I recently wrote about what to look for in a coach. But there’s one topic — your coach’s “credentials,” that’s worth talking about in more detail.
The most well-known credential in the world of coaching is ICF certification.
What is the ICF?
ICF stands for International Coach Federation, which is the professional organization for coaches.
The ICF, a non-profit, does three key things:
They accredit coach training programs. To be ICF-accredited, coach training programs have to cover certain topics, be a certain number of hours in length, include elements like mentor coaches and supervised coaching hours, and more.
They certify coaches. There are a few different routes to certification, but typically, an ICF-certified coach will have completed an ICF-accredited training program, passed a test, done a certain number of supervised coaching hours, and completed a certain number of overall coaching hours. To maintain their credential, ICF-certified coaches have to complete continuing education hours.
They uphold professional standards and ethics for coaches. If you work with an ICF-certified coach, and you don’t believe that they have behaved ethically, you can report them to the ICF and they might lose their certification. That’s the purpose of professional organizations, across all fields. If your coach is not ICF-certified, you don’t have this option.
Are all coaches ICF-certified?
No. Coaching is actually a bit like the wild west. Anyone can call themselves a coach, without any particular training or accreditation.
However, I do not want to imply that that all coaches without certification are bad coaches. Far from it! Here are a couple of reasons why a coach might not be certified:
They might not need it, to do what they do.
If you’re looking for a writing coach, for example, there’s probably no need for them to be ICF-certified. You don’t necessarily need your writing coach to have gone to a particular training program or passed a test. You’re probably more interested in their experience as a writer or the amount of time they’ve spent teaching writing.
They might be early on in their coaching career.
I did some coaching before I started my coach training program — I wanted to make sure coaching was a good fit for me. Even after I completed my training program, it took a while for me to meet all of the ICF certification requirements in terms of number of coaching hours and supervised coaching hours.
They might not feel like jumping through the ICF hoops.
Getting and keeping your ICF certification requires time, energy, and money. Even some very experienced and skillful coaches may choose not to do it.
What if my coach has other certifications that are not through the ICF?
Other certifications can be great! They may show that your coach has completed additional training with experts, which will make them even more skillful in working with you.
However, it’s also possible that the certifications don’t mean much. I don’t say that to put anyone down. I just think that, as a potential client, you should know that technically, anyone can create a “training program” and issue “certifications” for people who completed it. Plus, even if the certification is from a respected organization, it could have been issued after a five-hour training program or after a five hundred hour training program.
It can be hard, as an outsider, to know what certifications or trainings mean. That was why the ICF was formed — to provide standards across the profession so people would have a better idea of what they were getting when they worked with a coach.
If a coach is ICF-certified, will they be a good coach for me?
I’ll be frank: an ICF-certification doesn’t necessarily mean that a coach is amazing. And it certainly doesn’t mean they are the right coach for you.
It’s more like a minimum level of quality control. If you work with an ICF-certified coach, you know that they’ve been trained to some minimum standards, that they’ve been supervised while coaching others, that they will be upholding the ethical standards of the profession.
From talking to other coaches across the profession, for example, I know that ICF accredited coach training programs can vary widely. Some programs, for example, train coaches to focus on setting explicit goals (like: write that novel by the end of the year!) and being an accountability partner for their clients.
Other coaching programs — like New Ventures West, the one I trained with — focus more on the whole person. This approach is more about understanding the deeper factors that are causing you to feel stuck or dissatisfied, and building the skills that will help you thrive.
For example, as a result of working with me, you might find the clarity, creativity, or discipline to complete your novel. But I probably won’t be checking in with you every single week to make sure you’ve written 10 pages.
The point here is that even among ICF-certified coaches, approaches can vary widely. So ICF-certification will be only one of several things you’ll want to consider when picking a coach. Here are some others.