How to become a coach?

The title of this article is identical to the title of a book by the same author, which has been published in French and Romanian.   The content is also very largely inspired from part of the introduction to the book.  This article also follows a previous one that covered the question: Why do you want to become a coach?  Indeed, before seriously considering finding means to become a coach, we strongly suggest that one takes time to evaluate personal motivations.  As in any undertaking, if motivations are clear and well aligned, then the quest will have much more chances to be successful

Does one need training to become a coach?  That is a vital question.  Numerous specialists from very different fields such as professional consulting, health and nutrition, family counseling, training, psychotherapy, home decoration, etc. present themselves as coaches.  They often use the word of coach in its very general sense and because it is trendy.  These people are often unaware that coaching is a specific approach if not a particular profession. They do not know that coaching includes the use of specific tools, involves particular strategies, and requires specific skills.  To acquire these, one needs training.

To give an illustration, one can either be a nutritionist or a nutrition coach, coach or both.  The first specialist would require expertise while the second professional would mainly need communications skills and very different strategies to accompany clients.  The two professions would not at all rest on the same type of skills.  It is therefore quite possible to coach clients on how to change their eating habits and advise them to get good expertise from a specialist in nutrition or from a doctor.  Consequently, coaching not expertise in a given field.  It is a dialogue-based service that can be applied in any field that concerns people, starting with sports, and spreading out to business, personal and spiritual life issues, play, etc.

What would be good initial training?  First, it is useful to note that to coach, one does not need to acquire a body of knowledge by reading books, going to conferences, and attending lectures.  Learning how to coach requires a set of professional linguistic skills and communication behaviors that can only be acquired by practical work.  This work actually consists in repeating and repeating techniques during learning exercises or with clients, until the skills become professional reflexes.

  • Caution: Intellectually knowing what coaching is, knowing how to describe it with precision, lecture on it, and list all its tools and techniques is not the equivalent of knowing how to coach.

Numerous very good coaches are not very good at social conversations on the subject of coaching. Some extremely knowledgeable theoreticians on the subject of coaching and some very good coach trainers do not really know how to coach.

Consequently, to really learn how to coach, it is useful to choose a short and practical initial training curriculum.  It is not useful to spend hours on school benches before starting to coach because the learning really begins only when one starts to coach.  One can compare learning to coach and learning to swim.  To really learn to swim, one has to swim.  The more miles a person swims per week, the better swimmer he or she will become.  It is the same with coaching.

So it is better to avoid long, generalist and theoretical approaches. Choose short practical training focused on acquiring behavioral skills.  Later, when first clients are acquired, the best continuous learning is done in supervision groups, again focused on practicing and developing skills.

What coaching school to choose?  No matter the field, to become good at anything, it is important to choose a very good initial learning environment.  This initial training will not only provide foundational skills, but more importantly, it will provide the student with a frame of reference that is specific to the field or profession.  Choosing a good school to start in any direction is paramount to lay the best possible foundations for future development.  Consequently, paying attention to each potential school’s frame of reference is extremely important.  One needs to choose growth environments with care.

Coaching is a very recent profession.  Its presence on the international scene doesn’t date any earlier than 1995.  To give a comparison, Transactional Analysis dates back to the fifties, and NLP to the seventies.  The frames of reference of the three fields are totally different.  Coaching is not Transactional Analysis, not Neuro linguistic Programming, and not a synthesis of other theories of the Human Potential movement. In fact, coaching has no direct link with any formal psychological or communication theory or brand that has been publicized in the last hundred years.

To learn coaching, know that all complementary techniques that can be useful after years of practice are totally superfluous when learning the fundamentals.  They may even be counterproductive when they add to a coach student’s confusion as to what coaching really is.

Consequently, it is important to carefully read the presentation of proposed courses and the background of the teachers to choose the possible biases that are proposed along with the coach training.  Is the program theoretical, generalist, practical?  Is it focused on organizations, linked to a specific spiritual heritage or does it refer to a specific psychological perspective?  What is the practical dimension of the training?  Are the exercises originating from organizational training, from humanist group therapy, from personal development heritages?  What is their real pertinence to coaching?

Should one get a coaching certification or diploma?  This question is often linked to the one concerning the choice of school.  Numerous coaching students are primarily concerned with obtaining recognition as a professional coach.  They want to display a certificate or diploma that can say they are competent. To satisfy this demand, numerous schools market diplomas.

As a result, the European market is glutted with self-certified schools that promise their potential students diplomas in order to sell their coach training curricula.  This has become a market in itself, little connected to the coaching market. In these schools, more than 98% of the students can automatically get their certification, by just being present. Unfortunately, the value of most of these homemade diplomas is rarely questioned.

