Research Paper By Wendy Costikyan
(Life Coach, UNITED KINGDOM)
The students within ICA have each made a decision to embark on a new chapter in their professional lives – becoming a coach. Having arrived from many different starting points, each has made a substantial economic and time commitment to obtaining coaching certification through ICA. As graduation / certification approaches, some serious realities begin to set in: ‘I’ve got my certification, now what do I do?’
Each new coach will take their own unique path to creating and building their coaching practice. However, there are almost certainly lessons which can be learned from those who have travelled this road before. The intention of this research paper, therefore, is to provide a compilation of experiences, opinions and learnings from other practicing coaches that may provide some guidance and advice to those starting out in the profession. The information contained herein is intended to serve as a catalyst for new coaches to consider how the experiences of other professionals can be adapted to support the establishment and development of their own professional coaching careers.
Methodology & Acknowledgement
This research was conducted through interviews conducted with nine professional coaches, most, but not all, of whom are trainers within ICA. Each was provided with a list of questions in advance. (The full questionnaire is attached at the end of the paper; where appropriate, individual questions are also separately incorporated into the sections of the paper.) One coach provided written answers to the questions, while the remaining eight were interviewed by phone, with the conversations lasting from sixty to ninety minutes.
While the information in this paper is not specifically attributed to any of the individual coaches, it behoves me to acknowledge the generous spirit of these people who contributed significantly of their time. Their openness and willingness to share speaks to their professionalism and added considerable depth to the findings. My sincere thanks and appreciation, therefore, is
extended to the following people:
Stewart Berman – New Hampshire, USA
Serban Chinole – Bucharest, Romania
Leon Vander Pol – Taipei, Taiwan
Katerina Kanelidou – Athens, Greece
Kathy Munoz – Michigan, USA
RJ Sridhar – Bangalore, India
Rob Stringer – Ontario, Canada
Jamee Tenzer – California, USA
Bill Turpin – New Jersey, USA
Why, When, How of becoming a Coach?
Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the research participants did not set out to become a coach. Indeed, many did not know of coaching as a profession until others suggested they ‘look into it’. The industry and professional backgrounds of each were highly varied, and include: teacher, venture capitalist, pastor, paralegal, corporate trainer, entertainment, retail service, independent businessman. Although they all came to coaching from different angles, many indicated that they found parallels in coaching to the work they had previously done; indeed for some, there was a sense they had already ‘been coaching’ without defining it as such.
If there is any underlying and unifying theme in their decision to embark on a career in coaching, it was a strong desire to ‘support others’ and to be a catalyst for human development and change; as one person put it, “I love creating change for people.” Many felt, in some way, unfulfilled / restless in their previous roles, and wanted to make more of a difference in the lives of others, and this led to coaching.
As coaching is a fairly ‘young’ profession, the span of experience of the participants reflects that reality. Among the nine individuals, the average number of years of ‘being a coach’ is 6 . years; the most seasoned having started off coaching in 2002 and the ‘newest’ coach having established business in 2011. Six participants received their accreditation through ICA, one through CTI, one through Coach U and the other completed courses at both ICA and Coach U, but is not formally certified. Many, but not all, have ICF credentials (ACC and PCC), and several have multiple credentials (additional credentials represented include certifications in NLP, Laser Coaching, Behavioural Coaching Institute, Emotional Intelligence, Extended DISC).
In terms of on-going development, these coaches continue to hone their coaching skills through a variety of programs and approaches. For those who are trainers within ICA, there was a universal feeling that through the training of new coaches, the teaching of the coaching curriculum and the constant dialogues and discussions with a wide variety of individuals, their own skills continued to evolve and grow. The questions and ‘class’ discussions constantly challenge and expand their individual thinking. A representative quote was, “Being a trainer grows me as a coach. That’s my growth program.” Beyond that, there was also a heavy emphasis on the importance of a) having one’s own coach to continue to challenge them, and b) reading to stay abreast of trends, new approaches and thinking. Indeed, several people described themselves as ‘voracious readers’, particularly material focused on aspects of self-discovery. (Several coaches include reference on their websites to books they have found most valuable.)
