How to choose a professional coach that’s best for you, and why it matters
I just joined the board of the Bay Area ICF chapter. In a world where any fool or charlatan can call themselves a professional coach, I think it’s important for there to be a body that sets professional standards, provides ongoing education, and monitors professional ethics.
Remember when I quit my job 18 months ago? Looking back, I really had very little idea what I was getting myself into. I just expected that I’d figure it out as I went along.
There’s been a lot of figuring out. More than I anticipated.
Since graduating college 33 years earlier, I’d made five major career changes and worked in five different industries. Each time, I figured things out as I went along. I think that’s what makes life fun!
I’d been building and leading highly engaged, high performing teams for over 30 years, and my life experience would make many people’s heads spin. And, having benefited from coaching in the past, it all felt like a natural fit.
Even with all that, I had some reservations.
Mostly, would people take me seriously?
Woo-woo versus transformation
If you’ve encountered life coaching in any form, you’ve probably seen it in one of two presentations… not unlike the current Barbie movie craze.
There’s the superficial type: the type that sparkles in bright colors, speaks in inspiring clichés, and promises that happiness is only a journal entry and yoga class away. Shallow and bubbly.
Then there’s the type that goes beyond the superficial to contemplate the difficult questions of identity, values, worldview, and true self-awareness. Transformative.
With Barbie enthusiasm, it’s possible to be both at the same time. You can dance along with the movie and discuss its deeper questions while wearing sparkly pink. In fact, I recommend it.
In coaching, however, if you just bob along in the superficial, you’ll never actually make any meaningful change. You can go through the motions, do the exercises, say the affirmations, focus on self-care… but real transformation happens in the pressure of the depths, not in the bubbly shallows.
If you insist on paying someone to play with you in the kiddie pool, okay, sure, that’s your right.
But if you’re interested in actual change, you need a pro.
Not all professional coaches are certified, but all certified coaches are professionals.
A brief history of certification
According to Google’s Bard AI, the first professional certification was in medicine in 1518, when the Royal College of Physicians was founded in London to regulate the medical profession. Next to jump on the certification craze were accountants, about 350 years later. And it wasn’t until 1947 that the American Psychological Association began offering board certification to psychologists.
Today, you’d think it ludicrous to entrust your physical or financial or mental health to just anyone off the street. We expect certifying bodies to make sure we can trust the professionals we hire not to be fools, charlatans, or crackpots.
But you can still hire a health coach, a financial coach, or a life coach who has zero credentials. And that’s true in any area of life or business.
All it takes is for someone to add “coach” after a word, et voila! Now they can take your money to play with you in the kiddie pool. Or worse, they may try to drag you into the depths without understanding what they’re doing.
Unqualified people can actually do harm without even knowing it.
There is in fact a certifying body for professional coaches
The International Coaching Federation was founded in 1995 to create and enforce standards in this growing profession. The ICF requires a rigorous education, demonstrated expertise in a set of core competencies, and an amount of practical experience in order to earn and maintain certification. ICF coaches agree to a uphold an ethical standard. And we are required to keep our skills and knowledge current through ongoing education.
I suppose you could hire someone without a medical certification to manage your health, but why would you? You could hire someone without financial credentials to manage your money, but why would you?
Coaching may always be a more loose profession than medicine and finance. Perhaps it should be. Why shouldn’t someone be able to add “coach” to another word and call it their profession? Business coach, marketing coach, nutrition coach, caregiving coach… etc.
I’m not a fan of over-engineering processes or erecting barriers that don’t actually protect anything, so I don’t advocate forcing everyone who wants to use the word “coach” in their job title to get certified.
If the word were one day to become legally restricted in that way, then another word would surely rise to take its place.
But that does leave the profession open to abuse from well-meaning incompetents and those with bad intent. In an unregulated market, it’s often the best salespeople, not the best practitioners, who get the business and then leave the customer feeling disappointed or cheated.
Thus, it’s up to the prospective client to make sure they’re getting someone who can meet their needs.
