The French Coaching Market
Some specific characteristics, and personal perceptions of the French national coaching, training and consulting market environment

Numerous international colleagues have asked me about the particularities of the French coaching market.  Here are some of my reflections.

In short, my impression is that the French training and consulting market in general and the coaching market in particular is relatively mature.  If this be the case, understanding the history and specificities of the French training, consulting  and coaching market can offer a number of insights which could help professionals

  • understand other national training, consulting and coaching markets
  • implement appropriate strategies to develop in France.

A few figures from the Observatoire Cegos who has interviewed 2355 employees and 485 HRs and training managers from organizations which have more than 500 employees.  This study took place in France, Germany, the UK and Spain over a 3 year period from 2005 to 2008.  According to this study, 72% of the French employees had received professional training, against 52% of the British, 29% of the Germans and 24% of the Spanish.  The difference from one country to another is quite surprising.  The fact that the British are not first in Europe may be an eye opener for many who have a Anglo-Saxon bacground and approach to Training and coaching.

The 1971 Labor Law

The first most important historical factor that has influenced the French training, consulting and today, the coaching environment is the 1971 labor law concerning training in France.  In short, this law stipulated that if large organizations did not spend at least 1.2% of their salary mass on personnel training, then the sum would simply be taxed.

Within just a few years following the passing of that law, the training market had literally exploded.  The environment was suddenly glutted with improvised trainers from all walks of life and professional backgrounds offering a very wide variety of more or less performing programs all claiming to develop a variety of personal and professional competencies.  Within organizations, internal training departments flourished, numerous training centers were built to meet demand, and these often extensively called for external support.  Within a few years and out of the woodwork, thousands of training organizations appeared on the market. Remember, this happened in the seventies.

Needless to say, during those first “far west” years into the late 1980s, the general maturity and quality of the training programs offered were predictably low.   As time passed, however, internal managers and negotiators on the one hand and external trainers and consultants on the other acquired competencies and focused on finding and developing performing training strategies and techniques.  All gradually started to measure results.  

  • Decision makers realized that if they were to spend the money, might as well use it to reach strategic objectives by preparing personnel for future organizational challenges. 
  • Better administrative controls were elaborated by the French government to make sure the funds were not illicitly spent on other objectives.

To stay on the learning edge of training and development programs, numerous French consulting companies and internal departments toured the world to benchmark and search for newer and better training products, approaches and processes.  As time passed, these programs generally had to be adapted if not improved to fit the increasingly demanding expectations of the maturing local market.  Gradually, also, local trainers invested in their own research to develop increasingly performing tools, products and processes.

In effect within two decades, the 1971 law succeeded in provoking a quantitative and qualitative boost of the local French training and consulting market to a level that neighbouring countries failed to perceive.  If individual consultants, trainers or coaches succeeded on this market, there was good chance they would be perceived as very good in the rest of Europe, if they spoke English.

The Human Resource Field

Obviously, training in diverse communication fields such as management, sales techniques, team building, personal development, etc. followed this general trend.  Huge amounts of money were spent yearly on off-site programs to have everyone get along better with themselves, with their clients, with their managers and with their personnel.  Fads proposing a succession of more or less reliable and structured humanist techniques came and went as all searched for more performing methods to ensure more measurable results. 

Interestingly, during those booming years, formal Freudian and Jungian psychologists and psychotherapists were perceived as too medically inclined for most organizational cultures.  These traditional psychological movements did not succeed in making their niche in the training and consulting business and were kept out of it, at most on the outer fringes.

Interestingly also, the perception that all this investment in training had its limits gradually came to surface.  After years and millions spent on developing better communication and managerial skills in people, it has become quite obvious that organizations as such were not evolving as much as could be expected.  For a number of very large organizations, the measurable effect of spending thousands of hours training managers and personnel over a period of 35 years can today be considered rather limited.

  • Note: According to the study quoted above, a particularity of the French market is that only 6% of the personnel had followed leadership training, against an average of 15% for the other countries, and 25% in the UK.
There can be many interpretations to explain this difference.  One explanation concerns the obvious US cultural influence on the British market.  US focus on leadership may not be  so trendy in France.  Another explanation concerns the continental European Community culture which seems to be more concerned with communication, negociation, peer collaboration, cooperation, mediation, conflict resolution, etc. rather than leadership  Focus on the individual leader is just not European, focus on teamwork is.  Note that publishers in France also avoid to have the word leadership on book titles.  The word and concept just doesn't sell.

Some personal perceptions

The French experience seems to prove that extensively developing the human quality of individuals does not necessarily develop the human quality of team and organizations or systems.  One could conclude that if people are developed and their general level of consciousness is raised while they remain within organizations that do not change, the level of dissatisfaction will grow, and turnover will increase.  Beyond training and coaching individuals, there appears today an urgent need to develop teams and organizations.  Today system cultures and processes need to be developed to meet higher individual expectations.

Consequently, recent trends may confirm the need for more systemic approaches which aim to help organizations change more than aim at having people develop individually.  The French market seems to be on the verge of a major change, using training funds to focus more precisely on systemic organizational change, rather than stopping at satisfying individual needs for personal development.  Today, this trend influences the French training market, paving the way for more team and organization development approaches and for future team and organizational coaching.