Many of the coaches take webinars / seminars through the ICF, attend conferences (the ICF annual conference was particularly noted), or actively seek out new ideas and relevant trends through the internet. For one coach, participating in advanced coach training through certified classes has been a regular and on-going commitment. For those doing additional training, some of the programs / courses mentioned as highly worthwhile included: Marion Franklin’s course offerings (www.lifecoachinggroup.com), Leadership Development training, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Non-violent Communication, Emotional Intelligence, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and Byron Katie.
The Coaching Business
1. Defining the Business
In trying to define the business, one of the first questions asked was: How does one define ‘coaching’? The responses from the coaches were highly varied. Generally speaking, however, they have all moved away from ‘elevator pitches’, having found these to be an unsatisfactory way to encapsulate a definition of coaching. A number indicated they no longer try to ‘explain’ what coaching is, but rather ask the person questions designed essentially to give them a ‘feel’ or sense of the experience of coaching, questions perhaps around an area in which the person feels challenged. Some of these questions included: ‘Is there anything in your life you wanted to achieve and something got in your way?”; “Complete this sentence – I would be happier if…”; “What do you have too much of, or too little of, in your life?” Other coaches mentioned trying to find an analogy that relates to the person making the inquiry and moving the conversation on from that.Several others have a more descriptive answer, such as “Coaching is all about change, changing your life. What would you like to change? A life coach helps you do this.” It was widely noted that an important aspect in answering this question was to focus on identifying for others the potential ‘outcomes’ from coaching.
For virtually all of the coaches interviewed, they have a specific niche for their coaching efforts. Most felt there was value, indeed necessity, in having a defined niche, particularly from a marketing perspective. Not surprisingly, those niches are quite wide-ranging and included: youth coaching, business / executive, working mothers, spirit-based, career, group / team.
For all but one coach, however, pure coaching is not all that they offer or all that they do. Two of the coaches have continued with the full-time careers they held prior to getting into coaching; indeed, for one, individual (1 on 1) coaching accounted for only around 10% of their time (though coaching related activities accounted for substantially more). As the majority of the coaches interviewed are part of the training group at ICA, it is not surprising that training is an integral part of their business; for those involved in training, this activity consumed from 30% to 60% of their time. Outside of training, most of the coaches have other services or revenue streams. These include workshops, external training programs, speaking engagements, mentoring, etc. As one coach observed, “I intended to be only a coach, but I realised it’s about the client, and coaching isn’t everything, so now I look at myself as a business consultancy and offer more.”
II. Marketing & Getting Clients
When queried about their marketing efforts, the responses spanned a considerable range of activities; one coach noted, “You name it, I’ve tried it.” Many employ various forms of social media. Several write and publish relevant articles regularly, or actively participate in speaking at conferences or doing workshops. In particular, speaking engagements and workshops helped them build rapport with people and “let them see me operate”. One coach encouraged others to “talk about what you are doing, what you are excited about, to everybody you can”.
There was universal agreement that advertising of any sort was ineffective. Several mentioned, in similar terms, the fact that they do not do any marketing in the traditional sense; rather they have built their businesses exclusively through word of mouth. One felt that the best marketing is “one conversation at a time, human to human” and another noted, “If great clients make great shifts in their lives, they do the marketing for you.”
Given the rise of the internet, the question about websites (necessary or not, what should it contain) elicited considerable feedback, and some quite strong opinions. While all but one coach had a website, several stressed the feeling that it was vital. There was general agreement that a website added a measure of credibility and was increasingly important if one wanted to operate in a global marketplace. Most had found it a challenge (and for some a continuing one) to develop and hone their websites, both in style and content.
There was wide disparity in how large a role the coaches felt websites played in their business. For several, the website is fairly static, providing relatively straight-forward ‘information’, for others it is quite interactive, with videos, links to other relevant sites, ‘free stuff’, etc. Most agreed it should: a) be quite personal and natural, “reflecting your personality and who you are as a coach”; b) be addressed to the client (i.e. not be predominantly about the coach) and “let clients know what problems they have that will be solved by coaching”; c) be visually appealing and build rapport to the potential client. All felt that some information on pricing should be included. One coach noted that the most powerful website he knew of was that of Steve Hardison (www.theultimatecoach.com), the reason being that the testimonials therein ‘said it all’.
