One of the things we do frequently as coaches is to interview, and be interviewed by, potential new clients. These five to thirty minute conversations, which I call the “beauty contest,” are the threshold event through which we either get to work with a new client or not. Given the stakes of those seemingly informal conversations, it’s important that we prepare for them deliberately in order that both coach and client may make the best decision possible about working together.
I use the term “seemingly informal” to make two points:
- The interview is best accomplished with an informal, conversational tone of give and take, pacing itself on topics that arise and energy surrounding each of them in a natural way. The interview is neither a speech nor a briefing. The client is assessing to what degree the potential coach “gets” him or her and is able to hold the client’s agenda. This is not the place for a hard sell. It may be helpful to think of the entire interview conversation as an opportunity to demonstrate what coaching is like – coach holding client’s agenda, lots of space for client, mutual exploration, coach managing the conversation but not dominating it, etc. Being at your coach-like best during the interview is far more effective than any amount of talking about what coaching is like. You want the potential client to want more conversations like the one they are experiencing with you during the interview.
- And at the same time, no matter the degree of connection, the interview can go badly off track if the coach doesn’t have a deliberate framework in mind to keep the conversation purposeful as well as the conversational management skills and self-discipline to keep it crisp and focused. Whether consciously or not, the client will be forming an assessment of how business-like the coach is and make inferences about how likely the coaching will be successful based on the efficiency of the interview. So “liking and wanting more of the experience” in sub-paragraph 1) above is nice, but the potential client also has to have confidence this coach can also move things forward.
So what are we seeking to accomplish via an interview? The ultimate outcomes are wise decisions by both potential client and coach whether there is a “match” and either a commitment to commence a coaching relationship or a clear decision not to. (Don’t forget you’re also screening the other person to determine whether they are coachable, whether there is a topic suitable for coaching, whether the conditions of success are present, and whether you want to work with them. (Remember, you don’t have to take bad work!)
To get there, you might imagine that the coach has both an asking role and a speaking role to play in the conversation. I list the asking role first because I believe it is the more important of the two roles as rapport comes more naturally from that stance.
So what should the coach be curious about and asking? Some examples include:
- Why coaching, and why now? Or stated differently, what brings you to coaching?
- What does the client want to be different after the coaching is complete?
- For the coaching to have been time, effort, and money well spent, what needs to happen/be different after it has been completed?
- Are there other stakeholders involved in the outcome of coaching — a boss, sponsor, partner, spouse, etc?
- What else should I know about you that would be relevant to our coaching?
- How soon does the client want to begin?
- What does the client know about coaching?
- Has the client worked with another coach before?
- What are the client’s questions about coaching?
- What are the client’s questions about me?
Please don’t consider these questions to be a comprehensive list that you should start at the top and march downward through in sequence. They are offered as representative to the kinds of lines of inquiry both the client and you might find helpful to cover in a sequence, pacing, and specific word choices that make sense in real time in that interview conversation.
Turning things around, the coach should be prepared to speak clearly and succinctly about:
- His/her definition of coaching.
- What coaching with him/herself is like.
- A few examples of previous, similar coaching relationships the coach has had, the start point, and how they ended up. (And some potential clients will want to hear about times the coaching didn’t work and why. You should have one or more of those in your back pocket, too.)
- How coaching differs from other professional relationships, e.g. therapy, counseling, teaching, mentoring.
- The logistics of coaching, e.g. frequency and length of meetings, length of engagement, etc.
- How confidentiality works in coaching.
- What the client his committing him/herself to if they say “yes.”
Similar to the fluidity I suggest in the pacing, phrasing, and flow of questions, the list of discussion topics is merely a few of the sorts of things the coach should be prepared to address in the fashion and way that makes sense in each specific conversation.
All we’ve covered in this article up through this point are things you can prepare in advance of the interview. Now here comes the challenging part. How do you manage the two polarities of spontaneity of conversational flow and time/structure discipline, and how do you manage the mix of questions and statements in a real time conversation? I think the answer to those questions is by doing your best to stay present to what is happening in the room or on the phone. Keep the frameworks and lists of questions and statements in the background, to the extent you can, and focus on the coach/client dance.
The final consideration I would offer, is to look for opportunities to demonstrate a product of coaching during the interview. By that I mean, offering a new distinction, another way of looking at the situation, a perspective or question the client hasn’t thought of before. If you can help them see something in a new way during the course of the interview process, they will then understand in a bone-deep way what coaching is all about far beyond any great definition of coaching you might tell them. To do this may seem hard to do. How do you have the presence of mind in the middle of a conversation through which you’re seeking a new client to see an opening to say something like, “…have you ever considered …?” or “…what do you think would happen if you…?” or “… can you remember a time when you…?” or “tactical vs. strategic is one way of looking at it, what do you think would happen if you looked at it as short-term vs. longer-term?” I acknowledge that it is often hard to have the presence of mind to identify an opening when you’re feeling on the spot to sound like a great coach the potential client would want to hire. I think the answer can be found in dance. I find I step on my partner’s feet a lot less often if I’m focused on her feet rather than mine. I think the parallel is to pay attention to the potential client more than you do to what you’re saying and doing, and it will all work out.
A couple of final thoughts. It is often the case that the potential client holds an assessment that their particular situation and/or particular profession is unique and only a coach whose background is similar will be a good match. You should be prepared for this in two ways. The first is to offer, if you’re able to, some examples of your professional biography and/or your client experience that is similar to the potential client’s. For example, I have a master’s degree in financial management, and often CFO kinds of client are glad to hear that with an unstated expectation that I will “get” how uniquely challenging their situation is. It is interesting to note that I often get clients because of the similarity of our professional backgrounds or education. It is even more interesting to note that we almost never talk about those areas of common understanding – I’ve never coached anyone on balance sheets and income statements. My conclusion is their felt sense that my similar background is sufficient.
On the other hand, you may find yourself being challenged when you have no apparent professional parallels to theirs. In those cases, you may find it helpful to “own” that lack and compensate for it with something you have that they don’t. What that might sounds like is, “…you’re an expert in mid-market debt equity instruments, and I’m an expert in how people learn and grow – what accelerates that process, and what can get in the way…” In a way you can claim an equal level of professional capacity to theirs but in a different domain in which they have less expertise. Doing so can simultaneously counter an argument that they want a coach more like them and bring the coach’s credibility up to the level of the potential client. I have found this to be equally effective in getting new clients. So bottom line is regardless of whether you have a similar professional biography to a potential client, you have the way to make the case that you are a good match for them.
So there you have it. The “beauty contest” is just like coaching in the sense that you have two jobs to do — prepare in advance and then be able to drop all that you did to prepare to be in the moment.