The evolution of coaching (Part Two) – What kind of profession do we want to be part of?

Published by Aubyn Howard on

In my previous article I described some evolutionary trends in the coaching profession and made the case for a holistic approach to leadership coaching.  In this and subsequent articles I will explore critical issues facing the profession as a whole, starting with the need to make self-regulation work effectively in the face of growing concerns about standards and ethics in coaching.

Context

The question I want to pose is:

What kind of coaching profession do we want to be part of?

This raises other questions, e.g.; how can we shape the nature and direction of our coaching profession in ways that are congruent with our purpose, vision and values? What kind of wider dialogue is helpful as part of this?

Although we represent a relatively niche version of coaching – which I variously describe as psychological or psychospiritual, developmental or holistic – what can we do to make it more available to a wider audience?

So, on one hand we need to create a broad consensus about what is ethical and good practice in the coaching profession, establishing a broad church if you like within which ongoing open dialogue and exchange of ideas and learning can take place – and on the other we want to promote our version to give more people access to a developmental and depth approach to coaching.

Inevitably there will be increasing variety and plurality in the coaching profession, so it is in all our interests that this is underpinned by shared standards that create safety and trust for anyone involved. There will always be dubious elements driven by commercial opportunism and we need to make sure what we do is easily distinguishable from these.

Why is something needed?

Let’s start by looking at some examples of how coaching has been in the news over the last year and not always in a good way.

An article in the Guardian caught my eye as an attempt to be even-handed in its expose´ on life coaching in the USA and yet it includes two glaring misconceptions which I want to correct. Rachel Monroe in ‘I’m a lifer coach, you’re a life coach: the rise of an unregulated industry’ reveals the dark side of life coach training, focusing on Brooke Castillo’s Life Coach School as a powerfully promoted money making machine ($37m annual turnover from charging $21,000 for a three month certification programme!) with stories of how it poorly serves both budding coaches seeking a transformational career change as well as their potential clients. By claiming her brand to be the gold standard, Castillo has eschewed the need to align with any of the global professional bodies. Monroe mentions in passing how the ICF was established in 1995 as an “independent credentialing body, (that has) attempted to impose a set of standards and a code of ethics on the industry, and met with middling success” and goes on to describe coaching as “an entirely unregulated industry – there are no oversight boards, no standard curricula, no codes of ethics”.

In an Observer article, also exposing the shortcomings of the life coaching industry powered by positive psychology, Eleanor Morgan quotes Stanford University psychiatrist Dr Elias Aboujaoude to reinforce this perception: “life coaching operates in a regulatory vacuum, with no education, training, licensing, or supervision requirements for coaches and no specific legal protections for any harmed clients”. Morgan goes onto say “those entering the space will have good intentions, but we cannot ignore that this is a market based on vulnerability”. She also questions the value of coaching’s emphasis on building confidence by using techniques of positive psychology and the pathologizing of self-doubt with terms such as imposter syndrome. There is an interesting discussion to be had here, particularly about the downsides of coaches following a single approach too rigidly, which I will pick up in my next post.

An online article at CBC Marketplace raises similar concerns about how easy it is to become a life coach and the dangers of sharp sales practices and over-promising, both for would be coaches and for their coachees. The article also makes the assertion that coaching is not regulated and perhaps it should be.

You may well have come across other articles making similar points to the ones I have referred to here. We may not agree with all they have to say but it is important we listen and respond to them as their messages will be reaching many potential users of coaching. First, I want to tackle the two misconceptions or misrepresentations which most commonly occur.

The case for self-regulation

The first misconception I want to address is that of coaching as an unregulated profession – whereas it is actually a self-regulated profession. This does not mean that individual coaches, coaching services or coach training organisations simply regulate themselves.

The self-regulation of the legitimate coaching profession effectively takes place through a number of global and national professional bodies – which coincidentally have very recently taken part in a joint initiative in conjunction with the European Union and co-signed an updated Professional Charter for Coaching, Mentoring and Supervision of Coaches, Mentors and Supervisors, which is registered on the publicly accessible EU database here. The Charter is described as “the basis for the development of self-regulation for the coaching, mentoring and supervision professions” and “reflects the mission of the professional bodies to promote and ensure good practice in coaching”. Having read the document which was agreed on 15 July 2022, I see it as a hugely encouraging step forwards for the profession – it covers all the bases in a clear and relevant way and is a great improvement on the previous Charter first drafted in 2011.  Significantly, it has more signatories so it is now a credible representation of both the key global players (ICF, AC, EMCC) and more specialised professional bodies. To be fully effective as the basis for self-regulation, there is still the important job of communication, education and building awareness – with organisational and individual users, coaches and training organisations.

In the meantime, my congratulations to Stephen Murphy at the EMCC and others who have made this happen.  The synchronicity of starting to write this article before receiving this news gives me new hope for the future of our profession!

My only quibble is that there is something of a split between the ICF, the first and largest of the global professional bodies with its own code of ethics, and the smaller but growing alternative bodies, led globally by the Association of Coaching and the EMCC which are co-signatories to a common Global Code of Ethics.

The argument for self-regulation working effectively would be stronger if the ICF also became a signatory of the Global Code of Ethics, but for now at least we need to live with this and the choice it represents to coaches who can align with one or the other of the professional bodies in their training, accreditation and practice.

Finding the right balance between unity, collaboration and alignment on one hand and diversity, innovation and choice on the other is never easy and the way in which our profession tackles this challenge will have an important influence on the future of the industry and whether it reflects the unregulated mess portrayed by some of these articles or the powerful force for good and transformation as described in the missions of many adherents.    

