During my journey into coaching, first as a client and then as a coach, I’ve spent quite a bit of time navigating a landscape that can feel a little confusing. 

As coaching is still a relatively nascent area (particularly in certain countries, cultures and industries), a lot of people aren’t very familiar or experienced with it as a discipline. 

For those who are, there are still various connotations, concepts, and interpretations to contend with – both with coaching in its broader sense and within more nuanced scenarios or contexts. These variances aren’t necessary a bad thing (there are certainly many flavors of coaching), but it can still make the navigation process difficult.

And although there are a number of well-recognized training and certification programs available, as with other practices that are still emergent, the industry itself is largely unregulated. Again, this adds more variables into the mix.

This post aims to help dispel a few myths and provide some practical guidance – whether you’re exploring working with a coach, or considering becoming one yourself.

Note: This post comes from my own experience certifying as a coach, speaking with other coaches (certified and non-certified), and researching the discipline and various coaching programs with as an objective view as possible. It’s not intended to be exhaustive – I’ll certainly cover the topic of flavors/types of coaches in a follow-up post.

Coaches need to be certified

Certification is not required to be a coach. There are a number of certification programs available (see below), as well as accreditations (slightly different, again explained below), and the curriculum, approach and teaching styles vary across certification programs. There are also many different styles and flavors of coach (something I’ll write about in more detail shortly).

This means effectively anyone can advertise themselves as a coach. I strongly believe the world needs more coaches, and in that respect the low barrier to entry is a good thing, particularly as this is a practice intended to help and support people.

However, as coaching becomes a bit of a buzz term (again a good thing – on the whole!), there are people positioning themselves as coaches perhaps as much as a personal branding exercise (a la being self-proclaimed ‘Guru’, ‘Thought Leader’, ‘Keynote Speaker’, whatever that Shingy guy called himself, etc.) as wanting to do the work.

I’ve heard a few unfortunate stories of clients feeling let down as they felt their coach didn’t know what they were doing. Part of this could be down to lack of training on the coach’s part, also perhaps clients not fully understanding what coaching is about and what they should expect from the process.

In any case, given the nature of the work there is certainly a duty of care that comes with coaching, and the deeper a coach goes on their journey, the more there is to learn about the practice and how to work effectively with clients.

I decided to certify as I felt it was very important to be as well equipped as possible to work with people effectively in supporting their careers and ventures (I focus on entrepreneurs and executives in the creative & digital industries). 

Like the vast majority of coaches, I had no ulterior motives or misaligned incentives, but I was very aware of the risks in providing well-intentioned but ill-judged or even damaging guidance.

I haven’t regretted doing my certification one bit: I’ve learned a huge amount, and have become a better coach from both the classwork and the immersive nature of working with peer coaches and mentors during the program.

Above all though, it’s about whether someone feels right for what you need. 

As leading coach Ed Batista says in his post on how to choose a coach:

coaching training and certification programs offer many benefits, but their function is not to screen out unqualified coaches… The most impeccable credentials and decades of experience are meaningless if a coach doesn’t feel right to you. And a lack of credentials or minimal experience are similarly meaningless if someone does feel right.

There’s only one type of certification available

The ICF (International Coaching Federation) is the largest accrediting and credentialing body for coaching and works with many programs globally, but it’s not the only route.

It’s first important to distinguish between certification and accreditation. A coach can become certified via a program (for example my certification is through Leadership That Works), but not necessarily accredited.

Many programs have a relationship with ICF so the accreditation process is partially baked into the program (and the program itself is by extension accredited by ICF), but the accreditation is undertaken separately and usually involves an exam plus a certain amount of verified client coaching hours.

Certifications are given by the programs rather than directly by the ICF. There are a number of options, just as there are different training providers and different programs. The program I chose to take was Coaching for Transformation, and that’s one of the programs provided by the training provider Leadership That Works (LTW). LTW is a provider recognized and accredited by the ICF. (yep, I had to read twice too)

There are different schools of thought on the value of being accredited by ICF as a coach. The majority of coaches I know are not, although there are of course plenty of excellent coaches who are.

As a rule of thumb, my advice for prospective clients is to ask potential coaches about their certification if they have one, what they learned during that process, and how it evolved them as a coach (per the above point, having a certification doesn’t necessarily make the coach good, or right for you). It’s also worth reading Ed’s post I cited above.

If you’re exploring taking a coaching program, a good start point is to look at programs (and thus instructors) that are ICF accredited in some way, although I would be less concerned at needing the ICF accreditation for yourself, certainly at the beginning (many coaches do a lot on continuous professional development).

The next important step is to spend some time exploring each specific program – its content, ethos, principles, and approach, as well as speaking to some program alumni if you can. Most programs run regular free webinar info sessions too.

So we’ve talked about certifications and accreditations – let’s jump into some more practical points.

Coaches can give great advice

Perhaps we can, but this goes against one of the key roles and principles of a good coach.

They are there to support, champion and sometimes challenge their clients, but not to fix or advise. Projecting our ideas and solving problems are traits many of us are naturally pre-disposed to.

Part of the role of the coach is to set aside this approach and instead focus on helping the client find the appropriate pathways and solutions for themselves.

It’s worth noting that many coaches, myself included, get asked by clients to provide advice of some kind. In my experience this is ok on the proviso there is a) a clear delineation of when the coaching hat is removed, and b) the advisory topic under discussion doesn’t interfere with a coaching topic.

As with many things in life, addressing this often simply comes down to both parties communicating clearly.

Coaches can serve the same function as a therapist

There are definitely some similarities between coaching and therapy, and it’s not uncommon to find coaches who have a therapy background (and visa versa). 

However, it’s important to distinguish between the two practices. 

Therapy is offered by healthcare professionals, and primarily focuses on resolving past issues by exploring and understanding these through introspection and analysis. 

Rather than focusing on the past, coaching looks at the current moment and the future: clarifying goals, identifying obstacles and limiting behaviours to create clear action plans to help a client achieve results. Coaches won’t analyze as therapists will; they’ll identify and desricbe certain behaviours to enable the client to work on them.

A good coach will recognise when a client should speak with a therapist about a certain topic rather than their coach. Examples of these issues may include dealing with past trauma, exploring why past relationships have been destructive, or dealing with depression.

Coaches work on your problems

You may well have some frustrations, challenges, and obstacles on your mind when going into a coaching session, and a key part of a coach’s role is to help you explore what’s happening to help you overcome them.

What a good coach won’t do though is to coach the problem itself – their role is to coach you as a client.

Again, this is something our problem-solving brains will try and default to – we all like create solutions (I’ve seen this dozens of times teaching design thinking workshops). However, the focus for the coach is not to analyze or solve problems, it’s to support and challenge a client in finding their own solutions and pathways to the future they want to see.

The challenges or problems will get addressed, but the coach is there to support you in working through them – not to do the work for you.

I hope this helped demystify a few points around coaching. I’ll be writing plenty more about this in the coming months – if you have questions or suggestions for other topics I’d love to hear them – just drop me a line.

5 common myths about coaching

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