Episode: 3 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Business Coach

Michael Hyatt: Hi, I’m Michael Hyatt.

Megan Hyatt Miller: And I’m Megan Hyatt Miller.

Michael: And this is Lead to Win, our weekly podcast to help you win at work and succeed at life. Last time, we talked about the three reasons you need a business coach, and today, we’re going to tell you how to choose the coach who’s right for you.

Megan: This is a really important topic, because the coaching landscape is so crowded. I should say “coaching” in air quotes, because it feels like anybody with a laptop and a website or an Instagram feed is now a coach. It’s almost like there’s coaching inflation going on. They can have a sense of conflicting philosophies, where one person is telling you one thing and somebody else is telling you something else. That can lead to huge mistakes in your business. Not just wasting the money on the coaching, but if you try to implement those things, it can be disastrous.

Michael: As much as I believe in coaching, hiring the wrong coach can be really detrimental to your business.

Megan: It’s kind of like marrying the wrong person.

Michael: Exactly. I’m going to give some examples as we go through the show, but before we get any farther, we have to bring Larry on, because Larry is the guy who guides us through the show. Larry, welcome.

Larry Wilson: Wow! Thank you. I’m going to try to live up to that.

Megan: I feel like you just got a promotion.

Larry: Yeah, I do.

Michael: Well, I think of you as our guide, the podcast guide.

Larry: Well, the coaching market is crowded, Megan. I was reading recently that there are now some 175,000 personal coaches in the US. That’s not just business coaches, but this is the life coach, the whole coaching domain. That’s a lot of people. This market is valued at over a billion dollars, and that number is two or three years old.

Michael: I’ll bet it has exploded since then. I wouldn’t be shocked if that has doubled.

Megan: And the number of coaches. I could easily see that being way, way more.

Michael: It feels like way more coaches than people.

Megan: That’s a problem.

Larry: Well, probably more coaches than clients. After a survey of executive coaches, Harvard Business Review put out some findings, and they concluded this: Coaching as a business tool continues to gain legitimacy, but the fundamentals of the industry are still in flux. In this market, as in so many others today, the old saw still applies: “Buyer beware.”

Michael: Just to give you an example, there was a super popular book, a best-selling book, about 20 years ago, and one of my friends hired the author of that book as a business coach. He brought him in, was super excited about it, and I ended up hearing about that. About six months after that engagement began, I called him up, because I thought, “Maybe that’s something we should do.” I thought, “That would be really cool to bring that person into our business and help us.”

So I said to my friend, “So, how is your experience going with…?” I won’t mention his name. He said, “Oh my gosh! We’re still digging out from that. It was a total disaster.” So not everybody who hangs a shingle and calls himself a coach is qualified to do coaching. I have a lot of other negative experiences as well. You have to be careful, and that’s why we have these three questions, so that at least you do some due diligence and make sure the coach you’re going to hire is properly qualified so they can get you the results you want to get.

Megan: Right. We don’t want to scare you off, though. This is all kind of doom and gloom here, but the truth is a good coach, a qualified coach, can make all the difference in your business. There is no better way to go to the next level in your business, to take a quantum leap in your own leadership and exceed the limits of your own understanding and skill set than with a great coach. So you need a coach, but it just has to be the right one.

Larry: You can find the business coach who’s right for you by asking these three key questions, as you just mentioned, Michael. Let’s get to that first one: Do they have the right experience?

Michael: Here’s the dirty little secret of the coaching industry. Are you guys ready for this?

Larry: I’m ready.

Michael: Most coaches have never run a business. Shh! Don’t tell anybody. That’s true. They’ve never had to meet a payroll. They’ve never launched a product. They’ve never had the stress of the ongoing growth of a business. A lot of them have just gotten weekend coaching themselves, gotten certified in maybe a week-long program, and suddenly, they’re on the phone coaching people who are business owners, who are senior executives, and they’re really not qualified to do it. I would say probably 80 percent of the people out there doing coaching fall into that category.

