How to Pick a Business Coach or Mentor

Mentors and coaches are part of an external team by design that provides invaluable perspective. Here are some steps to choosing wisely.

To evolve as an entrepreneur, we need to create a support system that allows us to delegate, elevate, and learn more effectively. As a version of the saying goes, “we are the average of the five people around us.” And this holds especially true for business owners, who often feel very lonely at the top of an organization.

Our internal team by design is essential, but there are limits to how much anyone can “view the big picture from inside the frame.” And it can be hard for teams to hold their leader accountable, however open and transparent the environment. An external team by design is crucial to obtaining outside perspective and accountability. And coaches and mentors are valuable aspects of this external team.

But how do you find a good one (or both)? 

These individuals should have the availability to help, be experienced as both an advisor and an entrepreneur, and possess a broad base of related knowledge. The last two traits do not need to be specific to an industry, though that can be a helpful bonus. Simply put, both coaches and mentors must have the experience to understand what we are experiencing as an entrepreneur, enabling them to apply this knowledge to our situation.

That said, mentors and coaches can have slightly different roles. 

The value and sources of mentors

The biggest difference between a coach and a mentor is that a coach tends to be paid, whereas mentors are typically volunteers. Mentors are individuals who have already gone through your path (at least, their version of it), while coaches can explicitly and systematically help with performance, accountability, and introspection.

A mentor can take the shape of an experienced confidante we speak with for occasional professional advice or a resource who walks through the growth of a business. And they should be someone we respect and even look up to as a source of wisdom and experience.

Every entrepreneur should ideally have a mentor at some stage of their career. (The earlier, the better!)

Often, mentors are naturally found within a business network—structured peer groups or a personal network—or during previous work experience. In some cases, a mentor may be the reason an entrepreneur got into business in the first place. In these situations, we may naturally gravitate toward and strike up a relationship with someone willing and able to help.

If not, put in the work to find one. The first step is evaluating and building a peer group, an effort that has value far beyond just increasing sales. Search for experienced individuals and establish relationships with them. Peer groups like Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO), Business Network International (BNI), or industry-specific groups are natural sources of mentors. There are also dedicated resources like Vistage and the SCORE Association, where entrepreneurs can specifically get advice from mentors.

Note that some of these relationships can blur the line between coach and mentor, which is fine. But if you are looking for a coach, it often means a paid, systematic approach.

The characteristics and sources of coaches

Business coaches are usually paid resources, and the best of them are worth multiples of what an entrepreneur pays. This formal relationship can result in a more formalized, consistent approach.

Remember, even the best athletes have coaches, even if they could train on their own. A business coach serves a similar purpose, but instead of driving an athlete toward better lap times, they push entrepreneurs toward finding their own answers. A mentor might tell you what to do in a given situation, but the best coaches often won’t. Instead, they reflect our own words back at us and help us perform at a higher level with a systemized method.

Coaches can take the form of personal/life coaches, business coaches (general or specialized), and operating system coaches that apply a proven operating system to the entire company. There are also DIY options, though many entrepreneurs try these resources but fail to get good results because they lack an external facilitator.

Personal and life coaching

Coaches that specialize in things like life, leadership, and executive development focus on the individual rather than the organization, though there is certainly some overlap. Entrepreneurs might learn how to be better leaders, manage their time, set and track individual goals, deal with people, and communicate more effectively.

Business and accountability coaching

These coaches dig further into the nuts and bolts of the business itself, and they can be generalists or specialists. Again, there is overlap between categories—a general business coach could certainly help an entrepreneur with aspects of leadership. 

Generalists tackle multiple key aspects of an organization, its team, and a leader. A specialist may help an entrepreneur with specific aspects that need work, such as processes or accounting. In this regard, a specialized coach is often a “consultant.” 

Quality coaches—business and personal alike—help entrepreneurs stay accountable, something that can be otherwise difficult to do when you are at the top of the org chart. When you choose a coach, make sure they offer some mechanism to measure progress and hold you accountable for it. Just like an athlete needs to show improvement in speed and skill, so does an entrepreneur in whatever objectives and measures make sense.

Business and personal coaches can be found through a range of online sources, so it can take a bit of work to choose one. 

First, ask others in your network for references. If you search online, you can evaluate options such as the Center for Creative Leadership, the International Coaching Federation (ICF), Bark, Noomii, and Many of these online resources can filter coaches based on a specialty, whether that’s an aspect of a business or an individual journey as an entrepreneur.

Evaluate a coach’s credentials, including business experience, any certifications, and references on request. For example, the ICF provides coaching certifications, as does The Northwestern University School of Education and Social Policy, The Rutgers University Continuing Studies program, and other institutions. 

Unless a trusted colleague provides a strong recommendation, the name of the game is research. Be sure to ask to speak with some of a potential coach’s clients for references.

Business system coaching

The most comprehensive business coaching often involves individuals who help institute a business operating system or specific curriculum. So, choosing a coach like this also means selecting a methodology.

There are numerous systems to choose from, including the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS)®, Scaling Up, the E-Myth, the Six Disciplines, and more. Systems apply proven methodologies and organizational tools to improve various aspects of a business, from building teams and processes to establishing key performance indicators (KPIs) and core values. 

To evaluate these systems, you can review the details of each online, and many of them started with a book. Michael Gerber’s E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It, Gino Wickman’s Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business, and Verne Harnish’s Scaling Up: How a Few Companies Make It … and Why the Rest Don’t are all top-rated books that every entrepreneur should read!

Different operating systems share many similarities, and most of them have valuable lessons, but each has unique terminology and ways of implementing changes. The principles can be applied DIY, though an external coach brings discipline and experience to the process. Many business owners report better results—after trying something on their own—with an external facilitator.

To pick a coach and a system, much of the advice for other types of coaching apply: ask your network for opinions and references on both individual coaches and operating systems. Evaluate a prospective coach’s experience (entrepreneurial and coaching) and request client references. But the biggest difference with this type of coaching is that we can read the books and online materials to get an in-depth feel for the systems. Once you’ve picked something that resonates, it narrows down the field of coaching candidates considerably.

That may seem like a lot of effort, but don’t forget the added value of doing it: regardless of who a business owner hires (or doesn’t), learning about systems can vastly up any entrepreneurial game!

A final note on picking a coach or mentor—of any type

Experience, credentials, and references are critical. But so are an individual’s personality, dedication to helping you, and how they fit with your values and approach their work.

This is a person who should be working with an entrepreneur in-depth and for some time. So, you (and your team, if applicable) must click with them. Evaluate that chemistry, along with a coach’s or mentor’s professionalism, dependability (do they keep their promises?), communication skills, and availability. 

Some of these traits may only solidify after an entrepreneur has engaged someone. Thus, if the relationship isn’t working, don’t be afraid to let them go and find a new resource.

Finally—and specifically when it comes to coaches—make sure the individual provides specific, actionable steps. Theory is grand, but we’re hiring a coach, not an academic. They should provide practical guidance on how to improve a business. If a coach talks about general concepts or outlines specific methods but doesn’t help you implement them, move on. And a coach who merely provides encouragement or serves as a sounding board for business anxieties isn’t really a coach at all. They’re more like a therapist.

Picking quality coaches and mentors can take a little work. Or it might involve little effort if you get excellent references from your network. Whatever the case may be, it’s probably worth it. 

Researching operating systems and resources teaches entrepreneurs things about their business they hadn’t considered. And finding a quality external resource can speed up an entrepreneurial evolution and take a business to the next level.

Happy hunting!