What it really takes to get your coaching practice going

This past two weeks we conducted two executive and leadership coach trainings that, along with some recent interactions with coaches not in the Center for Executive Coaching, gave me some fantastic insights about what it really takes to get a coaching practice going.

Two trainings, almost like a before and after….

One training was our advanced training, in which graduates of our regular program return to go deeper in coaching and also learn how to train other coaches. These participants had only started their practice within the past year, and yet were already attracting great clients and experiencing success.

The other training was our regular Certification training, and participants here were only just launching their practices.

When I asked participants in the advanced training how they were attracting clients, their answers were almost the same. Each of them simply had done what we teach in our program in terms of defining a profitable target market, coming up with messages about how they can bring value to the market, and following up with natural conversations and other ways to get visible in the target market — and start getting coaching assignments. What was great about this group is that they weren't doing anything that didn't seem completely natural to them. Even less than a year into their practices, they made these behaviors habits that were easy for them to do. Success has followed.

The second group, just launching their practices, was just learning about how to start attracting clients. I have no doubt that those who take action will be successful if they do the same.

What accounts for success?

So, what are the main differences between coaches who build a successful practice and have impact, and those that don't? Why were the coaches in the advanced training already being successful?

To answer this question in more depth, let me also tell you about some stories I am hearing about coaches trained outside the Center for Executive Coaching. Many of these coaches struggle, and if we can pinpoint the reasons why, you can avoid these mistakes yourself. Following are nine common mistakes:

Mistake one: Relying too much on their ICF or other coaching designation. I meet a lot of coaches who brag about having an X, Y, or Z designation from the ICF. Now, the ICF is a good thing and has help professionalize and publicize our industry. However, a designation alone is never going to get you work. You could have 2,000 hours of coaching experience and most of them could have been ineffective!

Nor is relying on a prestigious university that happens to offer a coaching program. While these programs teach the ICF core competencies, they are often academic and don't show you how to get clients.

One HR Director recently interviewed a graduate of a prestigious university's coaching program and reported, "I would never hire that coach. He was arrogant, his coaching skills were not relevant and practical when we role played, and I can't see any of my managers or executives wanting to work with him! If I challenged him slightly, he kept telling me about the name of the university where he was trained."

Here is some great advice, from a business school professor of mine: He always said, "Never wear your pedigree on your sleeve. Do great work so that people ask you where you got trained." Unfortunately, many coaches are doing the opposite.

Mistake two: Relying on a best-selling author or industry guru's brand name to make you successful. It is trendy among coaches now to pay money to a well-known guru in order to put that guru's name on their website. Why on earth would you do this? This strategy means you are paying money to advertise someone else's brand. If I am hiring a coach, I would hire the guru him or herself, not a potentially poor attempt at a clone.

Another version of this issue is the coach who got trained by some self-proclaimed guru and gets defensive when anyone dares to ask about her training. A coach I was interviewing for an engagement once got very offended when I asked about where she was trained, and discovered that I had never heard of her teacher. "What? You haven't heard about HIM? He is amazing and the fact that you haven't heard about him makes me wonder if I want to work with you." Not surprisingly, this coach was also seeking advice on how to grow her practice. Can you pick up clues about why she might be struggling? 🙂

Mistake three: Relying on ICF or other coaching association meetings to get work. Some CEC graduates go to ICF meetings to form alliances, and quickly get frustrated. When they talk to other ICF coaches at the meetings, they report back that these other coaches are struggling. They don't know how to attract clients, especially in the corporate realm. They look like deer caught in the headlights when they talk about business development.

If you want to form alliances to get clients, ICF meetings are not the place to go. While ICF meetings might be valuable in other ways, if you want to form alliances, focus on meeting professionals from other areas (e.g., attorneys, HR consultants, recruiters, management consultants — whatever makes sense for your practice).

Mistake four: Assuming all coach training programs teach you how to attract clients. To my knowledge, only the Center for Executive Coaching gives you in-depth guidance and support to build your practice. Whether you are an internal or external coach, you need to know how to be credible, set up coaching programs, and attract clients. Just getting training in the ICF core competencies — while important — is not nearly enough to be successful in the market. Unfortunately, that is where most other coach training programs start and stop.