Megan: This makes me crazy. You and I have talked about this a lot. As I said earlier, there’s a real situation of coaching inflation happening. There’s no real regulation around it, so anybody and everybody can just become a coach. Imagine if we were doing that with medicine, if you could just say you were a surgeon, and then you’re just going to go operate on people.

That sounds silly, except that when you think about it, somebody is getting on the inside of your business, on the inside of your head and your thinking, and they’re giving you advice, and they don’t have any operational experience. They don’t have any educational experience.

They’re just someone who’s interested, maybe like a professional personal development nut. They read a lot of books or maybe they did a little weekend training. That’s scary to me. You’re vesting a lot of trust in someone and giving them a lot of access to you, not to mention the high price tag you’re probably paying, and they may know nothing that’s relevant.

Michael: For example, another horror story. We had somebody come into Nashville. He met with me. Megan, he met with you. This person had an MBA from a very prestigious school. He had written a best-selling book, and he was full of opinions. So we had lunch with him, and he basically told us we needed to completely reorient our business, change the strategic direction, shut down about 75 percent of what we were doing, and get focused on one thing in our business. I want to be careful, because I don’t want to give this away.

It was something that, honestly, shook me up. I seriously thought about doing exactly what he was saying for about three days. Then I was on a podcast. I was being interviewed by my friend Chalene Johnson, and I was telling her the conundrum I was in. I was saying, “You know, maybe this is right. This is what the guy told me, and I’ve been really trying to think about this. Megan and I have been trying to process it.” I said, “I’d love to know what you think.”

She said, “Yeah, I know the guy you’re talking about.” She said, “You realize, of course, that he has never run a business. He has no idea what he’s talking about. It’s all theoretical.” Man! That was enormous relief, because there was something about it that I sensed was off, that it wasn’t the right advice, but he was purporting to be a coach, purporting to be an expert. He had a best-selling book, but he didn’t have a clue.

When I look at the size of his business… I mean, his business did not grow. His business has basically done nothing. He was kind of a flash in the pan. There was that one book. It was a great book, but that has kind of been it. So I think you have to be really careful and make sure the coach you’re hiring has the right experience. So maybe we ought to talk about what the right experience is.

Megan: Before we get to that, it has never been easier to present like you have the right experience, and more to the point, present like you’re successful. When you’re on Instagram and you can hire a great photographer and you can produce some great videos and you can get a lot of followers, people assume that’s the same thing as authority, and it’s not.

Being an influencer is not the same thing as being a coach, and it’s not the same thing as being a leader. An influencer and a leader are two different people, particularly in a business context. Certainly, influence is a kind of leadership, but that’s not really what we’re talking about. We’re talking about somebody who has the experience as an executive or an entrepreneur that is beyond you.

Larry: Tell us how you really feel. You know, there have been a lot of sports stars who have been great on the field or on the court, and then they get put into a coaching role or a general manager role, and sometimes it’s a disaster. Not everybody who has talent can coach somebody else.

Michael: This is right. In the past, one of my convictions was I want to hire somebody who’s really experienced, who has done what they’re asking me to do, has been in the seat. So if I’m getting CEO coaching, I want somebody who has been a CEO. One of the things I’ve realized, and frankly, I was corrected by a friend, who kind of brought up the point you brought up, Larry, that not everybody who’s a great coach was a great player, but here’s the point we’re trying to make: they also weren’t somebody who just got a certification in a week.

They were somebody who either studied it academically, studied the psychology of it, has a lot of experience coaching people, is able to do what we talked about the last episode, which is excavate that person’s knowledge and experience (the person they’re coaching, I’m talking about). I want either that or somebody who has sat in the seat, but I’m not looking for somebody who just got a weekend certification. If I were interviewing a coach, that’s something I would pry on. How long have they been doing this? What is their expertise? I want to know. Just because they have a certification from an influencer (this is what often happens), that’s not enough.

Megan: Oftentimes, what happens is people who get laid off from a job or have a failed business… The easiest thing to do is then go become a coach. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that, where people make that transition, and now they’re a coach, but they’re really coming from a position of failure. It’s easy and a low barrier of entry. Man! That is dangerous.

