On Selecting a Great Executive Coach

By Heather Corcoran
Partner, Next Step Partners

Executive coaching can create profound breakthroughs and transformation. How do you select the coach that will allow for the best outcome? What makes a great executive coach? What are the common misconceptions?

Former NSP Partner Heather Corcoran recently sat down with good friend and former colleague, Linda Furness, who is one of three internal executive coaches at Google. Part of Linda’s role is to interview external executive coaches and facilitate good matches with Google employees. The two longtime coaches discussed the ins-and-outs of selecting a great executive coach.

In this conversation, Heather and Linda cover:

  • Qualities of great coaches
  • How to evaluate fit
  • Common misconceptions
  • When to choose an Internal vs. External Coach
  • Potential outcomes


Heather Corcoran | Your career path has been one with a lot of rich experiences—a law degree from Stanford, an HR leadership role at Financial Engines, a start-up success story, a Partnership role at Next Step Partners, and in the last year, a new role as one of three internal Executive Coaches at Google. What led you to coaching and to Google?

Linda Furness | I think the whole first half of my career was about finding my way to coaching, even though I didn’t know it at the time. It seems circuitous, but while I was in HR, I discovered that the part of the job I really loved most was helping people to grow into their best, most capable and expansive selves.

That led me to coaching, and as soon as I started coach training I knew I’d found the work I wanted to do. I find it completely engaging, and it gives me unlimited opportunities to learn and grow myself.

Coming to Google was a tough decision—I loved being a part of Next Step Partners! But I was curious about what it would be like to be an internal coach. I was also interested in the work around wellbeing and mindfulness being done at Google. After six or seven years with NSP, I wanted to stretch myself in new ways.

Heather Corcoran | What was it about the coaching training that resonated with you so much?

Linda Furness | I think what it comes down to is that coaching lets me use all of my strengths. I’m good at connecting to people and seeing patterns and possibilities. I love helping people create clarity out of confusion. I’ve always been interested in having conversations about the things that really matter to peopleand I love discovering how people think. All of that is what coaching is about.

Heather Corcoran | From one coach to another, that’s a really good assessment of your strengths.

What Makes a Great Coach

Heather Corcoran | Since joining Google, you have interviewed a lot of executive coaches. Given your experience, what separates the good from the great coaches?

Linda Furness | This is interesting. I think really strong coaches have an overarching framework or perspective that they use to think about development and learning, but they are not wedded to it. It’s as if they have a really good map and they get to know it really well, so they are comfortable going off the map when it makes sense, because they know they will still have a good idea of where they are and which way to go. So strong coaches know and are able to use a lot of different approaches or models, all in service of what the particular client needs right now.

I also have come to appreciate even more deeply the impact of the coach’s own presence, and how much happens through the power of the relationship itself. So coaches who do their own work; are reflective and engaged in learning and growing and risk-taking themselves; and who can openly bring all of that to the coaching engagement, will be stronger coaches.

And, there is no substitute for experience. Coaches who have been doing this a long time, who coach full-time, who have a depth of experience: it all makes a big difference. Seasoned coaches tend to have a clearer point of view and a lot of comfort with being flexible. There’s not a lot they haven’t dealt with before.

Heather Corcoran | So, what’s your map?

Linda Furness |Good question! In my own coaching, I use a developmental lens, meaning no matter what issue you’re presenting, I’m looking for opportunities to create significant growth as well as to move forward on your goal. I’ve been influenced a lot by Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey and their work on Immunity to Change, as well as the work of Jennifer Garvey Berger which is about applying developmental theory in coaching.

Lately, I’m very interested in the power of the relationship between coach and client. At its best, it serves as both a model for connecting and a sandbox for trying out new approaches. How are you showing up? How are you connecting? In the coaching relationship itself, we’re able to see and change these things.
Choosing a Coach

Heather Corcoran | What advice would you give to leaders to help them choose a coach who would be a good fit and a great coach?

Linda Furness | In addition to general screening for good training and experience, I would ask them questions to think about after they have an initial conversation or fit meeting: Do you trust this person, and feel safe with them?  Did they meet your energy and push you to think about something you wouldn’t have thought about on your own? Do you want to talk to them again?  The answers to all of those questions should be yes.

Heather Corcoran | What are misconceptions about fit that leaders often have?

