How to Select the Perfect Executive Coach: Five Tips

Categories: Global Leadership

Today’s corporate world is full of uncertainty, ambiguity, complexity, and large-scale change. In this environment, experienced and skilled executive coaches can help executives lead in a way that is realistic, aligned, and inclusive. 

We know that chemistry in a coaching relationship is key. But what are the criteria for selecting coaches who can best serve the personal and professional needs of organizational leaders in this volatile climate? 

There are five specific qualities you should include in your checklist when evaluating your coaching match. The first three are fundamental skills that any good coach should have:

1. Deep Listening Skills: Skilled coaches know how to listen. They want to learn about your agenda and business objectives. Coaching conversations are focused on cultivating your own expertise, not showing off theirs. The coach holds up a mirror to you and your current reality without judging and facilitates a crystal-clear assessment of where you are now, reinforced by quantitative and qualitative feedback. An experienced coach also asks penetrating questions that take your discussion to another level, drawing out insights and ideas that you didn’t know you had. They will encourage you to build out and probe different options, and then challenge you to select a course of action, while being persistent in following you around with that mirror to encourage accountability for following through. 

2. Experience with Organizational Change (M&A, new product or software rollouts, restructuring, etc.): For more senior executives, it can be useful to have a coach who is not only a superb listener, but who has also “been there and done that,” either as a veteran coach or as a fellow executive — someone with a wide range of experience who readily relates to you, your organization, and your industry. Find someone who is fluent in the language of your business, who can get up to speed and understand what you’re looking for quickly while also asking questions that are provocative and on point.

Organizations across the world face massive changes as a result of the current work environment — everything from mergers and acquisitions to near-complete restructurings. To maintain productivity and morale through these challenging, complicated times, the perspective of experienced coaches is critical. They are not going to tell you how to run your business, but they can guide you in cutting through the complexity you face to prioritize effectively and to make informed, courageous decisions.

3. Emotional Intelligence in Crisis: Many executives are familiar with the functional, black and white, nuts-and-bolts elements of crisis management in the modern business world. However, there’s another critical element that also needs to get addressed — the emotional side. During stressful times, employees may be concerned about their jobs, their families, their health, and the state of the world in general.

Leadership throughout an organization — from executives to team leaders — needs to adapt to this current environment by expressing empathy, communicating openly, and addressing the human requirements of their employees. A savvy coach will encourage you to focus not only on pragmatic crisis triage, but also on grasping and responding to employees’ emotional needs for hope, support, reassurance, clarity, and a sense that “we’ll get through this.” Enlist coaches who can assist with navigation through trying emotional times. 

In addition to these first three baseline coaching skills, there are two more qualities that are essential for supporting enterprises with a commitment to inclusion on a global scale:

4. Experience with Inclusive Leadership: A commitment to globally inclusive practices during and after any crisis will help you to both implement practical solutions and offer a reassuring display of people-first values for your organization. The most effective coaches will also ask about values and principles in exploring the path to business solutions. They work with an intimate understanding and appreciation of areas such as social justice, unconscious bias, microinequities, and culturally-based communication styles in both your local context and beyond.

A coach who encourages you to act and communicate inclusively amidst the pressing demands of crisis management will also help you to mitigate risks that can arise when employees feel left in the dark, exposed to unnecessary hazards, or left out of decisions critical to their own futures. Keeping people engaged, inspired, and performing at a high level even while they themselves feel under threat is not easy. Inclusive leaders are more likely to avoid the risks and cultivate the organizational benefits of a committed workforce.

5. Cultural Insight and Experience: The modern, global workforce consists of a diverse group of people from a wide array of different cultures — each with their own customs, philosophies, personalities, languages, and work styles. The best coaches have a breadth of experience across different cultures and will be familiar with the ever-changing business, political, and social situations in key markets. They can guide leaders to bridge differences and create valuable connections within teams and have multilingual capabilities that enable them to speak the native language of coachees and/or employees.

Consider seeking a coach who can broaden your worldview rather than affirm your current cultural reality; look for personalities that will help you to explore diverse perspectives and identify potential blind spots. Too often, headquarters-based leadership styles have a limited toolkit for trust-building, effective communication, and teamwork. There’s immense value in finding ways to shift perspectives, and a qualified coach can offer customized, flexible tools for expanding self-awareness and knowledge of global business practices

Coaching Example

A Western organization with a long-term global presence had an issue with a number of their key leaders, who each began to work with executive coaches. The company had long used a “tell-oriented” approach in rolling out global change initiatives. Local team leaders, particularly those in Asia-Pacific, tended to accept these initiatives with little pushback, although often, the results were sub-optimal for their customers and employees. The company’s new CEO felt that there were far greater insights and potential for strategic input from these local leaders than was currently being tapped, and wanted this to be part of a major organizational change initiative that would shift additional decision-making authority and product development responsibility into the regional operations.

Interviews with local executives in their own languages (Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, and Malay) not only confirmed this viewpoint but also cited specific meeting behaviors of headquarters counterparts that tended to shut down regional input. Conversely, headquarters coachees expressed frustration with the communication and leadership styles of their Asia-Pacific colleagues. They cited numerous ways in which their counterparts could step up and offer more significant contributions to strategic discussions.

A coaching engagement that involved both headquarters and APAC-based executives tapped all five of the coaching skills described above. It turned out to be particularly important to inquire deeply enough to understand the “why” behind the company’s deeply ingrained “tell-oriented” leadership style, including a history of risks that APAC leaders had previously taken for which they felt they and their employees had gone unsupported when these turned out to be inconsistent with a new headquarters direction. There was deep mutual frustration and mistrust, emotions not conducive to challenging previous leadership patterns.

Getting traction for real change over time required both headquarters and regional executives to address specific, culturally-ingrained behaviors in their strategic planning process as well as in virtual and face-to-face meetings, giving and receiving feedback, and talent development. Changes in executive behaviors resulted in a far more dynamic and inclusive global enterprise, with both lower costs and higher levels of regional customer satisfaction.

Make a Transformative Impact

All five of the coaching capabilities listed above are ultimately intertwined and used simultaneously by a talented coach. Neglecting any one of these can limit the outcomes of an executive coaching engagement. Using coaches who are able to leverage all five of these qualities, on the other hand, can have a transformative impact not only for individual executives but also for the organizations to which they belong.

Get the right coach for your organization.


Ernest Gundling, PH. D
Co-Founder and Managing Partner

Dr. Gundling has worked with numerous Fortune 500 firms and is a sought-after keynote speaker and executive coach. He has lived in Asia and Europe, including six years in Japan. Dr. Gundling holds a Ph.D. and M.A. from the University of Chicago, and a B.A. from Stanford University; he also serves as a Lecturer in the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of six books, the latest titled, Inclusive Leadership, Global Impact.

Connect with Ernie on LinkedIn

Keiko Sakurai
Director of Consulting

Keiko Sakurai is a bilingual (English/Japanese) consultant with a strong business background and cross-cultural expertise. Keiko is experienced in cross-cultural management training, corporate team building, conference facilitation, and executive coaching. Keiko holds an MBA from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, with a certificate in Global Management, as well as a Bachelor’s Degree of Management from Hitotsubashi University in Japan, where she graduated with top honors. She is also a qualified CPA, a certified MBTI user, certified NLP practitioner, and CTI-trained coach.

Connect with Keiko on LinkedIn