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What Life Coaches Won’t Tell You

Training and services vary, so here's what you should know before hiring one


(This article appeared previously on MarketWatch.com.)

The concept of “life coaching” barely existed 30 years ago. But by 2012, it was a $707 million business in the U.S., according to the most recent figures from the International Coach Federation (ICF), which now counts 14,100 credential holders.

That figure is up by more than 20 percent since the end of 2013. But what does it take to become a coach? Sometimes, not a lot.

(MORE: Career Shift: Becoming a Life Coach)

Here are 10 things life coaches won't tell you, but ones you need to know before hiring one: 


1. We’re the Wild West of helping professions. The term “life coach” arose to distinguish this type of endeavor from athletic coaching, yet it’s used less frequently these days than “personal” and “executive” coaching. The former focuses on personal goals ranging from crafting the perfect retirement to enhancing creativity or spirituality, while the latter focuses on developing business qualities such as leadership.

Business coaches originally were hired mainly to fix problem behavior that might otherwise derail the careers of top executives. Today, the focus of the typical business coaching engagement has shifted to developing the potential of promising executives. Personal coaching, meanwhile, has evolved as a popular method of self-improvement in the Internet age.

Satisfied clients credit their coaches with helping them define and achieve any number of goals, from launching a new business to delegating more effectively to achieving a saner work-life balance.

That’s the kind of help some people get from psychologists or attorneys. But those professions require a license to practice: Coaches, on the other hand, can set up shop on the strength of charisma alone — and some do just that, aided by self-promotion on social media sites.
“There are lots of people who put ‘coach’ on their business card and they haven’t gone through training,” says Sackeena Gordon-Jones, an executive and personal coach in Raleigh, N.C. who is director of the North Carolina State University Business Coaching Program. She earned the Professional Certified Coach designation from the ICF.

(MORE: 4 Ways to Change Careers In Midlife)

Some say coaching hasn’t yet matured into a bona fide profession, because it lacks attributes of an established field, including a significant barrier to entry, a common body of knowledge, a standard course of study and government oversight.

While a doctor who violates the ethical standards of the medical profession risks losing his license, a coach who oversteps his bounds risks no such government sanctions. (The ICF holds the authority to sanction members who breach the organization’s ethical code, but those whose membership is revoked can still coach.) What’s more, consumers can search websites to determine whether their doctor or financial adviser is in good standing, but coaching has no such central listing.

Referrals from friends or colleagues can be a good way to find a reputable coach, experts say. Coaches who are members of the ICF have had professional training and have pledged to uphold a code of ethics whose provisions include referring clients to another professional if their needs fall outside the coach’s expertise. Personal rapport matters too, so experts suggest clients interview a few prospective coaches before selecting one.
2. We’re credentialed, for whatever that’s worth. Just as anyone can call herself a coach, anyone can call herself an educator of coaches. A coach may say he’s been “certified” through an education program, but the meaning of that term “is as varied as the organizations that provide it,” says Terrence E. Maltbia, faculty director of the Columbia Coaching Certification Program, housed at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Education for coaches ranges from rigorous, Ivy-league instruction to webinar-based online classes to no instruction at all for those not inclined to pursue it.

Many of the major coaching associations, including the ICF, accredit coach-training programs that meet its standards, including covering certain core subjects such as ethics that might not be covered by a less rigorous training program focused more on, say, marketing.

(MORE: Unconventional Career Advice You Need to Hear)

Under ICF guidelines, the level of training varies by designation — the top credential of Master Certified Coach, for example, requires 200 hours of coach-specific training, 2,500 hours of client coaching experience and 10 hours of work with a qualified mentor coach, among other criteria. The federation also requires accredited programs to spend at least 125 hours in real-time interactions between faculty and students.

The coaching associations provide certification to individuals who have trained at the same programs the associations have accredited; while it does provide a level of oversight, this system lends itself to potential conflicts of interest, Maltbia says.

The ICF has adopted “appropriate controls” to ensure that decisions regarding program accreditation are independent and administratively separate from those regarding the credentialing of individuals, says Magdalena Mook, CEO and executive director. What’s more, individuals can earn a certification from the federation without becoming a member, Mook says.

