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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

By Elizabeth O'Brien and MarketWatch

(This article appeared previously on

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.


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

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