Executive Coaching - Is There a Lack of Standards in the Field?

Posted  | 1 Comment(s)  |  by Joan Caruso

I have been an executive coach for over 20 years - long before the profession  actually had a label.  I currently run an executive coaching practice headquartered in NYC with over 130 coaches under contract, so I am quite familiar with the debate surrounding executive coaching credentials versus certification. 

Watching the field of executive coaching grow and mature, I have become concerned about the lack of a barrier to entry to what I consider to be an elite profession. Anyone can call him or herself an executive coach, and I have met a variety of “card carrying” coaches I wouldn’t let near any of our clients. The late Richard Beckard, an organizational consultant and professor of management at the Sloan School of Management at MIT, contributed an article on this subject to one of Marshal Goldsmith’s books on executive coaching. In this chapter, Professor Beckard said, “… the range of consultants who define their work as coaching varies tremendously….Anyone can hang out a shingle that says COACH. Given the lack of standards in the field, it becomes an individual issue for practitioners to develop a basis for judging their competence and their need to improve and grow.

Well, Professor Beckard, if you were still around, I would say, “I wish that it were so!” In the same chapter, he made a statement that frankly left me quite puzzled. He stated, “Because coaching is so obviously helpful to clients, there tends to be no rigorous criteria for defining the professional competence required of coaches.” Really? Would we make the same statement about doctors or lawyers? Make a couple of quick word substitutes and you get:  “Because the practice of law is so obviously helpful to clients, there tends to be no rigorous criteria for defining the professional competence required of lawyers.” Or how about, “Because medicine is so obviously helpful to patients, there tends to be no rigorous criteria for defining the professional competence required of doctors.”   I don’t think so!

Certifying organizations are proliferating these days, but the profession still lacks a “governing” set of standards up to which executive coaches need to measure. Until coaching standards are established and accepted, I personally look for experience and qualifying credentials over certification when I vet coaches for our practice. Our firm’s high standards have won it a reputation for excellence in the marketplace.   We use criteria that place a high value on a variety of coaching experiences at different levels in different industries, corporate experience and an advanced degree. It seems that an endless number of schools and coaching programs are being created and that several existing ones are struggling to differentiate themselves.  I am aware of a number of schools like i-Coach and Fielding that have very strong programs and are “graduating” well-trained coaches. Even though this is the case, we need to remember that the certificate alone does not take the place of experience. I still require that coaches who have gone though the better coaching programs spend a number of years as independent executive coaches before I accept them as potential members of our practice. Most of our coaches have a minimum of eight to twelve years of coaching experience.

I am most irritated by coaching programs that promote the notion that anyone with a coaching credential can effectively coach senior executives—whether or not they have experience in the business world, or a background of working with executives.

My biggest concern is that  the lack of standards specific  to executive coaching translates to some executives having negative experiences with coaching, thereby tarnishing  the image of our profession. This does not serve any of us and the potential consequences can be quite serious…I invite you to continue this conversation on this blog- what do you think?

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  1. Kevin Lewis's avatar
    Kevin Lewis
    | Permalink
    Joan, I have had the privilege of working closely with executives and c-suite leaders over the last decade. As I made a career transition into the coaching profession, I recently acquired a coaching certification. I wanted to demonstrate to prospective clients that I was quite serious in my pursuit as an executive coach by investing in my own education. (And by investing, I don't mean purchasing and viewing a set of DVDs, getting a certificate of completion and then printing my free coaching business cards.) In any profession, standards and personal ownership for excellence are vital. Being a former military officer, I "grew up" realizing how critical this is if one desires to make effective, deep, and valued impacts on organizations and on people. Your point is very well-taken. Without some adherence to a core set of standards and principles, there are no reference points by which to properly set expectations or measure results.

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