If you’re about to start a small business of your own, you may be looking for a mentor or coach to guide you along the way. These tips can help you avoid choosing a coach that could do more harm than good.
Going solo? Avoid getting supported to disaster
1. Entrepreneurs and successful professionals tend to be strong, independent people. With little experience in hiring help, they often grab the first resource that comes along and follow instructions brilliantly. Too late, they realize they’re following a lost leader.
2. It’s lonely out there! Entrepreneurs want a shoulder to lean on, a virtual hug on bad days, a person to hold them accountable, a jump-start when motivation flags and an awareness that, “Someone believes in me!”
3. On the other hand, some self-starters want solid guidance from someone who’s been there — a mentor more than a coach. If that’s you, ask bluntly, “Are you primarily a cheerleader? Will you tell me I’m wonderful even if you see me heading for disaster?”
4. Ask tough questions — the right questions. If you’re hiring a marketing coach, get references from two or three businesses like yours. Ask these clients, “Did this coach help you make money?” If the answer is, “No, but I learned a lot,” keep going.
On the other hand, if you need help with motivation or decision-making, references and testimonials will give you clues — but the ultimate test is your own intuition. When outcomes are subjective, it’s chemistry between coach and client that creates success.
5. Be suspicious of credentials and qualifications. If you’re hiring a marketing expert, forget formal qualifications: find out who they’ve helped before. Has she turned a business around? Attracted new clients?
If you’re hiring for motivation and support, evaluate the whole person. Look for degrees and certifications from nationally accredited universities, if that’s important to you. Many training programs and colleges accept everyone and flunk no one. Knowing someone graduated from that program tells you nothing.
6. When someone promises to “take you to the next level” or “triple your sales,” read between the lines. Well, if your sales are zero, and you make one sale, the consultant kept his promise! Ask how, not what. Sometimes success depends on factors beyond your control or desire — or applies to a different business altogether. “Take you to the next level” can mean anything from advising you to clear clutter to offering solid financial and marketing guidance.
7. Stay away from canned programs, which may be delivered mechanically, with little understanding of the designer’s purpose. Look at what the consultant has written or created.
8. Be suspicious of tests and assessments. Most personality tests were never designed to predict career success and many lack a scientific basis. The results are ambiguous and anyone will see himself reflected in any profile. “Self-validation” is meaningless.
Anyway, personality contributes little to success: grit, determination, experience and networking skill will be better predictors.
Remember: assessments bring in money to the assessor. An astrological forecast may be just as useful and just as scientific.
9. Cheery reassurance may be soothing for fifteen minutes. Choose the hard road for results. Let’s say you talk to two consultants or coaches. One is cheery, upbeat and optimistic and one is a little cool and skeptical.
Present a sample question and see how the consultant responds. Keep it small: you won’t make much headway on big questions, like, “Should I sell the business?”
Often the best consultants, coaches and counselors are not the cheeriest or most optimistic. They’re honest. They warm up as you get to know them.
10. Learn from Dr. Ruth, the media’s sex expert. Dr. Ruth insisted that her status as an independent advisor, rather than a licensed therapist, was useful because people didn’t see her as a godlike figure dispensing omniscient advice.
Anyone can be wrong — and you have to live with the consequences. Use your intuition. If someone urges you to spend money or take big risks, run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.
Cathy Goodwin, PhD, is an author, career consultant and speaker, who combines solid expertise with humor, commonsense and intuition. Visit her at or for more info, e-mail Cathy at .