The First Timer’s Guide To Being Coached

When I first started out in my career, coaching was not something that was ever explained to me. Instead, you just kind-of became aware of it as you hit your first bump in the road, or conflict at work. Like classic rock, slippers and mortgage refinancing — it was something that only seem to appeal to people of a certain age.

Today it’s a little different. Coaching has gone global and mainstream. Everyone from students to seniors, bankers to baristas, can try one of the many flavors on offer — personal coaching, executive, leadership, life, resilience, sex, relationship, career, cookies n cream (ok, not really — but surely only a matter of time).

But while access and choice has expanded, information about what it is and how it works is still pretty limited. People think it’s ‘work therapy’ or confuse it with mentoring or advising. I still get blank looks when I explain that it is not my job to tell people what to do — just to ask them the right questions.

There are some upsides. I coach a lot of people who are completely new to coaching, and I take particular pleasure in explaining not just what I do, but what coaching can do for them. It’s a privilege to be anyone’s coach — but especially their first coach. With that in mind, this article is an attempt to explain the basics. It’s for anyone new to being coached or considering hiring a coach for the first time.

What is coaching for?

Coaching helps you become the person you aspire to be. The process really boils down to answering two simple questions — Who are you, and what do want to do? Sounds simple, but it is rare that we spend any time thinking these things through.

Over a multi-session engagement you explore your ideas and goals, and use your coach as a back-stop for these. Each session we ask — what are you doing this week to get closer to your goals? And what actions are you taking today to make them a reality?

How do I know if I need coaching?

If you have aspirations for something better in your life, getting coached can help you achieve that. For example, it could be (this list is by no means exclusive): finding your dream job, fine-tuning your skills, getting out of a situation you feel stuck in, being more fulfilled in your life, getting back in your groove, getting more work/life balance, or processing a difficult emotion that is impacting your work or family life.

How is it different from advising or mentoring?

The International Coaching Federation (ICF), coaching’s governing body, defines coaching as “…partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”

The ‘partnering’ piece is important as the coach is not there tell you what to do (as a mentor or advisor may do). One of the reasons is, if someone tells you to do something the chances are you won’t do it unless you have to. But if you come to a conclusion yourself (aided by good questions from your coach), you are more likely to take action. Also — to state the obvious — people are different. So even if something worked for one person, it may not work for another.

What’s the difference between executive, leadership, personal, and life coaching?

Put simply, the main difference is who pays for it. Executive and leadership coaching tends to come through companies who pay for their employees to receive a package of coaching. And personal/life coaching is negotiated between an individual and the coach outside of work .

And the labels can be misleading. I have ‘personal’ clients who regularly discuss work and ‘executive’ clients who want to discuss issues in their personal lives. Regardless of the focus, the principles of coaching are the identical — helping people identify what is important to them, where they want to go, and how to get there.

If the coach is not an expert, what sort of ‘partner’ are they?

I like to think of it as a cross between a personal trainer (focused on the mind), and an honest advocate. As a trainer, the coach uses a range of tools to facilitate expansive thinking and problem solving. The ‘heavy-lifting’ often comes between sessions as clients ponder the questions raised. As an advocate the coach is there to be 100% in your corner, no-matter what, but they will not shy away from the hard truths. Unlike others, they do this without any personal or ideological baggage — their sole goal is for you to identify and achieve your goals.

What techniques will be used?

Different coaches use different tools — I use the co-active method of the Coaches Training Institute and also techniques from the Neuroleadership Institute (more information about my approach here). My strengths tool is Strength Profile and I also produce bespoke 360 assessments, interviewing managers and colleagues to create individualized reports.

Is it just ‘work’ therapy?

No — although coaching and therapy do clearly share some of the same DNA. Both professions focus on helping people makes changes to accomplish things that really matter to them. A good coach will not shy away from tears or emotion in a session, just as a therapist could easily work on tangible professional goals for their client.

But there are important differences (helpfully set out in detail by the Coach Training Institute). Therapy is more apt to view clients from a medical model — to offer diagnosis and treat. And coaches don’t tend to focus on the psychological antecedent of a client’s emotion — more on the present moment and next steps.

My boss/friend/partner suggested it — but I’m not keen.

Coaching is for people who want to make a change, to achieve more than they’re doing now. If you don’t want to do the work, it may not be helpful for you. But if you’re striving to have extra support as you consider and push toward your goals, a coach is a great partner.

How long do should I have coaching for? And how often?

Corporate clients sometimes specify 6–12 executive coaching sessions, meeting approximately every 2 weeks, with each session lasting around an hour. This works well — if you are working with some meaty personal and professional goals. And 4–6 months is a good period of time to make some progress.

However, this can vary hugely. I coach some clients weekly, and some monthly. I’ve been working with some for over a year, and some over just 2 or 3 sessions. In fact, you can have a coaching ‘moment’ with someone in just a couple minutes if the right questions are asked at the right time.

Is it better in person, or on the phone or VC?

It works well either way and is very much down to individual preference and convenience. I have clients in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America so coach in person, via video conference and on the phone. Coaching on the phone can provide real intimacy and focus, without any distractions. In my experience it is very possible to build a deep connection on the phone with someone you may never have met in person.

Do I have to talk about personal issues?

You are in control of what you want to talk about — but be reassured that protecting confidentiality is a key part of the coaching engagement. However, whether you intend it or not, all aspects of your life feed into the goals you are working towards. An executive will probably need to speak about their relationships and feelings in order to unlock their potential. And an upset over a conflict at work could well be caused by a challenge to one of your values. Understanding and exploring your personal values is therefore very useful to helping resolve the conflict.

What if I don’t get on with my coach?

The relationship between a coach and a client is based on a good working rapport. If that isn’t possible, for whatever reason and without judgement, a good coach will always be happy to suggest a different person or approach.

How do I judge if my coach is any good?

Getting recommendations helps — asking around at work and among people you know and respect. Check out a potential coach’s website or LinkedIn and look for accreditations (for example, ICF or CPCC), testimonials and client lists. But the best way is to have a sample session — most coaches offer at least 30mins for free. Trust your judgement and ask yourself — Could I spend many hours over the next few months with this person? Do I feel like they could help me? And you may find someone who does not have a website or credential, but comes highly recommended and you get on well with them.

How much does it cost?

Costs vary a lot, depending on who is paying for it. Many companies have their own set rates, which change depending on the size of company and how seriously they take coaching. Most coaches charge some sort of discount if individuals are paying for it themselves.

Does it actually work?

Yes — coaching can have a truly transformative impact. It is a unique relationship based on personal insight, understanding and change. Of course you need a coach who asks the right questions — and an open mind to address them with. If in doubt, ask someone who is being coached or has been in the past to explain the difference it has made to them. They are the best judge of the process. You can also check out a coach’s client testimonials or ask to speak to former clients.

If you are really on the fence, you could do worse than trying it out. You should know after the first session if it is going to work for you. The worst case is you’ve wasted an hour. The best — that you have a new partner in your quest to fix the unfixed, and reach for the sky.

If you are interested in coaching or would like a free taster session please contact me at For more details on my approach visit I am also very happy to recommend other coaches who may be a good fit for you.