Michael: You just basically print business cards. You have a laptop, and that’s it. That’s all you need. You can start your coaching business. You want more than that, more experience.

Megan: A good example of someone who doesn’t have the professional experience but does have the academic credentials for this kind of coaching is Brené Brown. She came out with her book Dare to Lead not too long ago, and she’s now coaching and speaking to the military and other major organizations, and she has not previously been a CEO. She has been a leader in an academic context, but done a massive amount of research and studied leaders. That’s very different from what we’re talking about. That’s legitimate.

Michael: Another example of that… One of my coaches in the past was Ilene (I’ve talked to you about her before) at Gap International. She doesn’t have experience running a business. She has certainly run a division and managed a lot of people, but she has not been a CEO. She was my coach at Thomas Nelson when I was the CEO.

She was phenomenal, because she was able to ask those super penetrating, incisive questions that helped me access the resources I had, and I was able to lead better as a result of that. That’s what I’m talking about. It has to be one or the other, but you’re looking for something more than the person who has the quick certification or just hung out a shingle and declared themselves to be a coach.

Megan: You want expertise of one kind or the other.

Larry: You mentioned the fact that not every great coach was a great player, and I would point, as an example, to Tony Dungy. Not that he was not a good player, but a Super Bowl champion coach. He played in the NFL and even played for a Super Bowl team, Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIII, but he himself was not a Hall of Fame player. Here’s a question about the right experience: How important is it that your coach has worked in the same industry you work in?

Megan: Not that important.

Michael: Not that important.

Megan: In fact, it can be really helpful if they haven’t.

Michael: I think for some kinds of tactical problem-solving in your business… Like, if you’re trying to solve, for example, a marketing funnel problem, it might be good to talk to somebody who has expertise in marketing funnels, but that’s more of a consulting kind of relationship, not a coaching relationship. I’d actually prefer somebody who has experience that’s much more broad than my particular industry.

Megan: One of the funny things we see with our clients is that everybody comes in thinking that their problems and their challenges are unique. They’re either unique to their industry or themselves or whatever. We have hundreds and hundreds of clients in our BusinessAccelerator program, and what I can tell you for sure is that they all have the same problems. They may be a slightly different color or shape or whatever. They all have their unique texture to them, but the themes are absolutely identical. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in. They’re all similar.

Michael: So true. We get that question all the time. We just did a big event. We had some people who were considering our coaching program, and they pulled aside some of our business consultants and said, “My situation is really unique,” and then they would describe it, and we’d have to keep from laughing, because it sounds exactly like all of the problems that all of our clients have.

Megan: The truth is we’ve been that person too. We’ve thought that we were special or unique in some way, but the truth is…

Michael: We are special, but maybe not unique.

Megan: We’re special, but not that unique. Leadership is leadership. No matter where you do it, the challenges are pretty much the same.

Larry: So, the first question to ask yourself when hiring a business coach is…Do they have the right experience? The second question: Do they get the right results?

Michael: For me, that starts with whether they are a walking advertisement for what they’re teaching. In other words, are they living into what they’re advocating? Do the principles they advocate, that they hold to, flesh themselves out in their life? I don’t want to learn from somebody who’s giving me advice but not taken their own advice. Let me give you an example. I had a guy I was interviewing as a wealth adviser, which is a kind of coach…a financial adviser.

He pulled up to my house in this beat-up, broken-down car. He walked into my house to meet with my wife Gail and me in this cheap suit with his shoes unpolished, and I’m thinking to myself, “I don’t know if this guy is broke, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to hire a broke financial adviser,” any more than I would want to hire an out-of-shape fitness trainer. I want somebody who’s walking the talk, who’s getting the results in their own life.

Megan: That’s really important. It’s amazing how many people will tout something that they are not getting the results for or they’re not even doing themselves.

Michael: They just read it in a book.