The plurality within self-regulation

This brings us to the second misconception which is sometimes conveyed in news articles – that the ICF is the only global professional body for coaching, whereas in fact they are part of the healthy plurality I have described coming together to create the new Professional Charter. It is important to acknowledge that a self-regulated global profession can’t ethically and effectively be led and overseen by a single private organisation, as the ICF sometimes seems to be seeking to do.

PCL has aligned with the EMCC and the Global Code of Ethics for a number of reasons (see here on our website) but essentially because they represent the kind of coaching profession we want to be part of as reflected by their more psychological, developmental and holistic approach to accreditation.  Although global in its reach, the EMCC is European at its core and therefore aligned with the European law that has guided the drafting of the new Charter.  I wonder whether such an initiative could have happened in the same way in the US?   

Alongside the EMCC, I am also accredited as a Master Executive Coach with APECS in the UK who were an early signatory to the Global Code and are a co-signatory of the new Charter. As the top-level body for executive or leadership coaches, APECS is an excellent membership organisation, but has less to offer new coaches. I will write more about the choices available and why I have personally not been attracted to join the ICF, in a later article. 

I would like to see AC, EMCC and APECS promote their alternatives to the ICF more widely and actively challenge any user organisations which do not recognise coach accreditations aligned to the Global Code of Ethics.

Individual commitment to standards

The voluntary nature of self-regulation is vastly preferable to any form of statutory or compulsory regulation involving legislation or oversight bodies. However, it also places responsibility on us as individuals.

Speaking to those entering the profession – it is now incumbent upon any practising coaches to join the legitimate self-regulated profession in order not to be confused with unregulated life coaching, and equally important, to help build a clearer perception in the minds of users about the difference.

The message I have for so-far non-accredited coaches is that by achieving accreditation (or credentialing as the ICF call it) with one of the professional bodies, you demonstrate you have relevant training and experience, that you have committed to continue your professional development, undertake professional supervision, are covered by professional indemnity insurance and follow a code of ethics. Commitment to these basic standards is what sets us apart from the unregulated part of the industry. This creates the foundational basis for safety and trust within the legitimate profession, within which there are then of course many choices and options.

In this new era zoom era of coaching where we can work with clients anywhere in the world, I would advise you to choose one of the global bodies for your primary accreditation. The equivalence between the accreditation processes and requirements of ICF, AC and EMCC are helpfully set out in an EMCC download (on our website) which may help you in making your choice. 

There are some older professionals, who (like myself) weren’t called upon to prove our credentials in the early days of coaching although they may have undertaken countless courses and programmes, including at University post-graduate level. Particularly for those not attracted by the ICF, the argument was that such serious qualifications were an acceptable substitute for professional accreditation.  Such coaches may argue they are rarely asked for accreditation or credentials and anyway, they find most of their work by referral.

Because of the increasing need to distinguish the self-regulated profession from the non-regulated, I am saying this argument no longer holds water. University qualifications, including our own PGC with the Institute of Psychosynthesis and Middlesex University or the Institute’s Masters in Leadership and Organisational Coaching, or equivalent masters level qualifications with Henley Business School, Oxford Brookes, Metanoia, DCU Smurfit and others – such qualifications certainly help set you apart from other coaches and hopefully make you a better coach, but they are not substitutes for basic accreditation, which is your minimum entry ticket to the game.

Equally, certificates and diplomas that are given at the end of courses by self-certifying training organisations are not meaningful alternatives for accreditation.  The key term here is self-certification – which is effectively what the Life Coaching School is doing and we can see the problems that come with that.  The foundations of professional practice are built upon the principle of external verification or validation in the education, training and development field. In the same way practitioners need external supervision which itself is nested in the supervisors’ own supervision and so on. It is this external openness and scrutiny that keeps us and our clients safe.

I call upon individual coaches to embrace the self-regulated coaching profession if you haven’t already. And I call on the profession to find its voice and promote its message more widely. The new 2022 Professional Charter would seem a great opportunity to get started with that.

To find out more about psychosynthesis and our coaching accreditation pathways, please come to one of our online Taster Saturday events, hosted by Anne Welsh.

References:

Howard, Aubyn (2020), Psychosynthesis Leadership Coaching, Abingdon: Routledge

Howard, Aubyn (2022), Working towards synthesis: context, guidance and techniques for engaging with polarisation. Chapter 21 in Nocelli, Petra Guggisberg (2022) Know, Love, Transform Yourself. Theory, techniques and new developments in Psychosynthesis, Vol. II, Psychosynthesis Books

Articles:

Daily Beast, Noah Kirsch and Kate Briquelet (2022): https://www.thedailybeast.com/a-revolt-is-brewing-at-prince-harrys-silicon-valley-gig-betterup

Guardian, Rachel Monroe, 6 October 2021: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/oct/06/life-coaching-brooke-castillo-unregulated-industry

Observer: Eleanor Morgan, Sun 10 Jul 2022: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2022/jul/10/the-cult-of-confidence-could-positive-thinking-be-making-us-feel-less-secure-?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

CBC MARKETPLACE: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/marketplace-life-coach-1.6364745

Medium: Mehboob Khan, Dec 30, 2020 The Dark Side Of Mindfulness No One is Talking About: https://theapeiron.co.uk/the-dark-side-of-mindfulness-no-one-is-talking-about-96b292cf4ada


Aubyn Howard

Aubyn Howard

Aubyn has 30 years’ experience as an organisational consultant, facilitator, educator and coach, supporting transformational change and leadership development with leaders.