As Emily’s father’s Alzheimer’s advanced, she and her brother-in-law took over the reins of the family business. From the outset, it was a difficult alliance. The brother-in-law, one of the most abrasive people I have ever met, constantly undercut her, both in private and in meetings. A highly knowledgeable and capable woman, Emily soon found herself facing enormous pressure. Whenever she made a decision, he sarcastically or peremptorily dismissed it. She began to doubt herself, and the situation deteriorated so badly that she finally had to walk out of a meeting so that no one would see her tears. It didn’t help Emily at all to see that her brother-in-law treated everyone poorly. Her entire management staff, demoralized from the brother-in-law’s browbeating, badly needed Emily’s decision making and support, but she was unable to provide it.

Emily called me in as a consultant and asked whether she should see a therapist. With my dual background as a family therapist and a family business consultant, my first inclination was to say yes. But instead, I recommended that she see an executive coach.

Executive coaching is one of the fastest-growing consulting fields. There are an estimated 20,000 coaches around the world according to Fast Company magazine. But it’s not for every situation and as you might expect in any fast-growing field, not all coaches are of equal quality. When should you consider using a coach and when should you use a therapist? If you decide on a coach, how can you choose the most capable?

It helps, first of all, to understand some important differences between coaching and therapy.

Coaching defines specific, narrow goals. Emily and her coach decided in their first meeting that for the family business to survive, she had to assert her own authority and stand up to her brother-in-law. The goal was to help Emily change the situation with her brother-in-law, not to make her a more assertive person in other areas of her life.

Coaching focuses on concrete, immediate actions and ignores causes. It was irrelevant to the coaching why Emily had a difficult time confronting her brother-in-law; it didn’t matter whether her own father had been domineering and why she had difficulties in general confronting people. A therapist might have helped Emily to understand her difficulties in both a current and a historical context and to examine her current and past relationships (including perhaps her relationship with the therapist). But the coach and Emily developed an action plan. She chose a goal of standing up to her brother-in-law three times in the next week.

Coaches are more appropriate for non-emergency, between-session contacts. Between sessions, therapists extend a lifeline; between sessions, coaches extend a helping hand. Coaching’s short-term goals and narrow focus on immediate change usually call for more frequent support: you’re trying to get over a steeper hump in less time.

It feels less stigmatizing to see a coach. Even today, many people fear that if they see a therapist, they’ll be perceived as weak or crazy. On the other hand, coaches are almost as much a status symbol as personal trainers.

After reading this, you might wonder why anyone with a family business problem would ever choose a therapist over a coach. But there are some occasional drawbacks to coaching, and sometimes a therapist might be the better option. After all, choosing the straightest line between two points can occasionally lead you over the edge of a cliff. Many coaches aren’t trained to recognize psychological disorders, and some who call themselves coaches have no specific training. Their focus on concrete actions and their can-do orientation may sometimes lead them to ignore warnings signs of psychological difficulty. Clinically depressed people may not only be incapable of taking action, but when they are unable to effectively use a coach’s suggestions, they may end up feeling even more helpless and worthless. People with other kinds of mental disorders can act unpredictably and occasionally explosively when their beliefs and usual ways of responding are challenged. By focusing on concrete objectives and specific actions, coaches may fail to understand the wider family system. Standing up to Emily’s brother-in-law might have precipitated a family war that ultimately would tear the business or family apart. Her brother-in-law might have gone ballistic when confronted, with unpredictable consequences.

It’s not in the nature of entrepreneurs to quickly seek help. By the time they decide to retain a coach, they’ve usually been struggling with frustration, anxiety or confusion for some time. But once they make the decision, they often realize how lonely it’s been at the top. Coaching is a collaborative relationship, and people quickly find that a coach doesn’t threaten their autonomy but enhances it. Rather than being an authority figure, a coach is a partner who helps individuals unlock their potential and identify and tune into their own inner resources and strengths. Being more like midwives than doctors, coaches insist that their clients take an active part in every aspect of the coaching relationship.

I suggested a coach to Emily because the family business situation was at a critical point and immediate action had to be taken. I also knew the coach, and I had faith that if the situation really called for a therapist, he would make the referral. Good coaches, like good therapists, know their limitations as well as their strengths. If you decide to go with a coach, here are some suggestions to find the best match for you:

  • Check the qualifications. Most coaches are highly ethical and skilled at what they do. But as in any field that fundamentally rests on motivation, there’s always a danger that their primary skill lies in selling you their services. Every coach can find some former clients who will tell you what a wonderful job he did. Look deeper. What are the coach’s credentials? If you don t know what the letters mean after the name, ask. You want a coach who has some solid knowledge about the unique strengths and pitfalls of family businesses and family relationship. Get some specifics about their past successes. Be sure to ask coaches about a case that didn’t work, and find out why. One good analysis from a coach about his own failure will tell you more about him than five success stores.
  • What’s their policy on confidentiality? Unlike therapists, coaches are not legally bound to honor confidentiality. Note how your prospective coach treats confidentiality when she discusses her past successes and failures with you. Discuss your own preferences about confidentiality ahead of time.
  • Do they have any conflicts of interest? Beware coaches who have something to sell other than their direct services to you. You want and deserve your coach’s undivided focus.
  • What are their values? Each family business has its own unique mix of values around profit, success, harmony, management and communication styles among other matters. A coach’s values should be somewhat congruent with those of your family business.
  • Get it in writing. What do you want to accomplish and how long is the engagement? Discussing and determining this helps clarify and streamline the process and keep everyone focused. Other points to get in writing: fees and policy for between-session contacts.

There’s no across-the-board answer as to whether a therapist or a coach is the better option for a family business. With a clear understanding of the different goals, policies and methods of each, and careful discussion both with the prospective coach and among family members, you’ll be able to find the answer that’s right for you.

Where to Find a Qualified Coach

Just like finding a plumber or therapist, you might start by asking your colleagues, friends and associates for referrals. In addition there are several professional coaching organizations.

College of Executive Coaching

The Family Business Consulting Group, Inc.

International Coach Federation

Mentor Coach