Megan: Right. We very often will hire consultants for things, and mostly, that goes really well, but occasionally, we’ll have somebody come in, and they’ll prescribe some method of developing this or that part of our business, and we only find out later that they cooked it up right before they came. They haven’t tested it. It’s not their best thinking. It’s just thinking.

Michael: That kind of just happened about a year ago, and we didn’t discover it until after we got in the engagement, and then we canceled the engagement, but we didn’t ask this question, or at least we didn’t ask it in a way that would have led us to the right answer.

Megan: By the way, one of the things that’s important is when you’re asking, “Are they getting the right results in their business?” is that relevant to your business? Maybe they’re getting impressive results but in a very small context with limited complexity, but you’re a big corporation and you want to apply those same principles in a big corporation. That is a whole different animal. You need to be very clear on where they’ve had success. Not just if they say they’ve been successful, but where have they been successful and in what level of complexity?

Michael: Okay, another story. When I was in college, I had a summer job where I was selling. The sales trainer had a weekend sales training seminar. I’d never sold anything before. So he ran us through an actually well-structured program of selling. He helped us overcome all of the objections and everything. Then he said, “Okay. Now it’s time to actually go out and work with real prospects.” We said, “Great.” So he took us out to this neighborhood and dropped us off, and we were going to knock on people’s doors, and we were going to be selling them this product. I kind of was scared to death. I said, “Well, aren’t you coming with us?” He said, “Oh, no. I’ve never done that myself.”

Megan: Oh my gosh.

Michael: So here he was training us, and it was all theoretical. He had never actually done the work.

Larry: Anne Scoular, who teaches coaching at the London Business School, said, “If a coach can’t tell you what methodology he uses, what he does, and what outcomes you can expect, show him the door.”

Megan: That’s really good.

Michael: This is important. It’s not just that they get the results in their own life. By the way, one of the things we teach and believe at Michael Hyatt & Company is we don’t try to export anything we haven’t imported. In other words, if we’re not doing it, we don’t try to teach it. We’re not going to let our clients be the lab rats. That’s really what we try to do for ourselves: test it out on ourselves, get the stuff that works, make sure it works with a handful of clients, and then we export it to our client base.

It’s not only important that they’re getting the results for themselves, but they’re getting the results for their clients. Can you help them get the same results you get? One example of that… At our company, we measure things with our clients. For example, we know that in the first 12 months our average coaching client grows their business by 67 percent. Our average coaching client frees up 11 hours of week. Those are metrics we track because they’re important.

What happens to their confidence level? Our average client increases their confidence level by 62 percent. So, we have real results we can tout. You have to make sure the person you’re interviewing has results like that. Can they cite the metrics? Do they know exactly what’s happening with their clients or is it just all squishy and “Well, my clients seem to be doing better”? Well, how much better and in what way?

Megan: Yeah. Often you just hear a name repeated in your industry, and you sort of take that as a proxy for a real referral or for credentials, and it’s not the same thing.

Michael: Not the same thing at all.

Megan: If you’re looking for proof that what you’re seeing is current and reliable, here are a few tips. You don’t just want to rely on client testimonials on somebody’s sales page.

Michael: We use them. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with them.

Megan: Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with them, but you kind of have to take it with a grain of salt, because the coach could have written them themselves. Hopefully not, but it could happen, especially those fly-by-night people we were talking about…influencers, or whatever.

Michael: Or beware of the ones that only have the first name.

Megan: Definitely beware of those. Or no pictures.

Michael: I guarantee most of those are made up.

Megan: Video testimonials are going to be more genuine and reliable. You know, somebody says it on camera themselves. That’s definitely going to help. You want to ask for specific data on what clients have achieved. I think that should be no problem for a great coach to provide. And make sure that data is current. You’re not looking for people they helped five years ago or seven years ago.

You want it to be recent, and you also want to see a track record, so you do want to see a longer period of time, but not just old data. Then, finally, what non-business results can they point to? You want hard results in the business, financial results in particular, but you also want to see things that are intangible that matter.

Larry: Would it surprise you to learn from the same market survey of business coaches that we referenced earlier this finding? Fewer than one-fourth of the respondents (these are coaches) said they provide any kind of quantitative data on business outcomes of their coaching. Less than a quarter.

