and whose program would was based on a sound methodology.

Different coaches will use different methodologies. As HBR explains, some coaches use 360 degree assessments; others prefer psychological feedback or in-depth interviews. A good coach should always be able to explain their methodology to you, why they use it and what results you can expect. But ultimately, what’s right for you will depend on your personality, your business and what you hope to achieve.

Beyond technical knowledge, both owners cited a level of personal rapport as one of the most significant factors in choosing the right coach. However, that doesn’t mean that you want someone who’s always going to agree with what you say. After all, the ability to challenge your thinking is one of the most important things a business coach can bring.

Speaking of which...

Some business owners are open to changing everything but themselves.

What will a business coach do?

One of the most important things a business coach will do is to work out what’s holding you back; interrogating and challenging your existing business processes and assumptions in the process. Many coaches do this through a ‘fact-finding’ process, which often involves interviewing and hosting workshops with all staff members (not just the leadership team) to get an accurate picture of how the business works.

This can be a confronting process, Collins says, especially if the fact-finding reveals is the business owner themselves that’s the problem. “Some business owners are open to changing everything but themselves,” he says.

After this analysis, a coach will usually identify some key areas that your business should be working on. They will generally also work with you to develop a plan for change, often using their contact book to find the right people to help you out.

New ideas, new directions and a new way of talking

Sometimes what a business coach uncovers and the agenda they set may catch you by surprise. For instance, Northcott always knew his staff were motivated and hardworking but when a business coach shone a spotlight on his processes, he realised “not everyone was rowing in the same direction”. Based on this discovery, he asked both people and processes to change. And when many people weren’t prepared to, this was accompanied by a number of voluntary resignations.

At the time, Northcott thought this would have a substantial negative impact on his business. “But actually, the business culture became much stronger,” he says.

Another thing business coaches should bring to the table is new ideas and potentially even a new business direction. That’s what Cooper Partners found. Prior experience in the accounting industry meant their coach was able to recognise a niche that Cooper Partners, as SMSF accounting experts, could fill.

“When licensing requirements changed, we saw a big opportunity that we could take advantage of which we wouldn’t otherwise have worked on,” she says.

Is a business coach good value?

A good business coach doesn’t come cheap. You should at least expect to pay $2,000 a day for a coach’s services. This rises to $5,000-$10,000 a day or even more for the most in-demand business coaches.

That may seem extravagant, but is it worth it? Patrick Northcott thinks so, especially as revenue has improved by more than a quarter since engaging a coach.

For Saunders, the process of engaging a coach has been valuable too: “Our coach helped us refine our message and how we position ourselves,” she says.

“We also re-designed what we were doing so that we’ve packaged up new services that opened new revenue streams.”

Checklist: 7 questions to ask when hiring a business coach

Here are seven questions you should ask before choosing a business coach:

  1. Do you trust and respect the coach?
  2. Does the coach understand your industry?
  3. Has the coach run their own business?
  4. What methodology will they use?
  5. Are they listening to what you’re saying?
  6. Do they have the contacts that will help you grow?
  7. Have they helped businesses similar to yours?

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