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Who do you want in your personal support team?

Updated: Oct 14


Photo credit Helena Lopes at Unsplash

Finding someone to trust to enter your life or business, whether it's a coach, a therapist or a consultant, can be a daunting experience. Here are 5 questions to consider to make it a little easier.


I had a colleague whose life advice was: life is hard enough, outsource everything you can. Once you admit that you can’t do it all, or rather, you don’t have to, there's such relief in knowing you have a support team. I prefer “support team” to "entourage", because only Mariah can do that term justice. Unlike her, most of us can’t get away with demanding kittens to snuggle in our terms of employment, but your team might include childcare, housekeeper, personal trainer: whatever you need in your village (as in, “it takes a…”) to make life doable.

It’s a normal concept in business. In my old life in corporate, the fast track to an easier life was always to bring in a consultant. Big business views such arrangements as worth the investment to save time: who these days has 5 years or so to generate capability in house when you can buy in a playbook?

Where to start choosing your support team members? Go to Google and type in a profession. Let’s say, because it’s close to my heart, executive coach. How many results are there? I’m not sure that I want to know… I'd hope that they all have the skills a coach needs: the ability to listen, pick up on your cues, coach you and not the story you tell them, and help you move from discovering an insight to creating a plan. So why isn’t choosing a coach, or any other support team member, as simple as searching for the key word and picking the cheapest? I think it's because what we care about isn't just about what that person can do, it’s about how they do it.

Don’t mess with the hair

I am going to publicly out myself as overly concerned with my hair. This will be a surprise to… nobody who knows me. All my friends and family have witnessed the hours I've spent looking for the product that will calm my frizz; the treatment that will stop it doubling in size in humidity; the cut that will cure that it’s straight on top and curly underneath, and I have more crowns than anyone needs. I can go for weeks without wearing makeup, I could care less about my wardrobe, but if I feel like my hair is letting me down, I am down.

Don’t worry. This isn't a piece about the life-changing benefits of keratin or why Olaplex makes being without your hairdryer less horrifying (although both these things are SO TRUE.) My point is that anyone with a pair of scissors can cut hair. Anyone who understands about tints and peroxide and… whatever other chemicals are involved… can change your hair color. But what I’m willing to bet that it's not just me that won’t go to just anyone to get their hair done.

We go to a person that we’ve built a relationship with and know we can trust, who has got to know what we like and what we don’t, and that, when it comes down to it, we actually quite like divulging life events to, even with foil on our head or water dripping down our neck.

Finding the right support team: like a first date, but with a clipboard

I shouldn’t make assumptions. Some people treat dating as a flip through Bumble swiping right, as long as the guy isn’t holding a fish, or the girl hasn’t totally facetuned herself into looking like a Kardashian bot. Some take the Indian Matchmaker approach (if you haven’t seen the Netflix documentary, cue it up now) with list of requirements from height to feelings about specific books. What I’m suggesting is something closer to the second, but a bit more open minded; you know, like you don’t always know exactly what you’re looking for until you see it?

Choosing the right person for your support team is a big decision because it will have a significant impact on your life and/or work. But whether it’s choosing a colorist, a coach or a consultant, here are some questions to consider when it comes to making your choice.

1. What real experience do they have?

I’m going to assume for now that the person you’re considering working with has got the necessary skills. What counts as much, in my opinion at least, is what they’ve proven they can do with those skills.

Back in my corporate life, I found it a pleasure working with some management consultants and a challenge working with others. To slap on a broad brush, the former were normally ones who had experience of doing my job, or working in my industry, so felt like they spoke the same language. They knew the pitfalls, and understood the chasm between theory and practice. They acted like partners, they asked my feedback and they built it into the solution instead of assuming that they had all the answers already, or treating "client buy in" as some hoop to jump through. They were like extended members of a team who just happened to have a different sort of email address.

The ones who seemed to come fresh off the consultant production line, with their grey bar charts, and their Harvey balls and their impressive theoretical process knowledge but blank faces when it came to practical questions, they were harder for me to engage with.

I was once in a room with a “big box” consultant being briefed on restructuring and budget cuts, when the question was asked “do you mean bought-in cost or people cost?” They gave a five-minute answer about puts and takes and the 80/20 rule. My fellow VPs and I were left utterly baffled. Has this person ever managed a budget? I thought to myself. It’s a really straightforward question – are you telling me I have to fire people, or can I save money by reducing my agency costs?

