Choosing an external coach: it’s a minefield

Proceed with caution when you’re hiring external coaches – effective regulation is still some way off. By Stephanie Sparrow.

“The days of buying in individual coaches are numbered.” So says Sheridan Maguire, faculty coach for the School of Coaching.

He says buying patterns for external coaching will be driven by anxiety over quality issues. “Organisations will probably buy from larger associateships rather than a one-man band, and will be looking for that associateship to be a member of an industry body,” he says.

Maguire’s sentiments are shared by many, as buyers look for signs of quality assurance in a burgeoning market.

Be vigilant

The growing availability of qualifications, whether they are from a private provider, university or association, could be one way to validate the coach’s experience, but the buyer still has to be vigilant.

But the only reliable way to know what distinguishes one coach from another is to undertake research. This means checking references or finding out if the coach, or provider of the training qualification held by the coach, belongs to one of the better-known, high-profile bodies. For example, the European Mentoring and Coaching Council’s (EMCC) UK Quality Awards aim to clarify the complex field of coaching and mentoring training and are based on its research into a range of coaching and mentoring competencies.

Marina Dieck, who oversees the EMCC’s awards, says they “are not given to individual coaches but to the providers of coaching training”.

These providers pay the EMCC to inspect their programmes. These are grouped into four categories from foundation (for those providers offering the equivalent to NVQ levels 3 and 4) up to master (for providers offering courses equivalent to master’s degree).

But no amount of certification or quality awards can remove the onus from the buyer when purchasing the services of an external coach. Coaching programmes have to be fit for purpose and the buyer of external coaching needs to be clear about that purpose from the start, says professor David Lane, head of the international centre for the study of coaching at Middlesex University, and managing director of the Professional Development Foundation for coaches.

“The question is what forms of qualifications might be a relevant basis for a [purchasing] decision,” he says.

Lane adds that there is no point recruiting a coach simply because they have a high level of qualifications. “Companies can seek higher levels of accreditation but they should also consider a lower level if that is what makes sense for them,” he says.

Lane also says that one of the key considerations for a buyer or sponsor is to understand whether the coaching agenda is “fixed or open”.

“A fixed agenda means that the company can make judgements about what experience the coach will need to have,” he says. “Whereas an open agenda could mean that the coach needs more depth or breadth of experience because they don’t know what is coming up, and they have to have the skill bases to deal with the unexpected.”

Lane says a coach who is certified at master level or above would be best suited to dealing with an open agenda, “because they know how to critique ambiguity”, he says.

Senior coaches

“For example, PDF and Middlesex University have an EMCC-approved master coach designation for senior coaches with a minimum five years’ in practice,” he says. “The Worldwide Association of Business Coaches has a similar level for senior coaches called Certified Master Business Coach and the ICF Master Coach demands significant hours of practice.”

But above all, he warns companies not to think of buying coaching as being like “buying paper clips, where it is best to buy from one big-name supplier”, and says purchasers should consider niche operators. “Some talented coaches prefer to work for smaller consultancies.”

Personality still counts at HR consultancy Penna, according to Ruth McNaughton, head of managed coaching services, and it is balanced against qualifications.

McNaughton is responsible for more than 60 coaches across Europe. “From my perspective, we employ on experience, presence and impact,” she says.

She defines experience as a mixture of qualifications – such as accreditation from the International Coaching Federation – and time spent coaching, while presence is defined as “passion, vibrancy, energy and gravitas”.

Penna’s coaches must also be values-driven, and show evidence of time spent on self-mastery. “We’re particular,” she says. “People contact us because they are attracted to the brand.”

But while introducing an air of certainty around what constitutes a Penna coach, McNaughton says the market is “confused”. For this reason, Penna is conducting the alarmingly-named Avoiding Anarchy in Coaching survey, due for publication by the end of this year.

“We find that many organisations say coaching qualifications are not the most important focus on their checklist, but at the same time they say that there are not enough regulations,” says McNaughton.

The survey will ask organisations what they are getting from coaching and if they know what they are looking for.

Wild West

“I think many companies looking for coaches still think it’s the Wild West out there,” says Robin Linnecar, founding partner at the Praesta Partners coaching consultancy.

“But the industry as a whole is moving towards regulation and benchmarking – we chose to go for the EMCC Quality Award for this reason.” He says hirers should ask particular questions.

“I would expect an HR manager to ask me how are you [the coach] developing as a coach. How self-aware are you?”

Linnecar adds that different needs will create the need for different emphases – don’t waste time asking about experience in psychotherapy if you really need a specialist in high-performance.

“Because we advertise ourselves as business coaches, we would expect to be asked: What knowledge have you got about business? What is your track record and expertise?” he says.

And Linnecar would also expect a purchaser to ask who could be approached for a reference.

“A good coach can always supply references,” says Victoria Winkler, learning, training and development adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, who adds that talking to previous clients is a good way of finding out about their style and skills.

Although qualifications are important, Winkler says “competence can be demonstrated in different ways”.

She adds: “Competence might be about being a member of a relevant professional body, but another big part of it is characteristics – have they got flexibility of approach? It’s about looking at what you, the purchaser, want and how you can establish whether a coach is going to provide that, and how they blend.”

Winkler adds that evidence that a coach undertakes supervision should play its part in the purchasing decision. The School of Coaching’s Maguire agrees and expects it to be “de rigeur within three years”.

Stepping up

So the picture for purchasers remains complicated, but the good news is that the market is stepping up its self-regulation and definitions. And the coaching world, quite literally, is working even harder to get its house in order.

David Lane has worked with Michael Covenor, of the University of Sydney, to set up what is being termed a global convention on coaching. “This is an attempt to bring the market together in a one-year dialogue, with representation from key stakeholders across the world including Japan, the US, Canada and Germany,” he says.

Results from a series of working parties, which are getting down to brass tacks on areas such as what constitutes coaching – is it a profession of a series of activities? – will be discussed at a conference in Dublin, July 2008.

Lane says: “We are saying there is a considerable state of flux that we need standards that everyone can agree to. It is about time we all had these conversations.”


School of Coaching


Praesta Partners



Middlesex University

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