It also is useful to note that on the French market today, training technology has developed and is still developing to become more creative, participative, emerging and experimental.  The traditional mass-oriented workbook years centered on dispensing principles, coining vision and mission statements, delivering lofty or witty theories with powerpoint presentations, lavishly spending on motivational incentive programs and listening to management gurus and inspirational speakers have all taken a back seat to make room for more creative, intuitive, behavioral, experiential, in-house, co–learning training environments. 

More often today, learning environments need to be run by the participants while trainers learn to stay in the background.  Formal top-down and rolled-out programs need to make space for “open-source” emerging processes where clients are invited to design their own learning processes and teach themselves. With very few exceptions, the work-book era of professed management principles now seem as almost prehistorical in advanced French training programs.

Enter Coaching

By the time coaching came into the picture around 1995, the 1971 law had already helped create a very performing and reasonably mature training market.  When coaching appeared as a new approach in France, the money and infrastructure was already there for it to rapidly develop.  All coaches had to do was surf on the existing context, much in the same way as Transactional Analysts, NLP experts, team building and other “training fads” had developed in the preceding years. 

There was, and still is a catch, however.  Buyers in France have seen other fads and fashions come and go.  They do not just buy coaching because it is new.  As in most mature markets, buyers are trained to expect results or measurable returns on training investments. 

To attain and retain their own credibility on this mature market, would-be and confirmed coaches became quite quickly aware that they needed to develop themselves, participate in numerous training programs, very willingly invest on supervision and mentoring processes, and focus on measurable client results.  Coaches in France have to prove they can offer more than all preceding or historical methods and approaches.  Being a coach is not enough.  One has to be a very good one.  Consequently in France today, an average competent coach can easily spend fifteen to twenty days a year investing on personal and professional development.  To do this, they are ready to pay for highly professional training.

As a consequence, the market for training coaches has quite predictably also exploded in the past few years in France.  Numerous coaching schools, institutes and university programs have practically jumped out of the woodwork.  This trend includes programs offered in some of the larger state schools.  In Paris alone, one can find more than 15 coach-training institutions which all offer rather comprehensive long-term coach training programs.  On a smaller scale, a good number of advanced, recognized or certified coaches offer independent training and supervision programs to help develop professionalism all over France.

To attempt to organize the profession, the French branch of the International Coach Federation and the local “Société Française de Coachs” are the two main professional organizations, officially representing over 500 active coaches in 2007.  Outside of this formal perimeter, however there exists numerous other smaller associations and probably more than 5000 independent and non-affiliated professionals in France who all refer to “coaching” as their profession.

Within larger and state client organizations, numerous HR-driven coach referral lists are established following selection processes designed to choose competent candidate coaches.  These organizations have each developed an extensive screening process, often asking if coaches are under supervision, checking on their training, calling on their client referrals and following up on their internal coaching results.

The Next Steps

Observing the development of coaching over the past few years in France, a few key elements stand out.  First, coaching has almost naturally been included in the general field of humanists psychology.  Many coaches come from a psychological or personal development background, and are convinced that coaching is an offshoot of either TA or NLP or of a mix of other such humanist approaches.  As a consequence, coaching is too often perceived as a method to deal with relational issues and sometimes solve very personal behavioural and/or psychological problems. 

In France, this may oftentimes limit the frame of reference of coaching which would have much more to gain if it was positioned as a resolutely operational approach focused on achieving individual and collective ambitions and results.  Unfortunately, too many French coaches are not positioned as strategic partners to help increase individual and organizational performance.  They are positioned as individual coaches focused on improving individual and managerial behavior.

Second, the development of coaching in France has been very largely focused on professional coaching, where the training market money has been until now.  Consequently, the French “life coaching” market is not as developed, by a wide margin.  This can be seen as a huge area for future development if training money becomes more personalized over the coming years.  

Third, individual coaching is still much more developed than team or organizational coaching.  As explained above, the historical training context has traditionally been focused on developing people rather than systems.  As a consequence, team coaching and organizational coaching suffers from the general context of psychologically oriented coaches, focused on individuals.  As the perception grows that teams and organizations need to develop to retain demanding managers and leaders, the team and organizational coaching market will also develop to answer obvious system coaching needs.

For individual professional coaching, it can also be predicted that the coming years will see a huge surge in demand.  Indeed, if the French employment market has been rather bearish in the past 10 years and in the present downturn, this will be very rapidly changing.  Very few organizations have prepared the next generation of younger managers and a full generation of senior executives are soon to be sent off to retire.  There will soon appear an nationwide need to accompany the development of management and leadership competencies to fill the predictable void.

For all these reasons, not only is the coaching market rather developed and mature, but it can easily be expected that the need for individual and system coaching will probably boom in the coming years in France, not to mention the probable gradual development of a budding but very promising life coaching market.

To consult a training program on the fundamentals of systemic coaching mastery

Copyright 2008.  Alain Cardon