Business Coaching – What is It and Do I Need It?
If you’ve ever worked with a personal trainer at the gym, you understand how working out with expert guidance can be much more effective than going it alone. Professional coaching is like a personal trainer for your business. You can get general help to deal with specific pain points you’re facing as a business owner, or hire a coach that specializes in a specific area, like a business finance coach or an executive leadership coach. Some coaches work with your entire team, and others on an individual basis. If you need help with something, there’s likely a business coach who specializes in it.
But a quick internet search shows you that plenty of unqualified individuals are trying to make a quick buck by hanging out their “business coaching” shingle. How do you decide if hiring a business coach is right for you in the first place, and then, how do you decide on a coach who is the best fit for you and your company?
Pros of Hiring a Coach for your Small Business
Experience and expertise. You hire a coach because they know more than you do about a given subject—and that’s not necessarily your scope of business. For example, if you could hire the CEO of Nike as your leadership coach, would it matter that your business makes garden tools? Not really. That CEO would still have a lot to teach you about leadership. Ideally, your business coach will have quality experience in the area you’d like to focus on.
Accountability. Many entrepreneurs and business owners can fall into the trap of not taking care of their own best interests. That might mean you don’t pay yourself unless you have enough left over, or you send your staff to conferences but ignore your own career development. Hiring a business coach, for a little while or for a longer period, is an investment in your business, sure. But it’s a real investment in yourself. Paying someone to focus just on working with you, on what you need, is a great way to get focused and force yourself to do the work and get outside your comfort zone. Knowing you have to do your homework and check in with someone (someone you’re paying!) will keep you accountable the way no online program or Youtube influencer can.
Support and encouragement. This goes hand in hand with accountability, but consider hiring a business coach to be a little like getting a massage. You’re investing in yourself. This coach is going to help you be an even better version of the business owner, the entrepreneur or manager that you are now. We all need somebody who believes in us and can give us a little pep talk every now and then!
Networking opportunities. Whether you have a brick and mortar establishment or run a virtual business, success is still often all about “who you know.” Your business coach may have other clients that you would love to meet. Some coaches have Mastermind groups, where clients representing various industries come together to exchange ideas and build business relationships. You never know where that kind of introduction might benefit you and your business somewhere down the line—or where you have a chance to help someone out or make a connection yourself.
What are the downsides to hiring a coach?
Cost. The most obvious downside to hiring a business coach is the expense. Most small business owners don’t exactly have a lot of extra cash laying around. Some coaches can be very expensive. So while cost can certainly be a detractor, don’t rule the idea out completely. Investing in yourself could be the smartest financial decision you’ll ever make.
Time commitment. Working with a coach is a big investment of time (and that’s not something most small business owners have a lot of, either!). Just like the financial expense, it’s an investment that can pay off over time, but you need to be sure you can set aside the hours you’ll need to really do the work. You’ll likely meet with your coach at least once a week, and have homework to complete on your own as well. Depending on the scope of their work, the coach may also wish to observe your workplace, interview your employees, etc. and those things take time as well. If you can’t make the time, you’re not going to get the most out of your coaching experience.
Compatibility issues. Sometimes a coach is just not the best fit for you or your business. That’s a risk you take in any business endeavor, to a certain extent. But most reputable coaches will offer a low-risk entry to their services, such as a free consultation. During that meeting, you can evaluate whether this person is going to be the best choice to help you accomplish your goals. But sometimes you don’t really know until you’ve invested time and money, and if it doesn’t work out, then it’s a waste of both.
Risk of dependence. A reputable coach will help you work through your challenges, accomplish your goals, and continue on your own. Their job is to get you to the place where you don’t need them anymore. Before hiring a business coach, make sure they have a plan to show you that they can get you there.
What to Look for in a Small Business Coach
Relevant experience and expertise. While it’s not completely necessary that your coach be an expert in your business industry, it can be helpful in certain circumstances. A prospective business coach should have an understanding of your business model (i.e. ecommerce versus a brick and mortar shop). They should have experience working with similar types of businesses or business owners. Make sure to ask for—and contact—a coach’s references.