Mistake five: Thinking that anyone can be an executive or leadership coach. Not true! Being a coach is a great privilege and honor, and credibility is something to be earned. What set the people apart in our advanced training program is that they were all smart, dynamic people with a track record of achievement. One had over 20 years experience working with military leadership. Another served as the President of community colleges. Yet another was adding coaching to her already-successful advisory business. A fourth had been a successful psychologist and was transitioning to coaching. Two were respected leaders in their organizations and were charged with creating internal coaching programs. You get the idea. You don't have to be ready to coach Fortune 500 CEOs (there are millions of executives in small- to mid-sized companies who can benefit from coaching), but you do need to have the substance and smarts to match wits with other successful people. Some combination of academic and/or leadership achievements are necessary to be a successful coach.

Like it or not, many coaches in this industry really shouldn't be coaching, and especially not in the corporate realm. Their own lives are a mess, as in the case of the financial coach who was still in bankruptcy. Others go to an inspirational coach training program and leave inspired, but with no credibility of their own other than a good feeling that lasts a couple of weeks. That is a HUGE opportunity for coaches with substance, and the industry is going to see more and more coaches with substance push out those without.

Mistake Six: Inaction. Homer Simpson famously said, "We never give up until we try one easy thing." Many coaches simply don't take enough action to get their practices going. It is not hard to attract clients and speaking/writing opportunities (if you want) in order to get visible. However, it does take action, along with knowing the conversations to have and being able to prove that you have substance. Some coaches take action, but in the wrong places. They go to low-level networking groups and meetings, for instance. That is the same as no action at all. To get clients, you have to be willing to take action.

Mistake Seven: Fad-itis.  Many, many coaches in the market today have attached themselves to some sort of fad. The fad has a fancy name that usually involves words like "emotional," "neuro," and "transformation." No leader wakes up in the morning wanting to buy things with those words in it. They wake up wanting to solve pressing challenges. While it is fine to have validated approaches in your toolkit, if you lead with the feature/fad then you won't sell coaching.

Mistake Eight: Basic business development mistakes. Many good coaches are passionate about coaching, but a bit naive when it comes to attracting clients. We saw this in our Certification workshop. Coaches just starting out were getting advice about their websites, marketing messages, niche markets, and even how they have conversations with prospective clients to structure engagements and price their services — and the advice was that what they were doing was not going to work. There are some clear best practices in attracting clients. No matter how much substance you have, if you don't know how to build a practice, you will be frustrated.

Mistake Nine: Unable to provide consistent long-term value. I believe that the biggest problem in the coaching industry today is that too many coaches don't know how to provide significant, measurable value to their clients. For instance, I know a coach working with the leadership team of a $1 billion enterprise. She was brought in by the CEO who had used her as a life coach and is loyal to her. The coach's approach is to focus on one's "unique authentic voice." The business in question is struggling with some massive challenges: inability to executive on simple tasks, poor employee engagement, lack of accountability and poor financial results, and threats from more agile competitors. While having an authentic voice might be important, is that where you would want a coach to focus in this organization? The executives are rolling their eyes thinking that coaching on authenticity is a total waste of time, and I tend to agree. 

At the Center for Executive Coaching, a focus on getting results is baked in to everything we do: how the engagement is set up with the client, tracking, practical methodologies focused on the client's most pressing needs, and an emphasis throughout of looking at how to move forward towards impact and value. It would be great if more coaches knew how to do this, and this presents an opportunity for coaches who do. The industry is changing, and our client's standards are higher than how many coaches view the needs of the market.

One more foot…

When I first started coaching, I made every mistake in the book when it came to attracting clients. I wasn't a best-selling author. I didn't have a name like Marshall Goldsmith. And for three or four months, I struggled. However, I kept brushing myself off, kept asking for advice, and eventually made some smart choices that got me my first couple of clients. A year later, I could trace about half of my full practice to those first two clients. 

You can do the same. Let's put all of this in the positive now:

One: Make sure you have substance to be credible in the eyes of your target market. For instance, the Center for Executive Coaching provides you not only with best practices of coaching per the ICF, but also practical methodologies and toolkits to have immediate and lasting impact with clients. In today's market, you need methodologies like these to provide value and get results.

Two: Get training to be a great coach and also to attract clients. You are in two businesses as a coach — coaching and business development. If you only learn one of these, you will struggle.

Three: Think about the concept of "one more step." A few years back my family went to our local YMCA to do their ropes course. I was overweight and out of shape at the time, and struggle to climb a part of the course. I wanted to quit but the fantastic instructor kept saying, "Don't stop. Just take one more step up." That's what I did and I eventually reached the top. Building a business is exactly like this. Keep taking one more step. Keep learning.

If you do these things, you will also attract clients as naturally as the participants in our recent advanced program are already doing.

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