Michael: Wow.

Megan: Well, if you go back to what we started with, which is the majority of people who are representing themselves as coaches have no particular credentials or experience that’s relevant, that’s not surprising to me at all. They may have 5 or 10 clients, and their results may be really inconsistent or difficult to measure.

Michael: This is where you need to be a little bit like you’re from Missouri, the “show me” state, like Nick, our producer. “Show me. Show me the results.”

Larry: It’s interesting to me that more people don’t demand that. This is consistently cited as one of the top reasons people turn to a coach: because they’re looking for personal or business financial improvement.

Megan: I think this is because people often feel a little bit intimidated by a coach. All of a sudden, they’re aware of the gap in their own skill set or understanding, and they don’t ask those questions. Also, a lot of coaches are really great salespeople, so what you’re getting is a lot of copy, a lot of sales bullet points. It’s very persuasive.

Michael: Very aspirational.

Megan: Very aspirational, and it’s almost like you’re an idiot if you don’t move forward with them. I think it makes it difficult. You have to be brave to ask those questions, but gosh, you’re going to be glad you did, because the right coach can stand up to that, no problem, and will not have any issue with you asking those questions. The wrong coach hopefully you’re going to weed out really quickly through that process.

Larry: Well, people who have real authority don’t mind demonstrating that from time to time.

Megan: That’s right.

Larry: The message here is don’t settle for promises; make sure your coach is actually getting the results you want, both in their own life and for their clients. That brings us to the third question: Do they have the right format?

Michael: Every coach has a format for delivering their coaching. Some do it one-on-one. Some do it in a group coaching, where there’s an all-day workshop. I’ve done both. Both of them have their place. I think I talked about one-on-one coaching in the last episode where I talked about how I did this for years. Every two weeks, I had a 45-minute call with my coach, and then later, as video conferencing technology became more available, it was on video. I’ve done the group coaching thing, and I want to take a second to describe the differences between those two, because I think it’s helpful.

Group coaching tends to be more coach-guided. In other words, the coach is delivering some content, facilitating an experience. Individual coaching tends to be client-guided. In other words, it’s what the client’s problems are at that particular moment, and they enlisted the help of a coach to help them. Group coaching tends to be curriculum-driven; individual coaching tends to be circumstance-driven. In group coaching there’s a focus on learning general tools, but in individual coaching a focus on solving specific problems.

In group coaching, it could be a quarterly coaching intensive, maybe supplemented (this is how we do it at BusinessAccelerator) with weekly huddles and monthly momentum meetings, but in individual coaching that’s going to be something like probably greater frequency but less time, like biweekly coaching calls supplemented by action item tracking and check-ins. Group coaching is designed to give you strategic breakthroughs; individual coaching, for the most part, is designed to give you tactical breakthroughs. Again, both are appropriate.

Here’s maybe the surprising thing that comes out of 20 years of coaching, and I’ve done both formats. For most people who are serious about coaching, they absolutely should start with group coaching. It’s 10 times more effective, at least at the beginning. There’s a place for individual coaching, but the thing you get in a group coaching environment, where you have a cohort of peers, is you get feedback, encouragement, and accountability from that peer group.

You get the experience of a lot of people in a lot of different industries that’s hugely helpful, and you get some general tools and some strategic frameworks that can help you in any business. To me, that’s the foundation. That will take you farther faster than dealing at a more micro-level with individual problems. You’re going to get stuff you can use across your entire business in a group coaching context.

Megan: That’s really true, because if you’re trying to go to the next level in your leadership and grow your business, you’re really trying to acquire a whole new set of skills, things you don’t already know how to do (if you did, you wouldn’t need coaching), and that’s going to come not from solving individual problems but from learning new ways to think, new ways to lead, new ways to operate at a higher level.

In my experience, that’s what I’ve gotten out of group coaching. What happens in an individual format is, like you said, solving those one-off problems. It’s almost more like finessing or polishing something than it is building a foundation. The individual coaching can be very useful later, but I think the foundation of those big ideas and skill sets are so helpful.