Linda Furness | I think one common misconception is that a coach needs experience in a situation similar to your own (industry, level, etc.) to be effective. That is probably true for mentoring, but not for coaching.

Another misconception is that you should choose a coach with a style similar to your own. A coach with a different style can be very effective at helping you see things in a new way—and that’s one of the key points of coaching. To see things differently so that you can perform differently.

And you need to be careful about choosing a coach solely on the basis of liking their personality. Does the coach match you in terms of strength, energy, intellect, etc.? Do you feel comfortable opening up with this person? Does this person push you to think in new and different ways? That’s what’s most important, not personality.

Heather Corcoran | This is so true! When matching clients with a NSP coach, I often see a clear fit. But sometimes the coach who is best suited to address a client’s goals isn’t the person the client would be most charmed by. In those cases, “liking” one coach’s personality over another can actually distract you from your goal.
I want to know more about what you mean by “how a coach matches you …

Linda Furness | Clients need to feel like their coach is a peer. A strong coach will adapt client-by-client and display a range of energy and styles. If you are very cerebral, you’ll likely need to see that a coach is able to meet your intellect or you won’t trust him or her. If you are a more anxious personality, you need that same coach to create a safe place immediately, not come out of the gates engaging in intellectual sparring. Same coach, different matching.

Heather Corcoran | The coach has to match the client while finding opportunities to stretch and grow capacities in a new direction.

Linda Furness | Exactly! And strong coaches are able to pull that off. As we both know, it’s not easy.

Heather Corcoran | When does an internal coach, or for leaders at smaller companies their HR Business Partner and/or Manager, make more sense than an external coach?

Linda Furness | An internal coach may make more sense when there is a particularly confidential or sensitive situation, or one in which an understanding of the organizational culture or context might be helpful. For example, coaching someone who is transitioning into an organization, or someone who is trying to learn how to get better at navigating organizational dynamics.

Internal coaches can also be helpful when there is a need for someone who can step in immediately, and an internal coach can be more cost effective when the need is expected to be longer term.

In general, it may also make more sense to work with an HR Business Partner or Manager when the need is more about building skills than transformational growth.

What to Ask Yourself When Looking for a Coach

Heather Corcoran | Flipping this, what should leaders be asking themselves when determining whether a coach is a good fit?

Linda Furness | The first question to ask is, “What do I want to change?” That clarity is important.

Generally speaking, there are two types of strong executive coaches: utility players who are good for a lot of people and have a lot of tools and experience. These coaches can help you develop in a variety of directions and they are a great choice for most people.

There are also specialists with deep expertise in Emotional Intelligence or Mindfulness or Conflict Management, etc. So, for example, if you need help with self-management because you have a temper, it might be helpful for you to work with someone with a specialty in Mindfulness.

No matter what coach you choose, it’s important that you have the motivation to learn, change or grow in some way as well as the organizational support for that shift. You also need to have the ability to devote some time and thought to the process.  Proven ability to learn and grow is important, too.

How Fit with a Coach Affects Outcomes

Heather Corcoran | What is the cost of a bad fit?

Linda Furness | At worst, the coaching is ineffective and the leader—or others—becomes convinced that coaching is useless or that he or she can’t change. Short of that, it wastes everyone’s time and energy and delays the needed changes.

Heather Corcoran | Right, and a strong coach also needs to be able to set reasonable expectations for outcomes. Both for the client and the stakeholders.

Linda Furness | That’s true. Some big changes can be made quickly—especially skill-based, technical changes. Developmental changes take more time, especially when they involve internal seismic shifts. A strong coach will address reasonable milestones.

Heather Corcoran | What is the return of a good fit?

Linda Furness | Nirvana! Seriously, that’s asking what is the possible return on coaching, and that’s a tough question to answer quantitatively. Anecdotally, we’ve both seen people make enormous shifts with the support of a great coach at the right moment. It can be quite literally transformative, both personally and professionally.

Being an internal coach, I now get to see the payoff of that over time, which is very rewarding.

Heather Corcoran | Since joining Google, what is one thing you have learned about executive coaching?

Linda Furness | I’ve come to see even more clearly how much impact the coach has on whether or not the coaching creates transformation. For example, I’ve become very mindful of getting enough downtime and space myself, because it makes a big difference in how I show up in my coaching sessions.

It is exciting and motivating, and also makes me very aware of all the room I have to grow into!



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