Possibly a little more manipulative: some coach-training teachers and schools also create an apparently independent professional association for coaches.  Then they ask all their students to become members of the association for a small yearly fee.  In return, the association recognizes the validity of the school’s teachings and diploma, and the competency of the teachers.  It is relatively easy to become aware of these self-serving strategies.  Founders and board members of professional coaching associations should never also be teachers or owners of coaching schools.  There is an obvious conflict of interest in cumulating the two posts.

Consequently, in all fields, coaching included, it is better to privilege diplomas and certifications that rest on tests and exams that are delivered by independent organizations.  There should be no link between the founders or the administrators teaching systems on the one hand and certification systems on the other.  Of course, this is common sense.  One never obtained a driver’s license from the driving school one attended.  That is basic ethical behavior.  When systems allow for individuals to be both judge and party, they often develop questionable sectary behaviors and symbiotic relationships with their members.  That is contrary to the spirit of coaching.

In the past fifteen years in the coaching environment, the benchmark certification process has been the one provided by the International Coach Federation. This certification is clearly international and independent of any specific coaching school or tradition. Some smaller and more national associations also offer valid and ethical certification processes, but they carry less international weight and recognition.  In all cases, veer away from coach teachers and companies that propose their own homemade diplomas.   Choosing one of these is valid if the training process is outstanding.  But after acquiring the training, it is suggested to pass an independent ICF certification or equivalent.

What other training should you consider?  There are numerous options.  Note however, that after a basic coach training, priority should first be to first develop a client base and become an active professional.  A real professional in any field is someone who earns more than half of their personal income in that field.  To really practice the skills of coaching on a daily basis, one needs to acquire a large portfolio of clients and contacts that can refer clients, and then follow them up.  This takes time and focus.  Before this is achieved, it is advised to stay away from getting superfluous complementary training.  Too many beginners harbor the illusion that they will become professionals by going to more schools to get more training, then more training, and still more training.  You become professional by getting clients, then more clients, and still more clients.

As soon as a coach does acquire sufficient clients, however, supervision could be considered the privileged equivalent of advanced training. Coaches attend supervision to reconsidering how they work with their real clients, to develop and enlarge their perspectives and to hone their tools and skills.  Supervision could be considered the one most practical continuing education process for coaches.  In some coaching environments such as in France, coaches consider that they should be participating in a supervision process on a continuous basis throughout their careers.

Advanced coaches can also get education that may pertain to their particular type of coaching.  Team coaches may wish to acquire skills and tools that are specific to team coaching.  Telephone coaches may do the same for their telephone coaching specialization. Life coaching, spiritual coaching, organizational coaching, internal coaching, etc. may also go to specific workshops to develop strategies and acquire skill sets that apply to a particular type of niche.

Other useful training concerns the entrepreneurial dimension a specific coach may need to develop.  Most coaches are independent contractors.  They need to market themselves and sell themselves.  They need to be their own accountants, assistants, planners and organizers, developers and financial advisors. Acquiring sufficient knowledge and skills in all those fields can also be of great help when accompanying clients who also happen to have entrepreneurial issues.  A well-rounded coach who can model success and a capacity to learn in organizational fields will surely inspire clients to do and be the same.

On another level, it is also useful to participate in a few regional and international professional conferences on a yearly basis. To be truly interesting events, these should be organized by professional coaching associations and other important actors on the market.

Avoid conferences that are too obviously organized by conference professionals, who blatantly just aim for profit.  Truly associative events are useful to attend to belong to a community, to develop and maintain a network with other professionals, to follow new trends and developments, to get inspiration from peers and eminent figures, to find partners for future ventures, etc.  Coaching can be a very solitary profession for those who do not invest time to interface with other professionals.

How can you develop your client base?   Hanging a coach plaque on a door and writing “coach” on a professional card does not ensure that one will have numerous clients suddenly queuing to be accompanied by a beginning professional.  Much as for other professions, coaches must market and sell themselves.  Consequently, as soon as a candidate coach starts training, it will be useful to start activating personal networks of potential clients and prescribers.

Before getting started, a good strategy is to make a list of all potential relays, friends and acquaintances.  On this list, beginning coaches will include all past friends, colleagues, clients, suppliers, employers, family members, etc.  A good list is comprised of several hundred names, phone numbers, email addresses. Each entry should be considered both as a potential prospect and as a prescriber of other potential clients.

The next step consists in contacting all these people to inform them of the coach candidate’s new professional status and more importantly, of the added value he or she can help them achieve.

In this process, the first client is always the most difficult to find.  The second is half as difficult and the next become easier.  To actively launch one’s practice, numerous coaches accept to offer free coaching sessions, or to charge minimal fees.  To get started, it is indeed necessary to privilege the acquisition of practical experience, favoring quantity over quality. Over time, as soon as sufficient clients are acquired and coaches feel that they are finding their market, the fees are gradually adjusted upwards. 