Michael: Our program is based on group coaching. Our intention is to offer one-on-one coaching but only to our group coaching clients, and we’re planning to do that in the future, but it’s how much we believe in group coaching. We think that is the right first format for most people.

Megan: I agree.

Larry: I’d like to mention, too, that we are offering the free Business Health Assessment that may help you dial in on where you need coaching and which format might be the best for you. This is a free tool that will help you evaluate your business based on seven metrics and give you a personalized score of your strengths and weaknesses. It really gives you clarity on where you need to grow, and that’s available right now at or you can just check today’s show notes at

Megan: One of the other things that’s important about that community dynamic in a group coaching atmosphere is that leadership can be lonely. When you’re having problems in your business, when you’re having great success in your business, very often you can’t share that with your closest friends, you can’t share it with your direct reports, and you need to talk through it with someone.

One of the things that’s easy to discount in a group coaching program is all of a sudden, now you have people who are roughly at the same level you’re at, who can understand and celebrate your successes but can also get in there and have a context for the challenges you’re facing in a way that people in your natural friend or family group at home really don’t have, and that is critical for your ongoing success.

Michael: I think to have the empathy from people who are also struggling to run a business and grow a business and be successful, on the one hand, but also who are willing to hold each other accountable. That is really powerful coming from a peer. Sometimes people will do for their peers what they won’t do for a coach.

Megan: That’s right. We’ve had people say, “We came for the coaching program, but we stayed for the community.”

Michael: Totally.

Larry: There is some research on corporate training and how people learn best in a work environment. One study showed that when training is combined with coaching, individuals increase their productivity by an average of 86 percent compared to 22 percent with training alone. So just getting the learning is one thing, but having the context is what really makes it valuable. I know whenever I go to a conference, I seem to learn more at the lunch table than I do in the room, and I think it’s because of what you’re describing: having peer-to-peer interactions.

Megan: Especially in person. That study didn’t say that specifically, but so much training happens now online. People can be in a virtual mastermind or a virtual coaching program, but being physically in the same space as people… There’s something that’s difficult to explain that’s so much more powerful about that in terms of transformation.

Michael: I think that’s true. I was just reflecting back on my own coaching experience, because I’ve done about every possible format. For years, it was just on the phone, and then it was video conference, and that was good. Certainly, it was better than nothing, but it wasn’t as powerful as when my coach and I got in the same room, like I did with Ilene for an entire day once a month.

That was powerful. There was something about being together, where she could pick up on the nuances of my mood and my body language and all of those other things. I think the same thing is true in the format we use, which is a quarterly workshop model, where we can all be together. There’s just something about that that’s important for leaders to have contact with other leaders.

Larry: So, the takeaway here is that the best format for coaching is one that makes use of both the coach’s expertise and the peer-to-peer interaction of a group format.

Michael: Well said.

Larry: Today we’ve learned you can find the business coach who’s right for you by asking three questions: Do they have the right experience? Do they get the right results? And do they use the right format? Final thoughts today?

Megan: Well, as we’ve said now a number of times, having a coach can be so valuable, but having the wrong coach can be incredibly expensive. As you go into this search process trying to find the right coach for yourself, just be critical about it. Be really thoughtful. Be critical. Ask a lot of good questions. The right coach is out there. The right coaching program is out there, but you have to be discerning.

Michael: What I would say, and this is kind of one final tip: don’t hire a coach who doesn’t have a coach, because if they’re not buying what they’re selling, they don’t really believe in it. I want them to believe in coaching so much they wouldn’t think of trying to get along in their own business without a coach. So that’s a legitimate question to ask. “Who’s your coach?”

Larry: Well, we’ll leave it there for today. Thank you both for the practical advice on a really important subject for a business leader.

Megan: Thanks, Larry.

Michael: Thanks, Megan. Thanks, Larry. Thank you guys for listening. We’ll see you right here next week. Until then, lead to win.