Editor’s note: This article is the second in a series about coaching dairy leaders. The first article appeared in the April 1, 2014 Progressive Dairyman. Click here to read this article. Coaching can generate results quickly for dairy leaders, yet there is much of coaching that is leveraged over time as skills are acquired and new perspectives are gained. It can be difficult to define return on investment (ROI) for coaching because of this very aspect.

Behavior change is difficult in the best of circumstances, and value rests with the client based on the economic or personal risk involved. Coaching offers a process of accountability to make “it” happen, and every leader has a different “it.”

In the first article, I defined coaching as experiential and process-oriented. It helps to stay connected to and focused on your priorities. It also is influenced by the skill set and mindset of the coach. Lastly, that a coaching relationship is pivotal because it impacts the value of coaching.

Coaching is highly leveraged on “relationship.” The relationship of the coach and client is core to gaining clear agreement on goals and defining each other’s role in achieving them. You should use the following as examples of criteria in selecting a coach.

  • Trust with confidential and personal information – The nature of coaching insists that you can trust and be vulnerable in sharing deep personal challenges. These are where the breakthroughs often exist.
  • Boundaries on what you will talk about should be decided – Your coach is human and brings that humanity to the coaching. Boundaries are not to limit conversation but help define and focus it more efficiently on your specific goals and align the coach’s expertise more clearly.
  • Expert coaches will hold their clients in positive regard – No matter if they do not share common values on certain areas of life or business. Regardless of what a client may reveal, a professional coach will hold that in context of the client’s values and not their own bias. A key practice for professional coaches.
  • Your coach is able to respectfully and deeply challenge you when necessary – This only happens with the first three points above in place. As a client receiving or participating in coaching, you must feel connected and aligned with your coach.

What is the ROI of coaching?
The ROI in coaching is influenced by the size of the business and value being created over time. There is a wide range in fees and ways that coaches contract with clients to do work. That’s not the purpose of this article.


Instead, I would like to outline the key things you should consider to get the most value from a coaching relationship. Just like a really great employee, you may never pay an effective coach enough.

And you always pay too much for a poor coach or poor employee performance. Ultimately, you will determine if you are getting the value you want and need from your investment.

Engaging a coach involves more than just budgeting money for fees. Return on coaching (ROC) includes the additional investment of time with your coach, personal time focused on learning new skills, reading or personal research. Clients rarely leave a coaching conversation without “homework” or some action to be taken to integrate learning into day-to-day life and work.

Here are some key factors to consider to maximize your ROC:

  • You should come prepared to make changes and be challenged. Not unlike any investment, success relies much on the implementation plan of the customer. Unless the coach is lacking in many professional coaching skills or models, it’s hard not to get some value from working with a coach.
  • Maximizing your ROC really starts with the leader, the one who is engaged coaching. If your coach and you aren’t connecting and can’t gain the necessary rapport needed to work together … you discontinue the relationship. A professional coach will bring this up in the initial stages. In fact, as a coach I have discontinued coaching because I didn’t feel my client was engaged or getting value.
  • The client is willing and able to be vulnerable. The faster you go there, the quicker you create value. Letting one’s “guard” down and being fully open with another person may be a difficult part for someone new to coaching.

    A coach needs to establish rapport and encourage openness quickly to help the client get value and increase speed of transformation. Your willingness to take risks, be open and honest with a coach is core to ensuring ROC. Vulnerability should deepen as trust and rapport builds in any coaching relationship.

I’ve misunderstood that a client was only looking for advice or consultation. They wanted to be “told” what to do. Telling is just not a part of any coaching relationship and can be a sign that a coach may lack training or coaching skills.

Coaching is strategic, deep personal work that, if done well, will respectfully challenge your identity, make you uncomfortable and inspect the status quo diligently. There are no easy answers in this space.

In a recent on-site visit to a client’s business, an employee told me his supervisor (my client) is a changed man. He’s more respectful and engaged with him as an employer. Their relationship is now built on mutual respect and accountability to work with greater responsibility.

He always knows where he stands and feels listened to now when he speaks. The employee is a critical manager and key player in the success of this multimillion-dollar business … and he was ready to leave.

This result happened because the client faced his failings as a leader. And I challenged him about the seriousness of his behavior and its impact on his organization. This is the partnership that forms an effective coaching engagement. Is there ROI in coaching? Try to replace your top employee, and you will see that coaching can and does pay big dividends.

Am I a candidate for having a coach?
Successful coaching relationships bring referrals from your clients to people within their network. This indeed is how my coaching business grows. Clients get results, and they tell others about it. That’s how important it is to do good work.

The watch-out is to assume everyone is ready for coaching and that you are the right coach for them. While coaching is powerful, not everyone is ready or wants to work that intensely on their personal development.

Is the client truly ready to commit to the rigor required on their part? The number one thing a coach must determine is the “readiness” factor in a client. I’ve made the mistake early in my coaching career in taking on someone that wasn’t ready for coaching.

I assumed the person understood coaching and was ready for the work. We want results and outcomes, but producing different outcomes or making deep personal changes inherently means working on well-established perspectives and behaviors. It is hard and uncomfortable.

I have experienced and personally seen how coaching changes the direction of lives, businesses and the long-term profitability of enterprises. It’s a commitment of the highest order because it’s personal and about you doing some of the toughest, messiest and most rewarding work you ever engaged in.