Alison Emerick, 43, owner and president of Ease Living, an online seller of products that promote dignity in aging, says she isn’t troubled by her coach’s lack of formal credentials. She met the woman at a local networking group for mothers and isn’t sure where she worked before becoming a coach for mom entrepreneurs. Yet Emerick says that background isn’t as important as the progress the two have made, including improving Emerick’s social media strategy. “She’s very big on systems,” Emerick says of her coach.
3. It’s impossible to separate the personal and the professional. While coaching is generally split into personal and executive, it’s hard to keep the two apart. Just 3 percent of 140 coaches surveyed by Harvard Business Review for a 2009 report, “What Can Coaches Do For You?,” said they were hired to address personal issues, yet 76 percent said they had worked with executives on personal concerns such as work-life balance.
Sometimes, this overlap can work out well. Gordon-Jones had one business-coaching client who opened up to her about the difficult relationship she had with some of her family members. While the two didn’t focus their sessions on that problem, once the engagement was over the woman said the best thing about coaching was that it helped her rekindle her relationship with her estranged mother. Since some of the behaviors that were holding the woman back at work were also affecting her personal life, addressing the former had a positive effect on the latter.
Yet this type of drift can be dangerous when the client has undiagnosed or untreated mental health issues, experts say. If a client comes in complaining of a particular problem, such as an inability to interact well with co-workers, “you would hope someone has some ability to screen whether this relates to mental health issues or functional issues,” says Lynn Bufka, assistant executive director for practice research and policy at the American Psychological Association. If it’s the former, the client might not be able to reach his goals without addressing the underlying issue, and a mental health assessment isn’t going to happen in a typical coaching relationship.
4. I can’t promise you confidentiality. Trust is important in a coaching relationship, and coaches often promise their clients confidentiality. The problem is, coaches can’t take this promise all the way to court, because the coach-client relationship isn’t protected under the law like the lawyer-client or doctor-patient relationship.
In its code of ethics for members, the ICF requires “the strictest levels of confidentiality” with client information, including establishing a clear agreement before releasing information to a third party “unless required by law.” Consumers whose coaches promise confidentiality should ask, 'Under what conditions might that be relaxed?' Maltbia advises.
Promises of confidentiality become even more muddled in business coaching, when the company and not the client is often paying for the service. The employer footing the bill could ask the coach for more information than the employee-client would like revealed. And if the company ever gets sued, the coach could be called to testify in court.

5. We can get you unstuck, but we’re not shrinks. Roger Whitney, 47, a certified financial planner in Fort Worth, Texas, found himself in a professional midlife crisis last year. While he had enjoyed plenty of conventional success, he felt stuck. “I knew I had another 10 to 15 years to make a difference,” Whitney says. “I could stay at this level, or I could do something special.” So he hired a New York-based coach whom he worked with over the phone for 11 months.

A new, educational website and podcast series on retirement planning grew out of his sessions with the coach. At $7,000, the engagement was pricey, but Whitney says it was a productive use of his time and money. And much better than some other outlets for a midlife crisis, says the married father of two: “I was doing this rather than getting a car or getting a girlfriend.”
A big difference between coaching and therapy, coaches say, is that coaching assumes the client is mentally healthy and has the internal resources he needs to move forward. Psychotherapy, on the other hand, will screen patients for diagnosable problems, work to understand the scope of those problems, and explore the range of interventions to help the person effect change, Bufka says.
Coaches who sense that a client needs a mental health professional have an ethical obligation to decline their business and refer them to someone better trained to help, says Mook of the ICF.

When Lisa Silvershein, a career and retirement coach in Basking Ridge, N.J. encounters prospective clients who bitterly complain about their lives, she’ll say something like, “It sounds like you’re not ready to move on with an active retirement — you have some issues to resolve first.”

6. We’re on our second career…or our second chance. Undergraduate-level coursework on coaching remains rare in the U.S., and most coaches don’t enter the field right out of school. Even if they did, many clients would prefer to be coached by someone with life experience, Mook says.
The field is attracting people from more diverse backgrounds than before. When Kim Kirmmse Toth started training coaches a decade ago, the vast majority of her students were former social workers and psychologists. “Now, we get veterinarians, attorneys, people from corporations,” says Toth, the founder of Positive Aging, a coaching business for women after 50, based in Littleton, Colo.
With its low barrier to entry, coaching also offers an attractive fresh start for those with professional flameouts in their past.

Jayson Blair, the former New York Times journalist who resigned in 2003 after getting caught plagiarizing and making up details in stories — a scandal that caused the resignation of the Times’ top editor at the time — now has his own life-coaching firm in Centreville, Va. After he left journalism, Blair was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and part of his practice involves helping people with mental illnesses master life skills.

