A couple of weeks ago, when talking to a client of mine, I encouraged him to think about working with an executive coach. He listened, and then asked, “Do you think I need a coach?”

I understood the question underneath the question; he was asking whether I saw him as being a poor manager or leader. Unfortunately, even though working with an executive coach has become much more common over the past couple of decades, there can still be a lingering assumption that coaches are for people who are in trouble…failing or not capable some important way.

My immediate response was, “I think every leader needs a coach.” He looked skeptical.

The interesting thing to me: if he had been an athlete, heand anyone who heard mewould have considered my response 100% normal and acceptable. All world-class athletes have coaches; we assume that hurdlers, shot-putters and skiers need someone skilled and objective to support their ongoing improvement. We recognize that they might fall into bad habits, or be hampered by a negative mindset, or be overworking certain parts of their body, or not playing to their natural strengths.

Why is it different for business professionals? Managing and leading a group of people to get excellent results, while creating an open and supportive culture that attracts great people and calls out the best in them…that seems more challenging and complex to me than pole-vaulting or long-distance running.

Now for the caveat. Even though I do believe that all leaders need coaches, I don’t necessarily think that all leaders should go out right now and engage a coach; I think certain things have to be true before you can actually benefit from having a coach:

Is coaching seen as a positive in your organization? In some organizations, the skepticism I encountered in my client is more like outright disbelief. This tends to be true where coaching has been used badly in the past: where people get coached as a prelude to getting fired; where people have had poor coaches who have advised them badly or not at all; or where confidentiality has been breached in coaching situations. However, in some organizations the opposite is truepeople see coaching as a perk, even a mark of distinction. In these organizations, the senior leaders often have coaches, and are seen to benefit from working with them. People view getting a coach as a sign that the company is investing in their success. Before engaging a coach, ask around and get a sense of how coaching is viewed in your company. If your organization sees working with a coach in a positive way, that’s a great indicator that you could be able to benefit from having one.

Does your boss support your development? Even in organizations where coaching is generally seen as a good thing, if your boss doesn’t want to make the investment in you, it will be hard for you to have a great coaching experience. This is true even if the investment for coaching isn’t dependent on your boss’ support (in some companies, coaching is paid for through HR or Learning and Development)he or she can still make it tough. I’ve had coaching clients whose bosses weren’t willing to speak with the coach, or who consistently interrupted coaching sessions with “urgent” calls. If you’d like to work with a coach, have a conversation about it first with your boss. If you get evasiveness, a blank look or negativity (“coaches are a waste of money”)even if you can somehow get a coach, it may be hard to get the full benefit. If, however, his/her initial response is some form of, “It’s great that you want to do this, let’s try to make it happen,” go find yourself a great coach.

Is a good coach available to you? Which leads us to this next question. One unfortunate result of the increased popularity of coaching: there are now lots of people calling themselves coaches who aren’t very effective. One client organization we’ve just begun working with has had a kind of resident coach for the past few years. This person began as the coach of a senior executive who became the CEO, and then talked his way into being the “coach” for most of the executive team. His coaching support consisted of hanging around the organization, spouting platitudes and telling executives what to do. He was recently hired into the organization and is no longer “coaching,” so now the HR folks are trying to rehabilitate coaching’s reputation in the organization by offering skilled coaches and structured coaching engagements to executives who are open to them. If you’re not sure about the quality of the coaches available in your organization and are wondering how to tell a good coach from a poor one, you might find this post helpful.

Are you willing to do what it takes to grow? I’ve left this for last, because I think it’s the most important question to ask yourself when deciding whether to engage a coach. You notice I didn’t ask “Do you want to grow?”that’s a question like “Would you like to be rich?” or “Are you interested in reaching your ideal weight?” Do we want results? Sure. Are we actually ready to do the work it’s going to take to get there? Hmmm. The most uncomfortable and useful thing about having a good coach is that he or she will encourage you to look at where you’re doing well and where you’re not doing so well…and willif you’re open to itsupport you to work in those areas where you need to improve. Acknowledging that you’re not great at something is tough. Especially when you’re a manager and leader, and people are looking to you for guidance, direction and answers, it can be embarrassing, awkwardeven painfulto “be bad first”; to let others see that you’re not good at something as you work to get good at it. I’ve been coaching a senior leader who has realized that he’s not good at delegating or holding people accountable. He’s always found it easier to just leap in and do things for his people instead. He’s now engaged in the painful but necessary task of learning how to delegate well and to hold people accountable for doing what they’ve committed to do. He’s not great at either of these things yetbut he’s getting better. And he’s been surprised to discover that his employees are very supportive of his learning, and that his example of struggling to learn new, important skills has been a good model for them in their own learning.

And that’s the bottom line, really, and why I told my skeptical client that I think everyone needs a coach. If you can answer yes (or even “mostly yes”) to these four questions, then having a coach will not only benefit you, it will benefit the people around you and your organization, as well. And like Olympic athletes, your coach may be a catalyst for you to excel in ways you never thought possible.

Have you had a great or terrible experience working with an executive coach? I’d love to hear about it…