Investing in yourself – choosing a personal development coach

Engaging a personal development coach can be a truly transformative experience. Here are some ideas on what we think "good" looks like.

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We are approaching the end of 2021 and the start of 2022. The former is another year that a good chunk of us will want to forget and the later may mark the return of hope and personal growth. For some, this means dragging your butt down to F45 while for others, especially those in startupville, you may want to invest in some coaching or personal development to augment yourself or your team.

So where do you start? Who is good? Who isn’t? How much will it cost? What results can one expect?

Some of these were all questions running through my mind in Q1 2021 when I was looking to build a personal growth programme to offer to our portfolio company founders. My immediate first port of call was to my own coach, Evana Lithgow. Evana, the Managing Partner of Working Minds, is a qualified psychologist with over two decades of experience. Evana, amongst other things, supports VCs and hustlers like myself to define our purpose and achieve our potential, growing not just as entrepreneurs but as people ensuring that our loved ones are part of our picture not just our business.

A couple of months later, a few dozen cups of tea and some enthusiastic conversation, Evana had developed a cutting edge, holistic initiative for the Founders in our village. This system reverses the typical founder lifecycle and prepares our teams for the last stage of their journey (an exit - positive or negative!) from the beginning. As this is a personal programme for our founders, we won’t be sharing any more on this in a public setting; however, I did note down some observations that I think are worth considering if you are seeking a coach or support.

Are they qualified?

If someone is going to root around in my mind, they sure as hell need to be qualified. This could mean that they are a certified life coach, a registered psychologist or recognised counsellor. It is staggering to read the bios of some coaches offering services to founders who do not appear to have accreditations or qualifications.

Some of the non-qualified coaches seem to think that because they have built a moderately successful business in the past, made some good investments or had a high flying corporate job they are ready to coach others. In my humble opinion, they aren’t. Not even close.

As someone who is a bit of an introvert who tries to be an extravert, I need a bit more holistic guidance than just how to ‘crush it’ in the board room.

Going to Burning Man for three years in a row, being on a podcast or two and completing a 3-month retreat in Bhutan, is not necessarily the making of a good coach. Choose someone with a relevant degree or qualification in this space and years of practising their care.

How are they charging you?

When I first engaged Evana I asked her how much the retainer will be for her time. She looked at me in a quizzical way and said that retainers, in her opinion, should not be applied for this type of service as fees should be transparent and able to be quantified. The reason behind this is that if the coach is doing their job over time, less input is required as the coachees have the knowledge and skills required to navigate more themselves which hopefully means the magic ingredients of time and practice comes in. Good coaches seek to achieve an outcome for their clients and work towards their self-sufficiency – coaching isn’t a relationship for life its for a season linked to an objective or outcome. If this is the case then a retainer makes no sense and instead you should be looking at an hourly or sessional rate plan.

Through my exploration of this space, in my personal opinion, retainers are a warning sign and potentially highlights someone who wants to prioritise their revenue over the quality of their care. Equally, you should not feel pressure to provide a reference or referrals or use your coach for ‘all’ work within your business forever.

Avoid muddying the waters with investors who pose as coaches

I have noticed in recent years the advent of startup investors who also claim to combine a small personal investment or connections to other investors with their personal development services. This is deeply concerning for me for a few reasons:

  • If you are sharing your deepest thoughts, concerns and insecurities with a potential investor (or connector to capital), how do you know they will not use that information to drive a better deal? If they offer to connect you to other investors, are you sure they won’t be sharing their personal observations of you with their network?

  • Would this type of knowledge help to gain an upper hand in a funding negotiation?

  • Would it highlight that you have alternative exit goals to that of an investor?

  • A good coach/client relationship is built on trust and a commitment that they have your best interest in mind. Mixing money with personal development is a dangerous, slippery slope to creating the wrong levels of relationship and potential conflicts and complexities in a small marketplace.

Just to be clear, as an investment fund, we do offer optional, fully subsidised, coaching to our founders that we have absolutely no access to. We have strict protocols that ensure that we do not know what is shared with the coach (unless the Founder chooses to do so) and as a result have no ability to use this information to influence our service to our founders. There are many other venture funds that offer this service and also ensure adherence to the same high standards. Please make sure you ask the fund before you receive investment that this level of privacy and confidentiality is established and respected. They should be delighted to confirm that with you.

How is the coaching delivered?

Some personal development programmes offer a subscription to expansive libraries of pre-recorded videos and content to either supplement or replace the need for 1:1 coaching. Try and avoid this if you can. Personal development is a personal service. I do not believe it cannot be effectively achieved in a standardised, mass-produced way.

I would recommend only choosing 1:1 sessions to start and then going from there. It may seem more expensive but in my experience, it is totally worth it.

If you are looking for coaching to attain a particular skill, such as a Masterclass to learn how to become a better gardener, then pre-recorded content is more than fine. It is just the open-ended advice that should be kept for intimate groups or 1:1s.

Be careful with programmes that use buzz words.

I have seen a number of coaching offerings that present vague and broad “mindfulness” camps. Be careful with programmes that use buzz words to get your attention and appear to be built on deep personal sharing with people you don’t know, don’t know you and have no commitment to you beyond the event. Also, be careful of completing assessments where you don’t know who is accessing the information or how it will be used and pay attention to those initiatives that compare your development to an average. “Once you have achieved x you are now in the 70 percentile of those who have achieved a new level of confidence. With your own personal development, there is no average or group milestone - your achievement of milestones is determined by your individual personal situation or circumstances and success can look and feel different for different people depending on their starting point and story.

Deal with specialists

In my experience, good startup founders embrace focus and specificity on the problem they are solving. Apply the same logic to who you choose as a coach. Deal with qualified specialists who have experience of coaching and working with entrepreneurs at different stages of the journey.

Look at it this way, when you are building a startup you often set out to find out the best startup-specialist lawyers, accountants and recruiters that your budget can afford. Why not apply the same lens to who you choose to access your psyche?!

In summary, working successfully and harmoniously with a highly skilled and focused coach can be a game-changer but ultimately is one element of the support and advice you will need for your journey.

At Hillfarrance we talk a lot about the village and in this case I’m referring to the professional relationships you have to support you in being your best and achieving your vision. After a few months of spending time with Evana, I believe I have emerged as an entirely different person. Someone who ate Tall Poppy cutters for breakfast. Someone who worked infinitely more efficiently than before. Someone who achieved a much better work-life balance because my purpose is clear and foundational in my thinking and actions. If you need help in these areas then do not wait for the New Years Resolution. Do it now but make sure you do your due diligence first to ensure that you have the right person for you and your needs.

Please note: these are purely my own ramblings and you should ensure you make any decisions about the treatment of your mental health with qualified professionals. This is also not intended to be an advertorial for Evana Lithgow and as such was written independently from anyone at Working Minds Ltd.