I get that question all the time, and honestly, the answer is pretty squishy. In today's "helper" economy (as Warren Buffet snidely coined it), a coach can play the role of consultant, shrink, drill instructor, sounding board--whatever "help" managers, executives and entrepreneurs need to boost their performance, or just get through the night.
There are no easily comparable data sets. There is no coaching regulatory body. Like I said: squishy. So how to tell if a coach is right for you?
Start with what, specifically, you think you need. If you want to improve your overall executive comportment, focus on someone who specializes in that. (Marshall Goldsmith has written extensively on the topic.) Need help with public speaking? Check out Nick Morgan, author of Working the Room. There are coaches for everything--the key is knowing how to cut wheat from chaff.
Here are six points to remember:
Coaches aren't paid to make people feel good. No golfer pays $100 an hour for a swing coach to shout bravo as he bangs balls on a driving range. Legitimate coaches offer incisive critiques and useful techniques to improve your game. If your coach lauds more than prods, her goal is to turn you into an annuity, not lower your handicap.
Coaches respect boundaries between the professional and personal realms. It's easy for you and your coach to develop intense positive feelings about each other, especially if the coach has proven truly effective. Some coaches may begin to see you as a friend first, and an employer second. This dilutes the coaching. Avoid that devolution.
Coaches are not intermediaries. I have spent many years helping leaders of corporations, law firms and start-ups learn to modulate their anger and communicate displeasure. I do not, however, act as a go-between when things get sticky. That's not the help these folks need, and in fact, acting as an intermediary only exacerbates the problem. If your coach offers to step into the breach on your behalf, show her the door.
Good coaches never gossip. There is enormous temptation for the coach of a powerful executive to say, "Look, when the Big Guy and I were talking the other day ..." Coaches that succumb to gossip are too insecure to be effective (and that's being charitable). If they open their mouths, close yours and walk away.
Beware the up-sell. Just because your coach has helped you become a captivating public speaker doesn't mean he knows a whit about management technique. If a coach looks to sell you additional services that are clearly beyond his bailiwick, and many do, politely take a pass.
Coaches are not life-directors. If you remember nothing else about hiring a coach, let it be this: Effective coaches do not hand down wisdom from on high. The best ones offer encouragement, observation and ideas, and let their clients make their own decisions. If you hear a coach say, "You should do this," one thing is certain: He or she doesn't have a clue.