Listen to what previous clients have to say, and take note of their business and industry. Expect that the more experience and satisfied clients a coach has, the higher their rates may be. Not to say you’d never want to hire a brand-new business coach—but experience is extremely important when it comes to coaching and mentoring.
Compatibility with your business goals and values. This is something you can figure out during an initial interview or consultation with a prospective business coach. The coach needs to be clear that they take you and your business seriously, and respect you. They should listen to your questions and concerns and answer them clearly. You can determine pretty quickly if you and this person can communicate well, and if you think you’ll have a good rapport. Trust is critical. So if you have anything you want to get on the table, be sure to do it in that initial consultation. For example, if you’re a queer business owner, you want to be sure to work with a coach who is LGBTQ+ affirming.
Confidentiality. The coach should have paperwork that you’ll both sign, agreeing to keep any sensitive or proprietary information about you and your business confidential. It’s a red flag if the coach speaks cavalierly about previous clients, or you think you’re hearing the kinds of things you wouldn’t want shared about your business.
Availability and accessibility. Make sure the coach’s parameters around when you can reach them, and how, are acceptable to you. If they are available by text during business hours, or only want to chat once a week on the phone, make sure you agree on the ways you will communicate and work together.
Clear coaching approach and methodology. Some coaches follow the methods of a well-known leader or “guru” in the field, like Tony Robbins or Marie Forleo. Some of those big-name coaches even have certification programs, where coaches can be trained in their methods. If this appeals to you, great! If your prospective business coach is not affiliated with a program or personality in that way, make sure they can clearly articulate their approach and plan (ideally they will have a specific plan to show you they can meet your goals) makes sense to you and you are willing to do what they ask of you. (important note—they can’t address your goals if you don’t have any! So be sure you go into this relationship knowing what you want out of it, too!)
How to Find a Business Coach
Referrals from other small business owners or professionals are some of the best leads. A recommendation from a fellow business owner you trust and respect is worth its weight in gold. A great coach may not have a flashy website or even a great sales pitch, but if they’ve been transformational and effective for someone you know, that means a lot. Ask around on social media, in networking groups, Chamber of Commerce luncheons or anywhere you interact with other business owners.
Online coaching directories and marketplaces can also be great places to look and do general research. With the wide availability of virtual meeting platforms like Zoom, a coach doesn’t even need to be located nearby for you to work together. Some examples of online coaching directories are businesscoachdirectory.com or noomii.com. You can also just do an internet search to find coaches near you.
Most every field has industry-specific associations and networks. If yours doesn’t, you can check with your local Chamber of Commerce. If you’re part of an underserved demographic, such as business owners of color or LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs, chambers and business associations for your specific demographic are likely available on the national and local level, depending on where you live. They can be a great resource for finding coaches within a specific community, and may even have grants or fellowships in place to help you pay for coaching.
Many universities or career-tech/vo-tech centers have thriving small business development centers (SBDCs) or incubators to help small businesses. If you qualify, their (usually excellent) services can be free or low cost, and they also can be a wealth of information about coaches for specific industries. Look for a SBDC near you, especially if you are part of a minority or underrepresented community.
Also check to see if SCORE has a chapter near you. This nonprofit organization pairs successful, retired professionals with emergent business owners for no-cost mentoring.
Small business coaching is a rapidly-growing field, and you may have to do some work to find the best coach for you and your business. The information here should help you decide whether business coaching is right for you, and then help you find a coach who is a great fit to help you reach the goals you’ve set for your business. Remember that coaches are as unique as business owners, so keep searching, and don’t be afraid to make this investment in yourself.
If you’re interested in content from expert coaches, we’ve got you covered. Check out our interviews with marketing coach Chris Brogan on the importance of place for small businesses and the power of storytelling, and learn how to rock LinkedIn engagement for your brand with Judi Fox on previous editions of our podcast!