The Art of Coach Matching
A strong coaching relationship is based on just that…relationship. While some of the factors that we’d think to be important are meaningful matching criteria, some considerations carry more, or less, weight than we’d expect. What the client wants doesn’t always track with what the client needs. Yet one or more client preferences may increase the likelihood that they feel connected to their coach or even view their coach as legitimate. And while we can’t all be expert match-makers, below are some considerations to keep in mind, whether you are a prospective client looking for a coach, or in the position to match coaches and clients together.
Some common client preferences from which coaching matches are made range from age and ethnicity to coaching style, domain expertise, and other kinds of clients the coach has worked with.
While these may seem like intuitive criteria, choosing to match based on any of them can be a highly nuanced process that may or may not achieve the desired result: A successful coaching relationship. Here are some considerations for how much weight to give to any of them.
Matching on similarities:
Benefits: Sharing similar backgrounds can help the client feel comfortable and safe to open up in the conversation. It can give them a natural launch pad and ability to dive in right away. Most clients want to know that the coach will “get” them—that they share a common understanding and don’t have to explain everything. For many people, it increases the likelihood that they will establish trust and get to the heart of their work more quickly.
Additionally, similar backgrounds are helpful when what a client wants isn’t strictly coaching, but rather hopes for the coach to put on their consulting hat and give some advice based on personal experience. (*While there is nothing wrong with this, we should be clear that advice-giving is outside of strict coaching practices. Administrators of coaching programs, coaching match-makers, and coaches should all be clear with prospective clients about the reasons for entering a coaching relationship to make sure expectations and needs are understood and able to be met..)
Challenges: Sharing similar background is often more about what the client believes they need in order to feel comfortable in the relationship than what the coach needs to do the work of coaching. And while empathizing plays a key role in coaching, sharing too much in common might actually enable the coach to collude with or “buy into” the client’s assumptions, instead of challenging them or offering new perspectives. Moreover, while sharing some things in common can help match clients with external coaches, internal coaches who share a common background are often seen as too close to be objective or confidential.
Matching on differences:
Benefits: Some of the best value a coach can bring is that of an outside perspective and a challenge for the client to be or do differently. Often when it is time for coaching, what’s comfortable to us (i.e. thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, habits, etc.) no longer serves us. Maybe our coach is young enough to be our kid. Maybe they are from the non-profit world and we’re in government. Maybe they are from a different country. A coach who doesn’t know what it’s like to be us can be exactly the coach who will ask truly curious and powerful questions that wake us up to reflective attention and shake us into to meaningful action. A coach who doesn’t have the same organizational background might allow the client to speak more freely about various personalities or relationships without being concerned that their honesty will be leaked or have any conflict of interest between the coach and other colleagues.
Challenges: The ability to successfully use coach/client differences in order to create effective matches can require a level of knowledge about both coach and client that is not always possible. Matching this way also assumes you can know which differences matter and which ones don’t. Knowing which differences are truly meaningful to a client can be difficult to ascertain. A standard questionnaire for a client might not ask for their weighted preferences, or may be long and perceived as too cumbersome or time-consuming. A quick interview with every client needing a match is often unrealistic. And, of course, the client might not actually have a significant preference after all. A large coaching cadre from which to select coaches makes it difficult to know each coach’s personality or memorize the nuances of their professional experience.
So what do we do?
As with most things, moderation and context are important. Matching on every preferred criteria isn’t necessary or even helpful, but not taking them into account won’t lead to an ideal match either.
- Not every difference or similarity is equally important to every client, so do your best to find out which ones matter and which ones don’t. Make this information as easy as possible for the client to relay. Having a coach with one or two things in common that are most meaningful to the client will help them feel understood and safe, while the other differences allow for a variety of perspectives to inform their coaching work.
- Check in with client goals and coach expertise and interest. The objective is to have a successful coaching engagement, so making sure the coach wants to work with the challenges facing the client is important.
- Don’t be afraid to get personal. Most coaches are more than happy to provide any information that will help them get matched with a client. You don’t need to have long lunches or extend yourself to every networking event. A friendly phone call will help you slowly but surely demonstrate your interest in the coaches who support your engagements and learn what you need to make a good match. This is good for the coach, the client, and the organization.
- Check assumptions, and encourage clients to check theirs as well. In true coach fashion, ask a curious question or two to understand what’s beneath any given preference. Noticing and then exploring these preferences can provide greater understanding in how they serve us and allow us choice in how we want to proceed with this new information. Who knows, maybe being coached by a millennial is exactly the perspective shift you may need to get to the next level.