During this period, it is also advised to focus on an honest and ethical positioning.  Looking for shortcuts by pretense, impostures, half-truths, or by shooting too high and too fast rarely allows for sustainable development.  Many beginning coaches want to aim for top executive clients and Olympic champions, pretentiously trying to skip the useful practice provided by coaching less glamorous clients.  It is more useful to humbly and patiently build one’s client portfolio on a level that corresponds to one’s real skills.  Occasionally referring difficult clients with complex issues to more experienced coaches will often be a winning strategy on the longer term.

Many beginning coaches may fall in the trap of spending excessive time and resources designing very artistic marketing material or designing a complex and seductive website.  Marketing is not sales, and a passive approach to acquiring clients is not so effective for relational professions such as coaching.  It is therefore much more useful to privilege face to face and telephone conversations to establish the quality of relationships that are foundational to the profession.  Taking an active first step to establish real personal relationships with future relays and prospects takes time, but it is the best way to start practicing what makes coaching such a uniquely satisfying profession.

Beginners also need to remember that to start any new sustainable business, one count a minimum of two years of active selling investment.  Establishing one’s coaching practice takes at least the same time.  Consequently, it may be useful to ensure minimal survival revenues from other sources.  Some start-up coaches have the safety provided by one important corporate client who can ensure solid revenues, others have a part-time activity that will provide minimal income and still others start their coaching activity while benefiting from retirement or unemployment revenues.  The important issue here is to achieve a form of existential security so as to avoid dealing with the danger and stress of inexistent resources.

How do you sell coaching in a first client meeting?  “So what is coaching?”  Beware of this question whenever asked by a client you have just met. Although it is earnestly asked to engage in a conversation, the answer may be too focused on describing the profession and the coach, not enough on the client.  Following this invitation by clients, beginning coaches often start long monologues describing the profession, repeating definitions and descriptions heard during their training:

_”Well, coaching is a way to accompany clients, focused on helping them achieve their goals or ambitions, but without offering them expertise or solutions.  The idea is to help them think differently about their issues by asking questions that aim to change their perspectives, in order to find different solutions… etc.”

In the course of this explanation, the coach is adopting a completely paradoxical stance.  When coaches embark in these zealous descriptions, they generally get focused on restating their understanding of their profession.  But telling clients all we know about coaching is training, not coaching.  And when clients listen to such a coach monologue, they are not focused on their own goals, achievements, issues or objectives.  They are focused on the content of the coach’s description.

Furthermore, when coaches describe their profession, they are displaying their knowledge.  And paradoxically, displaying knowledge is not coaching. Consequently, such discussions often veer into question and answer sessions where the newly trained coach has all the answers.  In the end, clients feel that they have to submissively adapt to a very defined relationship, which is being sold by the coach.

It is much more coherent with the spirit of coaching to avoid answering the question of “what is coaching” with detail.  It is often a better tactic to say that coaching really depends on each client’s needs, and then immediately ask the potential client a question:

  • What in their personal or professional lives could offer a reason to call on a coach or equivalent supporting professional?
  • What are their ambitions, issues, areas of development, or challenges which could use
  • How would the client imagine this accompaniment?
  • What would be some indicators of a successful coaching process in the areas on which the client is focused?
  • Etc.

Consequently, to sell coaching, it is useful to immediately be a coach and to coach prospective clients in order to them clarify their possible needs and goals.  This consists in illustrating with the client or modeling what coaching is rather than talking about it.  To conclude, the best way to sell coaching is to be a coach.

How can you market your coaching services?   Beginning coaches can often gain from writing down what they do or want to do in a contract form, in order to present prospective clients with a first general service offering.  This document should not so much be an advertisement leaflet but a practical and detailed proposal that can lead to the establishment of a contract.

How many hours or days of coaching for how many people, at what cost?  What process, with which pertinent actors, in what location and in what rhythm?  What are the conditions and exceptions for cancellation, ethical considerations, penalties, obligations and expenses?

A clear, detailed, well-presented proposal could be sent to a prospect, to an intermediary or prescriber before a first meeting.  This type of complete document sent as a preparation for a first interview allows for a quick focus on the meeting outcome and will help gain a lot of time.  It will help root out countless possibilities for misinformation or misinterpretation of the type of service a coach wishes to offer.

Preparing this document will also help most beginning coaches think about what they want to offer and position their specific type of service on the market, before meeting clients.  Of course, the way a coach envisions his or her offer will evolve as years go by.  It is therefore useless to attempt to be too complete or too perfect when elaborating such a working document.  It may even evolve from one meeting to the next, from one type of prospect to another.

Again, the object here is not to elaborate a classical advertisement in order to stuff real or virtual mailboxes not place them in newspapers.  The nature of the coaching relationship is closer to the privileged personal rapport that is established between clients and their closest advisors.  The best way to begin such a relationship is though word-of-mouth and referrals, through direct contacts and conversations, in face-to-face meetings and heart to heart dialogues.