How Do I Know If My Executive Coach is Well Qualified?

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By David Brendel, MD, PhD
May 02, 2019

There has been an explosion over the past several years in the number of individuals identifying themselves as professional coaches. The International Coach Federation (ICF) estimated that the number of coaches worldwide increased from 47,500 in 2011 to 53,300 in 2018. Approximately 1/3 of those coaches (over 17,000) work in the United States.

Currently there is no law or government regulation on the term “coach” and so anyone can present himself or herself as having this professional identity. There are a growing number of sound training and certification programs for coaches, and the ICF has emerged as the primary accrediting body for the field. But many excellent coaches are not certified at all. Conversely, some who are certified may not be very skilled or qualified for the work they do.

How can a potential client navigate through this mess and identify a coach who can provide a beneficial professional service in accordance with best practices? There are numerous differentiating factors that one can consider when selecting a coach. Reasons to believe that a coach has the skills and credibility to provide appropriate services can be established by examining the following criteria:

  1. Experience and credentials: Strong coaches generally have extensive academic backgrounds and work experience. They can evolve out of virtually any vocation or career. Clients should take a look at what the coach has done and how well he or she has done it. A great coach has demonstrated expertise in one or more fields, as well as a capacity to collaborate with others and to lead teams or organizations. Distinctive credentials may be a higher education degree (such as an MBA or PhD), a professional license (such as a license to practice law or medicine), certification from reputable accrediting bodies (such as ICF), or other relevant certifications in their fields of practice (such as a CFA). Since anyone can label himself or herself a “coach,” these differentiating characteristics are a sound starting point to identify possible coaches.
  2. Affiliations: Professional coaches can gain credibility by associating themselves with companies and organizations who know how to vet them. For example, coaches who work as Associates for well-established consulting firms have credibility on the basis of the fact that they were brought on board by the firm in the first place. Potential clients may look to professional services firms for a curated list of competent and well-respected coaches whose work has received a stamp of approval from their peers. Other affiliations that can add credibility could include membership or leadership roles in reputable coaching organizations, such as the ICF and other professional associations (she as SHRM or the American Management Association).
  3. Word of mouth and testimonials: Once it is clear that a potential coach has relevant credentials and affiliations, it is prudent to seek information about their actual work with clients. Do their credentials and affiliations actually translate into an ability to connect well with clients and to provide a robust, practical experience that yields good results? Coaching is not an Ivory Tower exercise. Clients should enter coaching with the confidence that an engagement can lead to concrete changes in mindset and behavior — and ultimately to significant career and personal growth. Honest feedback from others with direct experience working with the coach is pure gold.
  4. Online presence: A coach’s skill and credibility can be nicely assessed via a thorough Internet search. “Googling” the coach can reveal lots of relevant information if the coach has a website, LinkedIn profile, social media (such as Twitter or Facebook), YouTube videos, or other online content that might provide a window into his or her background, experience, work style, and personality. It is increasingly unlikely these days that a serious professional coach won’t have a substantial Internet presence, with at least some of these online resources. Clients seeking a coach should definitely seek information in this fashion.
  5. Articles and presentations: When coaches publish and make public presentations on their work, they both establish their credibility and share important perspectives on their approach to coaching. It’s worthwhile to find out whether coaches have published articles in reputable journals or blogs, authored a book or produced other unique written content, given TED talks or other invited presentations, or otherwise found a way to share their knowledge and expertise with the world beyond their individual clients.

Each of these criteria can help clients differentiate a potential coach from thousands of others in an increasingly saturated marketplace. Once these criteria have been applied and a client has identified a handful of coaches who fit the bill, an entirely new factor should come into play as perhaps the final basis of coach selection: personal chemistry. Coaching is most successful when there is a strong rapport between client and coach. The client should look forward to stimulating, thought provoking, challenging, and fun conversations with the coach. When this kind of emotional and personal bond is in place, the coaching experience can be transformational, with major positive impact on the quality of the client’s work and personal life experience.