It was interesting to hear the coaches speak to the circumstances under which they have turned down a client. The message was similar from all: if the person is resistant to change, not open to taking ownership of their outcomes (e.g. a lot of ‘blaming’ going on), and / or not ready to do the work necessary to achieve the results they say they are looking for. A strong indication of a client’s readiness / commitment (or lack thereof) was deemed to be the language they use in the initial conversation. One had a fairly straight-forward test: “I ask them, ‘Is it possible that….?’ If they answer immediately and strongly with ‘No’, then I don’t believe they are ready to really look at themselves.”
Cultural differences were also explored as a possible issue in getting / working with clients. One coach put it simply, “That’s a myth. People are the same the world over.” Based on the experiences of those interviewed, there was general agreement that there were no significant issues associated with cultural differences, though they opined that a coach needed to be aware of the diversity of thoughts and beliefs that exist. As one put it, “it is important to keep in mind that ‘yes’ does not necessarily mean ‘I commit’. In some cultures, it simply means ‘I hear you’.”
The client composition of the coaches’ businesses was, not surprisingly, quite mixed, largely reflecting the focus of their business activities. There was broad range in terms of genders, with some having up to 70% female, others 90% male, and others a fairly equivalent blend. Equally, the mix between corporate / business and personal ranged widely, with extremes at both ends. The gender of the coach generally did not seem to impact on the composition of their client base. The message of these statistics could perhaps be characterised as: there is no ‘standard’ client.
III. Doing the Business
Following on from how to get clients, the coaches were asked a number of questions around the aspects of ‘doing the business’, starting with some of the basic ‘mechanics’ of their practices. For some, the administrative aspects of the business were daunting at first, but have become more easily manageable over time, though several noted something along the lines of “accounting is a bore and takes too much time.” In terms of payment procedures, there was overall agreement that PayPal was a ‘must’, and most also accept personal checks, credit cards or direct bank transfers.
Pricing levels and policies varied, but not as significantly as might be expected given the diversity of geographies represented by the sample group. There are, of course, different pricing scales for differing programs, but in terms of ‘straight coaching’, the differentials are relatively narrow. For the sake of comparison, all pricing was translated into US$ and adjusted to a common equivalent of a one-hour session, though it is worth noting that many coaches worked on the basis of a 45-minute session. For individuals, the cost averaged around $250 per session; corporate executives and corporate sponsored coaching always carried a higher fee (though also often involved more up-front work, travel time and / or face-to-face meetings) with the reported range being from $300 to $500 per session. Most coaches insisted on some sort of advanced payment, depending on the client agreement. Requesting payment one month (generally 3 sessions) in advance was a minimum, with some charging several months in advance, or, in the case of corporate work, a scale of 50% of the ‘contract’ in advance and 50% at the half-way mark.
When asked what common challenges they encountered, the general consensus was scheduling. That factor was reflected in cancellation policies. All the coaches had such a policy in place, with the minimum cancellation time being 24 hours, with many noting a requirement of at least 48 hours. Generally speaking, they each try to maintain a level of flexibility to accommodate their clients, but repetitive cancellations either led to a charge being imposed or to an open discussion about the client’s level of commitment to the process.
The ‘ideal’ client load and frequency of sessions spanned quite a wide range, but perhaps reflects most the differing levels of ‘true coaching’ conducted within a coach’s business. At the low end, a maximum of 5 clients was cited; at the high end, the maximum number cited was 20 clients at any one time. How frequently sessions were scheduled depended in large measure on the client type – individuals seem to be scheduled a bit more tightly / regularly (once per week to 10 days), while corporate / business executives might be more broadly spaced (every 10 days to 2 weeks) to reflect their time constraints and the reality that their goals, within a work environment, may take somewhat longer to achieve.
In their coaching work with clients, the subject of ‘tools’ was discussed. Many noted that they do not use any formal ‘tools’; as one mentioned, “I (the coach) am the tool” and another “I use what is needed in the moment”. For those utilising external tools, there was agreement that those focused on identifying core values or core strengths were often most useful (e.g. Strengths Finder, DISC) as they helped to create awareness for the client.