Self-regulation is spreading fast in coaching, but the direction it will take is difficult to predict. Some coaches argue that a common set of standards is needed to help weed out unscrupulous operators, while others believe the profession is too diverse for this option to work.
There is also an argument that, unlike other branches of training, the qualities required for good coaching are just too complex to codify.
Many accreditation schemes have emerged over the past six years, and they continue to proliferate.
In January, the Association for Professional Executive Coaching & Supervision (Apecs) was launched with a rigorous set of standards for prospective members to meet before joining. This summer, the European Coaching Institute (ECI) will establish an international register of coaches as a first step towards encouraging every practitioner to obtain a formal qualification.
This month, ENTO – the body responsible for setting occupational standards – is due to finish a set of national occupational standards for coaching as a precursor to establishing NVQs for the profession.
Jessica Jarvis, learning, training and development adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says there are two main drivers behind the trend that follows a surge in demand for coaching.
“I think coaches themselves are demanding it; good and ethical providers of coaching are sick of being tarnished by other unskilled guys,” she says. “Business is also demanding it,” she adds. “It feels more comfortable dealing with a certain degree of credibility and knowledge and, if things do go wrong, there is somebody monitoring and policing the coach’s activities.”
The potential problems buyers face were encountered by the Portman Building Society, which began employing external coaching specialists for the first time this summer.
Ann Turrell, management development consultant at the building society, says: “We looked at a number of quite well-known and some much smaller organisations. We found there was much of a muchness.
Someone says they are qualified as a coach and it’s really difficult to know what it means and how rigorous the assessment process is.” She believes some form of accreditation would be useful, simply as a way of comparing one coaching provider with another.
Portman chose the Full Potential Group (FPG) to provide coaching across the organisation, following three months of research. One influential factor was that all FPG coaches are certified by the International Coach Federation (ICF), based on the number of hours each has been trained as and worked as coaches.
However, Turrell says the deciding factor was FPG’s track record. “This was a group of people we could work with, who would fit well with our culture and management style,” she says.
It is the need for background research by buyers that makes Nick Kitchen, director of The Coaching Partnership in London, wary of placing too much reliance on accreditation.
He argues that buyers may end up with a coach unsuited to their needs because they fail to appreciate that coaching works more on a one-to-one basis than any other type of business relationship.
“I think coaching is at its best when you have in mind the organisational perspective, an understanding of the business and an understanding of the personal dynamics involved,” he says.
Although agreeing that accreditation is potentially useful, he says buyers still need to invest considerable time and effort in making sure the coach has the specific qualities needed for each situation.
Myles Downey, head of The School of Coaching in London, argues against a uniform set of standards, because coaches’ backgrounds are so different, and include psychology, consultancy, business and training.
“There are quite different philosophies working behind each of those constituency groups,” he says.
But harmonisation of codes of ethics and conduct is being pursued by the Association for Coaching (AC) which began talks with the ICF, the European Mentoring and Coaching Council and the Coaching Psychology Forum earlier this year.
Gladeana McMahon, vice-president of the AC, accepts there are many different types of coaching, but says they can still share the same ethical framework.
“The issue of standards, ethics and quality control is one that any respectable coach and coaching organisation is keen to ensure actually happens.”
She adds the advantage of a combined code is that it is easier for buyers to understand.
McMahon hopes that over the next five years, an ethical framework will be agreed by the industry, followed by a set of core competencies needed by all types of coaches. The final stage of regulation would be kitemarks for coach training courses.
According to John O’Brien, chairman of Apecs, existing qualifications in coaching count for little because there are huge variations between good and indifferent training in the profession.
But he says the industry needs an independent body now to set the training standards, which is why membership of Apecs is being rigorously monitored (see box, right). He warns that coaches who are not properly qualified can end up giving bad advice, and may even damage someone’s mental state.
Several corporate giants are backing the accreditation offered by Apecs, including HSBC bank. Jeff Jones, senior manager for talent development, says finding suitable coaches has not been a problem for the bank, but adds: “A lot of people perhaps don’t know what they don’t know.
That means you can end up with cosy conversations that don’t add value and even things that are really unhelpful and a waste of money.”
The prospect of NVQs in coaching may provide buyers with another way through the maze of different standards that currently exist in the profession.
Connie Young is standards and qualifications manager at ENTO, which is drawing up National Occupational Standards (NOS) as a precursor to NVQs. She says it will be up to the NVQ awarding bodies to decide their content, but they could be developed into the equivalent of a Master’s degree.
Although she says NOS are not mandatory, she expects them to be used to benchmark individual performance. “Associations may say their members must adhere to the principles and requirements of the national standards, and employers may require the same of coaches operating in the workplace.”
Whether formal qualifications can be used to identify good coaches is questionable when so much of the job is down to their own personal attributes.
Gerard O’Donovan, chief executive of the European Coaching Institute, says coaching involves helping people “to understand how incredible they are, and come up with their own answers so that they own the solution”.
For Dr Mike Carroll, visiting industrial professor at the University of Bristol, a good coach is “someone who can step back and develop the potential that is there”. He adds: “You need to be able to relate to people, you need a personal chemistry with them.”
The speed with which regulation is taking hold is likely to be much faster than in other professions, because the pressure is to do so is greater than in the past. Carroll, who designed the Apecs’ code of ethics, says: “When I became a counsellor in the early 1980s, it took about 25 years to get to the final stage, but in those days, people were not as demanding about accountability.”
Yet for Andie Hemming, director of coaching and development consultancy SPH Qualtech, counselling provides a good example of the mistakes that need to be avoided. “I know several people who came out of counselling altogether bec-ause the regulations and bureaucracy became completely unwieldy. Because coaching is such a big beast, I fear it will become overly bureaucratic as well.”
Inside guide to accreditation
Association for Coaching (founded 2002, 1,000 members, excluding corporates): Applicants must have been members for at least a year and have done a minimum of 250 hours’ coaching practice.
Association for Professional Executive Coaching & Supervision (founded 2005, 30 members): After completing a 20-page form, applicants are interviewed for two hours. They are then either rejected, become fully accredited or put in a category of moving towards accreditation.
Coaching and Mentoring Network (founded 1999): Provides a database of around 200 coaches and mentors and validates any qualifications they claim to have.
European Coaching Institute (founded 1999, 400 UK members): Provides five levels of accreditation which start with a minimum of 150 hours coaching training, and at least 50 hours’ coaching practice.
European Mentoring & Coaching Council (founded 2002, 700 members, including corporates): Expects to complete a pilot scheme into kitemarking coaching courses and qualifications later this year.
International Coach Federation (founded 1992, 650 UK members): Offers three levels of accreditation, starting at associate level, which requires 60 hours’ coaching training and 250 hours’ coaching practice.