So You Want to be a Coach...

Many of the people who contact me for advice on how to use the Enneagram in their coaching practice are therapists or psychologists who have little understanding of the workings of business. They assume that the tools and tactics that work in one environment--the therapeutic engagement--will simply transfer to another. This, unfortunately, is not the case.

There's nothing more disheartening than to see people leap into consulting or coaching ill-equipped--it leads to failure and does damage along the way--so I'd like to offer a few thoughts and resources that might be useful to people making the transition into the coaching/consulting world.

A caveat is needed: my focus is on corporate executive coaching and consulting, not "life coaching." They are different fields and, since I am not a "life" coach I have no idea what it takes to succeed in that arena.

The coach should be focused on one thing: helping the client meet the client's goals. You are not there to heal the client, to make the client a better person, or to help the client identify the "right" goals as you see them. You should not be trying to change their metaphysical, political, or social points of view. If you do not like the client's goals, you should not take them as a client.

Succeeding as a coach depends on understanding and empathizing with the client. I have been asked what I do when I have to work with someone I don't personally like. The truth is, I have never had this happen--I've always been able to find something I like about my clients. I believe this is because I am innately curious about people, I find people very interesting, and I'm relatively non-judgmental about how people live their lives but challenging of people's ways of thinking. I think these are good qualities for a coach to have.

It helps to understand how people's minds work. Obviously, psychological training helps here, but it is not necessary. Remember: a coach is not doing therapy and they shouldn't try. I find that the Enneagram is a great tool for coaches because it helps to identify the obstacles to growth and can be useful for charting a path to improvement.

The most critical thing that someone going into corporate coaching or consulting must have is an appreciation for the mindset of business people and a basic knowledge of how business works. This might seem self-evident, but I'm constantly amazed at the number of people who think that they can become coaches or consultants without having any experience in the corporate world or, even worse, a disdain for it. I've seen this disdain from some who come from a humanities-type background; they think the business world is crass, dirty, or in some way craven, but they also want to make money off it. Your clients will see through this hypocrisy.

It is also important to have a basic understanding of the business environment your client faces. For example, if you work with small, entrepreneurial companies you should understand small, entrepreneurial companies, the kind of people that work in them, the specific business challenges those companies face (liquidity almost always being the most pressing). You should understand how these companies are different from large, multinational corporations.

I work primarily with large multinationals, so I'll focus on them. As coach going into that arena you should have a very basic understanding of finance and know: what margins are and why they are important; the difference between revenue and profits; why cost of capital is important; etc. You should know the difference between marketing and sales departments and why they often have tension; why there is often tension between engineering and marketing departments; the distinction between supply chain and procurement and how they are related. You should have a fairly thorough understanding of human resource and organizational development principles. You should have an appreciation for and facility in navigating highly complex organizational politics. You should also understand that you will be working with very intelligent, aggressive people who will see right through you if you pretend to have expertise you do not.

Many of these things can be learned from reading, and I'll list some resources at the end of this post. Many of them can only be learned through experience, however, and much of that experience can only be gained by diving in and doing the work. If you do not have a corporate background but want to become an executive coach, I encourage you to start small and start humble. Get some experience however you can, and see each engagement as a learning experience as much as a teaching experience. Remember that while your clients know far more about their environment than you ever will, you are an expert at doing what you do. In the same way that you might be smarter and more successful than the plumber who comes to fix your sink, they have expertise you don't and you count on them to be better than you at what they do.


There are a million business, leadership, and coaching books and training programs on the market. Most of them are almost worthless. You can always tell the ones that were written by people who haven't actually done the work but think they have a great theory. They remind me of a book on swimming by someone who has never gotten their hair wet. One should be critical and skeptical in this arena. Here are a few resources I have found to be valuable.
  • I always recommend Ram Charan's "What the CEO Wants You To Know" to people going into the coaching/consulting world. It is a short little primer on the fundamentals of business and bears reading and rereading. Most of Charan's books are worth reading.
  • One should be steeped in Peter Drucker. The dean of management thinkers is as fresh today as he was 50 years ago. "The Essential Drucker" is a good start; "The Effective Executive" is indispensable.
  • There are many specialties and approaches that executive coaches can take, and one must identify one's own expertise and style. Someone who has influenced mine is Marshall Goldsmith, and I recommend his "What Got You Here Won't Get You There." (I still remember walking into a bookstore and seeing it for the first time--the perfection of the title literally stopped me in my tracks and I groaned, "Why didn't I think of that?"
  • Read the newspaper and business journals. I read the "Financial Times" and "Wall Street Journal" every day and the "Investor's Business Daily" on occasion. All three have excellent websites. I also highly recommend "The Economist," though it is so content-rich that I find its weekly schedule very difficult to keep up with. For those who do international work, I recommend "Monocle" magazine as well.
  • Whether you do international work or not, chances are that your client's face the challenges of an international workforce. I recommend "Cultures and Organizations" by Hofstede and Hofstede and "Riding the Waves of Culture" by Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner.
  • Spend a little time each day watching the Bloomberg network; I find some of the other business channels a bit grating, but Bloomberg feels like it's for grown ups.
  • Beyond the International Enneagram Association, I don't belong to any organizations, though I probably should. When I started consulting I joined the Chamber of Commerce and groups like SHRM and ASTD, but found little value in them as they tended to be made up of a lot of people looking for work. It is important to have some sort of social connection if you are self-employed, however, so I recommend finding something to belong to.

Pick of the Week

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool."--physicist Richard Feynman

It may be a bit premature to recommend this book yet since I just started reading it, but I'm loving Michael Shermer's "The Believing Brain." Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine, has spent decades studying and writing about how we form beliefs, how we hold onto those beliefs whether they are accurate or not, and how those beliefs can lead us astray. He considers this book to be his magnum opus, the culmination of all the work he has done to date.

Shermer starts with a discussion of two innate human tendencies that he has coined "patternicity," the bias toward seeing patterns whether they exist or not, and "agenticity," the tendency to assign the intention of an active agent to phenomena whether it exists or not. He then explores a number of other biases of the brain, such as an anchoring bias, a confirmation bias, and an authority bias and shows how they can cause us to misperceive the world.

Wisdom traditions from time immemorial have told us that we tend to be deluded in our perception of the world, but that there are practices available to help us see through those illusions. Shermer does a nice job at providing modern (and more-rigorous) explanations for the obstacles to our ability to see clearly and provides excellent tools for breaking through those obstacles.

For a taste of "The Believing Brain," go to: