9 reasons that ICF competencies are not sufficient for success as a coach

Our members had a fantastic discussion this past week about International Coach Federation coaching competencies. The Center for Executive Coaching is an approved training program with the ICF, and we support the work the ICF is doing to promote standards in the coaching field.
As part of those efforts, they have created a list of 11 ICF core competencies that coaches should possess. They include ethical behavior, establishing trust and intimacy with clients, asking powerful questions, creating awareness, designing actions, and managing progress.

These are all well and good. They have helped to set standards in the industry, and the ICF has provided further definitions about required skill levels in each competency. The question is: Are they enough to predict success as a coach?

The answer in our discussion was: “It is great that the coaching profession has an organization like the ICF seeking to raise standards, but NO, these competencies are not enough for success.” Note that these are coaches with significant experience coaching top executives and leaders in major organizations, including many with ICF designations.

Here are some of the things that seem to be missing, at least from the perspective of what it takes to succeed in the business of coaching:

1. The ability to provide value. This is a basic competency that any coach should have. If you aren’t providing value to clients — here value is defined as at least a 5-10X return on your fees in results — then you aren’t going to last long as a coach. The ICF core competencies do not mention the word value, and it seems to be assumed that mastering their competencies will result in value. That is not necessarily true. For instance, many coach training programs focus heavily on the competency of asking powerful questions, and yet who is to say that the questions they teach are the valuable ones? Many are lightweight questions, best suited for navel-gazing (and many coaches love coach training programs where they get to have insights about their own lives, even if their clients could care less about those kinds of insights).

If I ran the ICF, I’d want them to survey at least a dozen clients for each coach and make sure that clients said, “Yes! I got at least 5 X this coach’s fees in value by working with him or her.” And no, you can’t contact friends or fellow coaches who were coached (as so many coaches do to get their designations); only real clients paying market rates.

2. Marketing, marketing, marketing. Most coaches struggle to make a living because they don’t focus on this essential skill. There is an art to attracting clients and positioning one’s self as a coach in the market. Honestly, when I read most coach’s websites or read their elevator speeches on forums, I cringe. ICF core competencies seem to start at the point where the engagement starts (although contracting is a competency that does begin during the business development phase). Despite coaches who swear by the book The Secret, clients don’t just appear out of nowhere. You have to know how to establish yourself as an expert, attract interest, and close deals.

3. The ability to set up and run the nuts and bolts of a coaching business. Increasingly, medical. law and other professional schools are teaching practice management to their students. By not including business management skills in its list of core competencies, the ICF ignores a crucial part of being a coach. Unless a coach is coaching as a hobby, he or she had better know how to run the business side of things.

4. A long-term view of the client relationship. There is nothing explicit in the ICF core competencies about long-term thinking about a client relationship (although there are some hints, as in the competency about trust and intimacy, and developing a coaching plan). Coaches need to think like consulting and professional services firms, which are disciplined in anticipating client needs and planning out relationship strategies.

5. Assessing the situation. A key competency in coaching is assessing the reason for the issue that led to coaching in the first place. The client is at point A and wants to get to point B. What explains the gap? To me, that should be a competency in and of itself. It is buried in the ICF competencies, scattered among things like asking powerful questions and creating awareness. However, without isolating the assessment process as a key early phase in the coaching engagement, coaches can get sloppy and meander without getting to the heart of the issue with a client.

6. Conceptualizing the engagement. Again, the ICF has competencies about contracting and managing the coaching plan. However, a key skill of top professionals is conceptualizing an engagement so that there is a clear, efficient pathway to results. Many coaches do just a few coaching sessions at a time for clients, instead of setting up a 6-12 month plan for significant results. They simply don’t know how to look beyond “hours” to a full-blown, powerful engagement structure.

7. Ways of being of the coach. The ICF core competencies include a crucial component called Coaching Presence. I would argue that to be an executive-level coach, Coaching Presence is more like a talent. You either have it or you don’t. That’s why we don’t take everyone with a pulse in our program. We look for people who already have that Coaching Presence, people whom we know can sit down with a leader, ask challenging questions, give tough feedback, and be on equal footing. To us, there are 7 orientations of the top level coach, ways of thinking and being that set that coach apart. I think that these are essential for success in the market, yet are not included in the ICF competencies.

8. Recognizing differences in coaching models. What about coaching groups? What about hybrid models where we shift from coach to trainer to facilitator to mentor, etc? Yes, the ICF core competencies cover this in contracting and in ethics, but not enough. The market demands agility in how we present our solutions, and that should be noted more explicitly in any solid coach training program.

9. Creating intellectual property and turning it into products. Top coaches don’t restrict themselves to coaching. They don’t trade their time for dollars. They also build leverage. They do this by creating frameworks and methodologies and turning those into products, or by training/licensing others to coach their model. While a new coach need not worry about this, is a Master Coach really a master coach if he or she doesn’t have unique, proprietary intellectual property? That’s why we help our members become true thought leaders and experts as coaches.

I can’t emphasize enough that we are grateful to the ICF and similar organizations for what they are doing to improve standards and professionalism among coaches. At the same time, we also know that many coaches with ICF designations are struggling to make a great living. The above list suggests that it is not enough to have an ICF designation to get clients. You need more, and we hope that the above list helps you see what else is required.

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