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What really makes a coach qualified to practice?

How to be sure you’re hiring a coach who’s trustworthy and competent to practice. Here’s what really matters when choosing the right coach for you.

You’re right to ask. What certifications does a coach need to practice? What makes a coach qualified to do coaching? These are all valid questions – especially if you’re thinking about hiring a coach, and you’re looking for reassurance in the form of qualifications.

So, what makes someone qualified to be a coach?

The short answer is very little

Barriers to entry in the coaching market are low. That’s why there are so many of us. Like in many sectors, literally anyone can call themselves a coach and start trading. 

It’s yet another blessing and curse of free-market capitalism: ample choice, coaches for every occasion and type of person out there. Yet there are plenty of shysters too. 

Ever hired a cowboy tradesperson? It’s like the wild west out there. Your apprehension is well-placed.

The long, honest answer you know you ought to believe

No doubt you’re reading this because you want reassurance that I’m qualified to build our coaching relationship. Maybe you’re curious about what’s possible, but you sense commitment is involved, money, time and trust. 

It feels risky. You’re wary. I appreciate that – more than you could ever know (I’ve been in exactly the same position as you are now, when I hired my own coach!). 

So you’re looking for something that’ll tip the balance either way, in your decision to appoint me (or a reckless charlatan). Information that’ll reduce the risk, and help you fully commit to this bold adventure you’re ready to take.

First, let’s get coaching ‘qualifications’ out the way 

There are plenty (and I mean plenty) of professional bodies out there who certify people as qualified coaches. Coaching federations, guilds, associations. The list goes on…

If you believe a qualification gives you peace of mind, consider this. These bodies are all largely unregulated commercial organisations. People pay them to be certified as a coach, so it’s sort of in their interest to award the qualification. I can pay £60 without ever meeting anyone, and this time next week own an online diploma saying I’m fully qualified to coach. 

How does that factor into your research?

Consider the two principal types of coaching certification

First there’s the academic, theoretically-grounded practice. This focuses on high-achieving leaders, managers and executives in corporate and professional environments. Think suits and ties, strong handshakes and spreadsheets. Line-management and power-play stuff. 

Then there’s life, business and career coaching. This emphasises less theoretical practice, more building a profitable coaching business in a particular way, usually via a franchised model, with a catchy name that people buy the right to use. This is where you usually find the greatest diversity of coaches and more specialisation: coaches for horse-lovers, angel worshipers and adventurers.

Where do your needs sit on this spectrum? 

Probably the latter. If so, welcome back to that wild west again. Which particular franchise do you want to subscribe to with your certified coach?

Just to be clear, I’m not knocking these federations and associations. I’ve immersed myself in lots of their material and resources. I respect what many of the well-intentioned ones are trying to do: regulate the unregulated.

I also have friends who trained to be coaches with them, on immersive, week-long workshops. They all say it was interesting and kinda useful. It made them feel better about themselves too. It was symbolic and helped legitimise their transition into coaching (which tells you a lot about the real purpose of certification). And for their troubles, they gained a functional business model to get up and running, plus an official-looking piece of paper no one ever asks to see.

Yet the smartest coaches soon realise clients are unique

Can you honestly say your distinct circumstances, challenges, abilities are like anyone else’s?

So the only logical response as a coach is to offer total flexibility, a completely tailored approach and open-mindedness. Coaches need myriad skills, picked up from all sorts of resources (not just a lone week-long course). 

In short, frameworks go out the window. 

A franchise isn’t much help in the heat of the moment, at the heart of an intense coaching conversation.

For this reason, adaptable coaches rely more on what people call soft or interpersonal skills; their experience, natural talents, curiosity and creativity. This is tricky, broad palette stuff to teach on any coaching course. 

That’s why so many bodies don’t really teach coaching theory and practice, they encourage coaches to tap into what they already have – self-belief, confidence, and their underlying desire to help people be their best, by following intuition.

In my experience, that last one is crucial. You’ve either got a desire to coach people to be their best or you haven’t. Likewise with a lifelong love of learning. That can’t be taught. Only nurtured. And there are countless ways to do that, outside of buying a qualification.

The same goes for hours spent coaching. 

The best way to certify as a coach is to actually coach and learn through doing. Few professional bodies can supply enough hands-on practice – because it simply doesn’t scale. So they ask you to get on with it yourself and reflect; something a dedicated coach like myself finds compelling enough to do without having to pay to be told.

A real, useful test of whether someone is qualified to be your coach

Back to peace of mind. You want to know if I (or some other imposter) am up to the job. Can this coach coach

This is where experiencing coaching before you commit comes into its own.

Any good coach worth their fee will devote a decent chunk of time to making sure there’s what we call a ‘good fit’ between coach and client, face-to-face. Call it chemistry, magic or simply how well two people spark off each together – it all means the same thing. 

Because coaching is such a life-changing, personal experience – for it to work and create lasting results, you absolutely need to ‘click’ with your coach. You need to ‘get’ each other. This is an intuitive process which takes time to get right. And again, it’s tricky to teach (or learn) and rarely fits on any coaching qualification syllabus.

Try before you buy

For most people, this is the ultimate criterion for deciding whether someone is sufficiently qualified to be your coach: can they actually coach you? I say ‘your’ because we’re all different. No decent coach will claim to be able to coach anyone. It’s all about that special connection between you, remember.