Are you ready for the work? Here are key elements you should consider to determine if you are a candidate and ready for a coach or coaching:

  • There is significant discontent in your work and life that has you stuck. Many problems are tolerated for long periods of time. Once I define the problem or opportunity with a candidate, I always ask, “Why now? Why are you working on it now?” It’s a gut check on urgency and importance. You may be getting a signal that you are about to enter (or are in) a significant new life or business chapter.
  • You are motivated to change. You may be facing significant aspirations and transition in your life or business that you must manage because the stakes are very high. These are important things you can plan for over time and be proactive. Fundamental personal development is often the pathway to accomplish your goals and meet your standards on schedule.
  • A strategic moment has showed up, for better or worse. These are often surprising and require swift discernment, clarity and conscious planning. I’ve noticed many leaders can be in one and not realize it until a clarifying coaching conversation takes place.

    These strategic moments have “windows of opportunity” that pass. My long-term clients manage these more effectively and usually generate significant revenue or mitigate loss.

A skilled coach and professional should help you discern your readiness before he or she begins their work with you. You may be looking for expertise in the form of a consultant rather than a coach … or you may need both. I don’t complicate this too much with my clients. I dedicate the very first “discovery” conversation to making sure both the client and I are good candidates for each other.

How can I make sure I select the right coach?
I have had three significant coaching relationships during my career as manager and coach. My first coach, Jeff, helped me immensely with my personal awareness at a very basic level. Jeff helped me with many fundamentals as a people leader and living out core values.

We worked for four years, and it was difficult to move on because we had been through some pretty deep personal items together. But it was time, and I had a different need in a coach.

My second coach, Bill, was selected because I wanted to navigate through some longer-term life and work transitions. This was his expertise and orientation. Bill and I worked together for 10 years and talked every two to three weeks for much of that time, and we slowed to three to four weeks toward the end.

We ended the coaching work because we both became peers in a master coaching program together. And now I am actively involved with a cohort of nine other master coaches across the country and industries. We provide each other supervision on our coaching skills monthly.

I am who and where I am today because of these two great coaches and their support. I acknowledge my own work as well. As simple as it sounds, I understand the power of coaching in my own life and work.

These haven’t been my only sources of coaching. I’ve had family, supervisors and colleagues give me great counsel in specific situations and chapters of my life. Having a professional coach is a different relationship because they hold you accountable in ways others just can’t.

Just because Jeff and Bill were right for my needs doesn’t mean they would be right for you. They both had experience in corporate environments and happened to be lawyers that left law practice to be full-time executive coaches.

Each had done significant work on their self-development and had invested in training specifically focused on coaching. Beyond that, they differed greatly in style, life experience and process.

Selecting a coach can be a very confusing task for a leader or business owner, especially if you have never used a coach before and you are new to this type of personal development adventure.

Lots of folks may say they are a coach and have no training or certification. I’m biased that coaches have a coach and be trained by a reputable training organization. I would ask them that directly when interviewing a prospective coach.

Here are some quick tips or thoughts on selecting a coach for your leadership development.

  • Ask about their definition of coaching, their training and references. Even if you have gotten a referral from a trusted colleague or friend, it is not insulting to ask for references. I actually appreciate the opportunity.
  • Take time to interview the coach (more than one coach) prior to starting. Coaching is strategic, and you will likely be working with them for a longer period of time. It’s a careful decision to be made. I always make my first session free and use it to seek clarity for myself and the candidate up-front. I’ve helped many people find a good coach during their interview with me.
  • Ask about their coaching process and philosophy on how coaching works. What is their area of focus in their coaching? Do they focus on teams, family business or career development? How does their coaching philosophy or model impact what you should expect from them as a coach?
  • Someone you can relate with and build rapport with easily, not be your best friend but has the perspective you need. My clients appreciate that I understand agriculture, cows and the environment/industry they work within. I caution that this need not be necessary for selecting a coach as a dairy leader. But it may be important to you.

The first four to six sessions are about clarity, understanding, refining the contract and making an assessment of how the coaching is working. If we need to discontinue, make adjustments or continue on as contracted, we do it at the end of this first phase.

This check-in helps optimize the investment. It also allows you, as a client, to commit to a short period of intense work up-front without long-term commitment. It is an exchange of initial feedback on the process, relationship and progress toward goals.

Sometimes clients have gotten what they needed from the coaching relationship very early and are complete with their work. They are satisfied and the work is done. This is a good thing. If a coach wants to hook you for more coaching without clear objectives or a new contract, that is a signal they are in the wrong profession.

Candidates sometimes want to stop regular coaching sessions during a contract to focus on new processes and implement some of the newly acquired insights into their life and work. This really varies client to client based on learning style and how they want to do the work.

Short sabbaticals from coaching are common and necessary. They should be structured and include defined goals and clear contract to guide your focus. My only caution to clients is much of their investment resides in “the coaching relationship.”

When you take a break during busy seasons or for assimilation, you are personally out of conversation or relationship with your coach. I have seen these sabbaticals indicate it’s time to move on for both me and the client to new adventures.

As simple as it sounds, my clients have said that just committing to regular, scheduled sessions is of tremendous value. When they show up for a call or session, it is possible to have a different conversation and gain clarity they otherwise may have missed. We don’t need to complicate or overengineer every coaching session, but you do need structure to have purposeful conversations related to goals.

What I am finding is that many dairy leaders, like my clients outside the industry, have limited resources to safely explore thoughts, engage an unbiased professional and be challenged in conversation like when they work with their coach.

The next article will be focused on sharing examples and my experiences outside the dairy industry on the challenges facing leaders – how they are overcoming challenges and how that also relates to dairy leaders and their businesses. PD

Mark Uhlenberg
The Heartwood Group LLC