Blair also fields the occasional inquiry from professionals who have observed ethical lapses around them or have begun to “cut corners” themselves. It’s rare that a prospective client will be turned off by his prior professional lapse and mental health diagnosis, Blair says. More often, clients find it makes him more relatable. And Blair didn’t go straight from the scandal to setting up his own shop — he spent three years coaching at a mental health practice and studied coaching beforehand.
7. We won’t tell you what to do. Business coaches approach their clients’ goals differently than consultants or mentors. Say a manager is looking to foster enthusiasm and commitment among his direct reports. A consultant would say, “Here are the five things you need to do to develop team engagement,” says Carol Kauffman, assistant professor at Harvard University, founder of the Institute of Coaching and co-author of the 2009 Harvard report on coaching. A mentor would say, “Here’s what worked for me when I encountered the same issue.” A coach, on the other hand, would teach through questions, says Kauffman, like: “When have things gone well for you when trying to engage your team?”
Personal coaching involves a similar approach. “If someone says, ‘I give advice,’ they’re not a coach,” says Mook. “In coaching, we believe the client is a very resourceful person, they hold the answers, and they just might need help getting those answers.”
Others think there’s room for coaches to give advice. Toth has a lot of experience in website design and says it would be a waste of her knowledge if she didn’t give a few pointers to her small business clients. She also instructs beginners that it’s important to keep their personal and business spending separate, and will refer clients to accountants or bookkeepers for more assistance.
8. Friends can offer you the same help — for free. The language used by many personal coaches to advertise their services borrows the language of friendship with phrases such as, “You don’t have to be alone” or “I’ve got your back.” And yet, a professional coach will be quick to say she’s not the client’s BFF. Which raises the question: Who needs a coach if you have friends?
In fact, coaches say they’re better than friends at holding clients accountable to their goals. Friends, after all, can have a vested interested in the outcome.

Coaches also say they listen more profoundly than others in a client’s life. Friends with their own jobs and families can’t always set aside the time — often, an hour a week plus prep time — that a coach can devote to the cause. What’s more, many friends won’t be brutally honest for fear of hurting feelings. When she was looking to improve her company’s website, Emerick of Ease Living says her friends would be likely to say, “It looks great!” and not give constructive criticism.

And yet, a good friend will take her face out of her smartphone and pay attention when her pal wants to talk, says Arlie Hochschild, professor emerita of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of The Outsourced Self: What Happens When We Pay Others to Live Our Lives for Us. A good friend will also acknowledge her biases but not let them get in the way of her support.
The notion that close friends can’t help one another evaluate and progress toward their goals “really disses” the institution of friendship, Hochschild says: “The whole idea of a friend is they’re abiding. You go to them in your hour of need, when you don’t have any money.”
9. We have a financial interest in your dependence on us. Coaching doesn’t come cheap. Coaches who work with executives charge an average of $350 an hour, while those who work with personal clients charge an average of $120 an hour, according to the ICF. And top executive coaches can earn upward of $3,500 an hour, according to the Harvard Business Review report. That means that no matter how much progress a client makes, the coach has an incentive to keep the relationship going.
Instead of billing hourly, many coaches will charge a set fee for an engagement with a fixed number of sessions. Silvershein, the career and retirement coach in Basking Ridge, N.J., for example, says a typical engagement will last for three months. Her price of $2,597 includes 12 hourly sessions, plus weekly email correspondence and her preparation time before each session.
Here’s the rub: Although most of the coaches surveyed by Harvard said they establish a time frame before starting an engagement, all but eight said the focus of their assignment shifts over time from the original intent. Often, a client “recontracts” with a coach, signing another contract to work on a different issue than the original one.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong about hiring a coach for an additional engagement, experts say it could signal dependence on the client’s part. In this sense, coaches are no different from therapists, Kauffman says. Mental health professionals also face clients who become dependent on them, and like coaches must rely on their sense of ethics to manage such a relationship.
While it’s not unheard of for coaches to break up with uncooperative clients, it’s more common for them to screen prospective clients — many offer a brief, complimentary coaching session — and decline the business of those whose needs don’t fit their skills, experts say.

For her part, Silvershein takes clients to task if they don’t do their homework or don’t seem to be progressing. “I’ll call them out on it,” she says, telling them something like, “I can hear in your voice you don’t want to do this. Let’s talk about what you do want to do.”

10. Our impact can be hard to quantify. How can a client tell if coaching was successful? It’s no small question, given the time and money that coaching often involves. Companies that used to employ convoluted math in an attempt to calculate the return on their coaching investment are now gauging their “return on expectations,” says Mook of the ICF.
Yet this can be a squishy exercise, as leadership and other qualities that coaching aims to develop can’t be quantified in a profit-and-loss statement. Indeed, the Harvard report found that less than one-fourth of coaches provide any kind of quantitative data on the business outcomes of the coaching engagement.
There are some metrics that can be quantified, says Chaya S. Abelsky, a coach in Brooklyn, N.Y. who works with individuals and nonprofit organizations and earned the Master Certified Coach designation from the ICF. For the latter, staff turnover, fundraising dollars and the time spent executing a project can all be measured and improved through coaching.
Indeed, executive and personal coaching should accomplish much more than clients simply feeling better about their situation, Kauffman says. Clients should set their own goals and make concrete progress toward meeting them during the course of the engagement.

“If you’re not seeing steady movement,” Kauffman says, “then buyer beware.”


Elizabeth O'Brien is a retirement healthcare reporter for MarketWatch. Contact her at [email protected]

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