The chief benefit of experiencing what coaching is like with a coach (before you sign-up) is you get to know whether or not it actually works. After screening whoever approaches me about coaching, I’ll invite them to a session, so they can see what it’s like firsthand for themselves.

Over the course of at least two hours you’ll feel what it’s like being coached. No ‘trial’, ‘taster’ or ‘giveaway’ – it’s the real-thing. A full-fat coaching experience as if you’re already a client. You’ll gain proof it works for you, as well as useful, valuable insights – like you would any other coaching session, were you to hire me as your coach.

I defy you to say that’s less concrete evidence of coaching competence than a piece of paper saying someone is qualified to coach.

Another handy measure of whether a coach is qualified to coach you 

Delve into their background, experience, worldview, life-story and career. What might they bring to your challenge? Do they get you?

It’s not crucial, but coaches bring insight, stories and experience to a coaching conversation. The closer their worldview and values are to the way you relate to the world, the more valuable and impactful a coaching session will be. Because you’re both coming from a similar place. 

You don’t want identical, just a nice balance of what you have in common, as well as a rich tapestry of expertise unfamiliar to you, to draw on.

Does this coach intrigue you? Might they bring useful, relevant experiences to your coaching?

For example, I’ve been on a lifelong mission to understand what makes things tick – like people and the systems we live within. I spent a decade as a systems analyst (think engineer crossed with a forensic detective), leading teams from different countries and cultures. Then another decade as a copywriter helping people say what they really mean to, and make sense of who they really are.

For almost three years I’ve taught and coached individuals as a tutor at Leeds Beckett University’s new Technology Institute, mentoring professionals as they master new skills in digital and tech.

I’ve travelled, built houses, written books, grown stuff, performed stand-up comedy, lead teams, and survived countless other failures, successes, relationships, tragedies and victories.

Sure, there were bits of paper along the way – leadership courses, training and CPD seminars proving I’m qualified in my various arenas, but the bigger picture here is how might I relate that to your world? You can see clear threads in there around observing, questioning, and helping making sense of the world for others, as well as creativity, curiosity and resilience. 

Pretty useful as a coach, or at least my clients seem to think so.

How to get even more proof that someone is a trustworthy coach

What do real people say about their coaching in testimonials? Is there a particular kind of person or group your coach seems best placed to help? What can the coach tell you about their challenges? Do their stories seem plausible and relatable? 

Just bear in mind that decent coaches vehemently defend their clients’ privacy, so there might not be any published case studies with names. You can always ask for general, depersonalised stories though.

This final suggestion might just be me and how I practice coaching, but it’s worth throwing in in case you’re my kind of person…

Does this coach have an ethos behind why they coach? Are they on a bigger mission of their own? What are their principles? What do they stand for? 

Can they tell you exactly what they look for in a new coaching client?

Also, do they reflect on their practice? Do they journal and learn from every single coaching session? Is their practice growing and changing?

Because who wants a coach who knows everything? Without curiosity there is no coaching.

Not all decisions are entirely objective

As you can see, there isn’t a straightforward answer to the question about whether someone is qualified to be your coach. Let’s be honest – you knew that, didn’t you?

Personally, I think it’s handy to have a peg in the dirt when it comes to qualification. Some theoretical grounding – intellectual frameworks to build on yet ultimately soar above. My own practice is a mixture of hard-won experience coaching people throughout my various careers, plus textbooks, writing and being coached into coaching myself.

I respect people who take time to invest in certification though. It demonstrates dedication, if not concrete proof of flawlessness. So I’m exploring formal training because it’s one less hurdle to getting closer to the people who want my help.

Ultimately though, it comes down to trust

Doesn’t everything?

And trust forms through lived, shared experience. Human to human in conversation, nurturing a relationship. Paper is only ever a poor substitute for that.

So, if you’re lucky enough to get an invite to a coaching session, meet a coach face-to-face (most will do this for free, no obligation, if there’s a good chance they can help). Get a feel for who they are and what they can do, not in general: for you and your specific challenge.

See how honest and open they are with you too. 

Look them straight in the eye. 

Decent coaches are unashamedly themselves and don’t hold back. And the best ones will help you do the same.

What will you personally get from being coached? 

For all people I coach, this is the one true measure of credibility: what do you personally gain from the coaching experience in that very first session. 

Do you feel less inhibited? Enlightened? Understood? Coaching nudges you step-by-step, closer to a dream, with breakthroughs and realisations along the way. It feels like lightbulbs coming on, as you change your mind, and imagination and creativity wake-up. 

Did you feel any of that? 

Like every big decision, committing to coaching and turning your dreams into projects isn’t entirely objective. There’s a place for emotion and instinct too, in a way many of us lose touch with. That’s what makes us feel so unsure and nervous, especially about hiring a coach. We’re forced to trust our feelings and face our fears. 

Eurgh!

You can experiment with courage though…

Did you experience any of the feelings above? Are you intrigued? Are you curiously, inexplicably drawn to a coach? If so, perhaps you’re beginning to create something? Something special. Something worth exploring.

Chris Kenworthy | Coach

By Chris Kenworthy | Coach

I'm Chris. I'm a coach. I help green changemakers create clear, meaningful futures where people and planet thrive.

Are you at a point of change? Ready to try something radical, to put more soul in your livelihood, and finally bring that big unrealised dream to life?

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