Much Ado About Coach Certification

Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot of emphasis on certification as a criterion – often the sole criterion – for choosing coaches. If you Google “coach certification” you will find 16 million results. “Executive coach certification” narrows it down to 770,000. You can find certification programs that cost less than $400 and require 4 days or less to complete. If you’re looking for a coach, you want to know you are choosing a competent and qualified person. And we want to equip you with the tools for making the right choice for yourself. But first let’s talk about the pitfalls of a narrow focus on certification.

The most important thing to know is that, in the field of coaching, nobody certifies the certifiers. If you want to know about your physician, you can go to the American Medical Association. If you want to know about your plumber or electrician, there are governmental agencies charged with certifying those professionals.  In coaching, there is no certifying agency universally recognized as legitimate.

With the coaching boom, some agencies have gotten in the business of certifying because they recognized a market opportunity, not necessarily because they had deep knowledge or a long track record in developing skilled coaches.  Some agencies provide rigorous training and others do not.  Even the definition of what’s “rigorous,” what capabilities and skills a coach should possess and how to develop these, is not universally agreed.

Another problem with using certification as your criterion is that many competent coaches, coaches who came of age before the current focus on certification, don’t bother with the formality of certification. Conversely, many not-so-effective coaches have gotten themselves certified. You are right to want a capable and trained coach, but relying on certification as the measure of capability trivializes your search.

Moreover, coach certification discourages you from really taking responsibility for choosing a person with the fit, skill, and presence that will work for you.*  Certifying agencies are self-styled “authorities”, and when people accept the judgments of an authority without applying their independent judgment, they remain dependent on others’ authority instead of becoming their own authority. In fact, trusting your own judgment is itself a developmental step that a good coach should help you make.

So, how do you take matters into your own hands and assure yourself that you have a capable coach? First, get educated on the competencies and skills of a qualified coach. Here is our list: **
– Maintains confidentiality
– Helps you identify, and stay focused on, specific outcomes
– Tries to help you broaden your thinking, not just focus on skills
– Provides a structured coaching process
– Supports you, but also challenges you
– Helps you base decisions on what you care most about – your values, purpose, vision
– Helps you put in practice new behaviors to achieve your goals
– Helps you get feedback from others in your world
– Helps you measure effectiveness of the coaching process

Second, gather information directly from prospective coaches. Take them your goals and concerns, and ask them how they have helped people in similar situations, and how they propose to help you. Pay attention to your feelings about chemistry and fit. And make your own judgment!

* This point was nicely made by David McCleary in his 2006 article “Executive coach certification and selection: a contrarian’s viewpoint,” Development and Learning in Organizations, vol. 20, issue 4, pp. 10-11.

** I’ve published a guide designed to help leaders to be more active in their own coaching process (Your Executive Coaching Solution, Nicholas Brealey, 2007).  This guide provides insight and tools that enable you to make good decisions and get a good result from coaching.


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