How to choose a professional coach for you
Certainly, ICF certification is a marker of credibility. It shows the coach has gone through training, demonstrated competence, and adheres to an ethical standard.
But those are table stakes. Don’t hire a coach if you’re unsure of any of those points. (Someone may have all those without being ICF certified; certification is an optional additional step.)
Here are four things you need to do when hiring a coach:
1. Know why you are hiring a coach
What transformation are you looking for? What do you want to change? You may be unsure; in that case “figuring out what I need to change” might be your answer. But you need clarity on what you’re going to be asking of your coach. It may change as you go through the process, but you need to know where you’re starting.
2. Know what you want from the coaching engagement
A lot of people think a coach is going to give them all the answers or show them how to succeed. “I need better marketing. I’ll hire a marketing coach!” No. You want a consultant, or a training class.
When I talk to prospective clients about the helper professions, I shorthand it this way:
- Teachers help you learn a skill or knowledge.
- Consultants fix a problem for you that you are unable to fix yourself.
- Mentors show you how they achieved their success so you can learn from their example.
- Therapists help you understand and process the underlying factors that make you who you are.
- Coaches help you identify your goals and a plan for how to achieve them.
Any good coach will discuss this right up front and make sure you understand their process. If a coach is overly prescriptive in providing solutions, beware. They may not understand the value or process of coaching, and you may end up being given “solutions” that don’t meet your needs.
3. Separate the sizzle from the steak
Every successfully marketed product has two feature sets: Features that are good to buy, and features that are good to own.
Features that are good to buy are the ones trumpeted in advertising and sales documents. They get people’s attention and draw people in. They make people want to buy the product.
Features that are good to own are the ones that make people happy customers. They solve a need or bring joy in ownership, and they inspire testimonials and referrals.
Imagine a toaster oven, for example. Features that are good to buy might be style, trendiness, a wide range of settings, a digital keypad, smart home connectivity, a super long power cord. These are the sizzle. Features that are good to own, however, might include speed of heating up, a self-turnoff timer, easy access drip pan, a small range of settings with easy to read dials.
That is, the reasons we like buying something may not match the reasons we like using it. Sometimes they are even in conflict. If you’ve ever been excited to buy something you ended up never using, you know this to be true.
So it goes with coaching.
In coaching, the features that are good to buy include self-confidence, charisma, snazzy brochures, TED talks, best-selling books, and promises of all your dreams coming true. That’s the sizzle! Don’t you want to be like that super charismatic influencer with all the accolades and publications?
In coaching, the features that are good to own include effective listening, a safe and trusting space, dedication to your growth, a drive to gain deeper insight, and the ability to hold you capable of doing the work. That’s the steak. After each session, you’ll feel like something profound and meaningful just happened and that you are, in fact, making progress on the transformation you need.
If you are going to spend money on a coach, look for the steak. Look for the substance. You don’t need to pay more for extra sizzle unless what you really want is to name-drop a famous brand.
4. Have a conversation. Have several conversations.
Nearly every coach who cares about your success will be happy to have a free, no-obligation consultation. At the very least, you should be able to get a sense of who the coach is as a person, their process, their capabilities and methods, and their prices.
Many coaches, like me, will also spend time getting to know you and exploring your “why” and “what” (items 1 and 2 above). This often becomes a free coaching session, which is even more helpful for getting to know whether you want to work with them or not.
In my Coaching Showcase video series, nearly every coach told me that the rapport between coach and client is the greatest indicator of success. This is because at the heart of every coaching relationship is a powerful sense of trust and safety.
Don’t go into the deep end without that.
I can help.
I work with top executives and middle managers to improve their leadership skills and the effectiveness of their teams. I also help individuals identify and achieve their personal goals. Would you like to be more effective, be more empowered, and feel fully prepared for your next steps?
You can help.
Think of one person who would benefit from reading this post. Sharing is caring! Forward it to them right now. They will think you’re super smart and well informed.