Then I realized that the answer was, no, this person had probably never managed a budget, or at least not one like mine. They also didn’t fully understand the implications of what a budget cut means in human terms depending on where you make the slice. Why would they, when they’d never done this job? (They could have said that they didn’t understand and it might have been a very different conversation, but being willing to admit you don’t know is a different blog post so let’s leave it there.)

Regardless of the field, what I always want to know is, what has this person actually done? Not what they have thought about, or advised, or what book they’ve read; what battle scars they have and how well they can use them to prevent me getting the same.

2. Do I want to spend time with them?

Forgive me for sounding super obvious, but if you’re going to spend time with someone, it helps if it's someone that you actually enjoy being around.

I have been to therapy, and choosing a therapist initially felt like a daunting experience. Going through Psychology Today felt weirdly like flipping through a catalog, and I didn’t want to be THAT person, the one that didn’t pick a guy just because in his photo he looked like Michael Bolton. But then again, when I thought about it, I couldn’t see myself being in therapy with someone who looked like Michael Bolton, because I was concerned at how well we could relate to each other with our conflicting views on hair. As we have established, hair is a big thing for me.

I ended up going with a very different choice. When I spoke to Dr Tamara for the first time, she said that choosing a therapist was like finding a shoe that fits. If you’re in the market for a kitten heel and someone is a hiking boot, it’s nothing personal, it’s just not going to work. I knew from her choice of simile - you should see the shoe section of my closet - that she was someone that I would get along with. After my first session I knew she was the right shoe; she felt like someone I would happily go for a coffee with in the real world, as long as she promised to dial back the challenging questions about being more open to my way not being the only option in life.

3. Do they listen to what I have to say?

In my Marketing days, I sat through many a supplier pitch. There are a multitude of factors that go into picking the right creative team, but the thing that normally swung an agency choice was the balance of time they spent between listening and talking.

What used to turn me off completely was anyone who came in, talked at me, and assumed that they knew what I wanted. What made me feel like the world was OK after all, were the people who asked questions and actually listened to the answers. The second part really matters. What also drove me crazy was the use of the term “great point!” With no further discussion. If you ask me, insincere acknowledgment is worse than none.

There is nothing more frustrating than the person who thinks they know what’s best for you, but who has never actually asked. There is nothing more borderline-magical than the person who listens to what you want, creates a shared vision of success with you and treats that as the goal.

4. What do they stand for?

Some call it values, others ethos. What it all boils down to is, what does this person believe in? Why do they do what they do? Do they value the things that I think are important? Do they embody the qualities I’m looking for as the other half of this partnership?

There’s a huge blind spot that gets talked about frequently in recruitment, that managers recruit in their own image; that deep down we all think that we’re pretty OK and we’re looking for someone as capable as we are, and as a result have a bias towards our own clones. I don’t mean that when looking for a prospective coach, consultant or chiropractor you should go that far, because we all need people in our lives who can stretch our thinking a little. But it helps to have someone with a similar world view, that you can trust, that will understand why you place importance on some areas, and why there are some options you just won’t go for.

5. What do people I trust say about them?

As someone who spent most of their career working on consumer brands, I know it’s hardly an internet-breaking insight that people are increasingly more likely to trust a personal recommendation than an ad. We are all getting more cynical to the claims of advertisers; it’s been an accelerating trend over the past few decades that the smartest marketers in the world are still figuring out how to answer. Some cursory internet research says that word-of-mouth can be indirectly responsible for up to 90% of purchases.

As someone who pretty much flips straight to the ratings and reviews on the Amazon app, rather than watch the supplier videos, I put a surprising amount of faith in people I have never met and what they think about my potential weighted blanket purchase. So it's not surprising that I put even more in what people I do know think about something like a potential CPA, and I would always rather start by asking for a recommendation than throwing a dart at the board and picking one at random based on whether I like the color scheme on their website. It takes the anxiety out of the situation, because I guess in a way it’s a short cut to answering some of the first 4 questions: if I’m asking someone I trust, they’ve done half the screening process for me.

Bottom line

There’s no shame in not being able to do it all, or not having the time to, or not having the experience to. Whether it’s your personal or professional life, embracing the support team concept can be the answer to an easier life. Just remember, when you’re picking your power team, it’s not just what they can do, it’s the way that they do it.

Jen is an executive coach and accidental blogger.. She finds it hard to decide which she loves more. She takes clients directly here or visit www.sakurapro.com




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