The Sunk Cost Trap to Coaching Certifications
A 21st Century Paper Chase
Off-an-on over the years I've thought about pursuing some sort of certification in coaching. "On" happened during times when business was slow or I was between jobs. "Off" was all the rest of the time when I was, you know, actually coaching. About six months ago, the debate was "on." The result of the latest foray into this line of thinking ended by concluding: Not now, not ever.
The coaching field is beyond saturated. Everyone is on the "I'm a coach" trolley. Maybe the coach trolley passengers put coin in the box so they can claim rights to a seat. Maybe they're freeloading on the coach-tails of everyone else and plan to ride for as long as it keeps moving along the track. The ubiquity of "coach" is replacing "consultant," as is its non-specificity and blandness.
So what's a coach to do? Specialize! I did. I've specialized over the past 10-12 years in working with Agile teams distributed around the globe. But today, coaches are starting to super specialize. I sampled a coaching-related meet-up via Zoom about a year ago where someone introduced themselves as an "anxiety" coach. I don't know about you, but when I hire a coach it's usually to help me improve in some fashion. I can only assume that an anxiety coach would help me get better at anxiety. I'd rather hire a relaxation coach or meditation coach or stress-relief coach. But that's just me.
How We Got Here
Coaching, as a practice for improving performance, has been around for centuries - long before anyone thought to cash in on people's insecurities and charge money to certify someone's coaching skills. Various schools of philosophy in ancient Greece, such as Plato's Academy, were established with the purpose of improving a student's performance with logic, reasoning, and thinking in general. Other schools - such as the Cynic (Antisthenes), Cyrenaic (Aristippus), Epicurean (Epicurus), Skeptic (Pyrrhon), and Stoic (Zeno) schools - were more interested in teaching a philosophy that helped students live a good and virtuous life. Each of these approaches, whether academic or pragmatic, began with Socrates, who was interested in both the nature of truth and living a virtuous life.
The Socratic method of asking questions and engaging in fearless dialog are excellent examples of what it takes to guide someone toward developing the skills for working out hard problems on their own. Socrates doesn't provide any answers. Instead, moving from one question to another he works with his students to map out a path to the answer. A frustrating but necessary process for students if they hope to learn how to effectively leverage aporia and understand the world around them.
Perhaps, then, Socrates was the first recorded professional executive coach. (Feel free to dismiss his methods. After all, he wasn't a certified coach.)
Where We Are Now
Coaching as a way to make a living in non-sport fields is relatively new. Even so, it's fundamentally an application of practices that have been around for centuries, significantly augmented by the wealth of research from psychology and neuroscience we have today. With this comes the need to validate that someone knows what they claim to know. Unlike sports, where a coach has either a winning or losing record, we cannot see into someone's brain and measure what they know or validate the experience they claim to have.
Just as college degrees serve as a proxy for employers to assess a job candidate's competency, coaching certificates are meant to show whether a coach has a vested interest in building their competency for the craft. This works in the context of university degrees where institutions must satisfy independent accreditation standards. But coaching, as a profession, is unregulated and there is no independent accreditation body for certification standards. I don't see this changing any time soon.
Coaching certificates have become tribal markers and signals for other coaches. As a consequence, they mean more to other coaches then they do to clients and employers. The latter may check a mental box for "certified" and not care a hoot on where it came from. There are so many programs it's difficult to tell how much value a student gains in the coaching market for the money spent. And by market I mean actual work. Other coaches certainly know the high status from the low status or phony programs. (PhonyDiploma.com: "Trusted since 2001" LOL!)
How big a stretch is it to imagine a future where coaches must be licensed? It's the classic path taken by power and status seekers to control and protect their turf. Given my special superpower, it's probably already a thing. I'm afraid to look. As Agile becomes more and more popular, it's attracting a fringe of hipsters intent on blurring and crossing the edges of coaching into counseling, ministering, and therapy.
Where Are We Going
I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member. - Groucho Marx
I have a long, long tradition of being a contrarian. In my youth, being pushed to the margins and kept on the outside of the in-group wasn't a choice I made. Circumstances, an introverted nature, and the fact that cruel kids tend to emerge as leaders on the playground, I was often on the outside looking in. Painful at the time, in hindsight I gained from a perspective that revealed early in life how fragile, skewed, and limiting an insiders world truly was. This, to me, looked like a much more painful experience in the long run and I remain suspicious of groups and organizations that proclaim to be arbiters of truth and fact. Those that open their models and methods for all to see and evaluate are more likely to gain my trust. It's a fundamental belief that has made me a long time supporter and contributor to open source initiatives in software and organizational frameworks.
Looking at what's offered in today's certified coach market, I see a lot of closed micro-niches, all vying to be THE way to coach people. Some may be more rigorous and reputable than others, but it's become more and more challenging over the years to determine the return from investing considerable time and money. I attended a coaching meetup a few weeks back with a subject title "Exploring Agile Coaching Certification." Sounded like an opportunity to learn about coaching certificates in general. And while it was an interesting presentation, it was mostly a sales pitch for the coaching certificate program the presenter had completed - complete with ringers in the audience. This isn't the first such coaching presentation I've attended that went this way.
Nonetheless, there are some good reasons to pursue a coaching certificate as long as there isn't an exaggerated expectation the piece of paper will magically open doors. It'll help, but doors open faster and wider when you have a stellar reputation for coaching, they open as positive word-of-mouth spreads and recommendations are made. I've yet to meet a coach who's said their coaching certification program prepared them 100% for everything they ever encountered in the field. For a good program, the number is more like 10%. The School of Hard Knocks is where the truly valuable learning happens. (Go here if you'd like a good place to start preparing yourself mentally.) Everything you might want to know about how to coach - models, frameworks, techniques, theory, case studies, the works - is freely available on the Web and your money would be better spent finding ways to practice, practice, and practice.
So here's the break down for how I came to the conclusion to let go of the idea of ever pursuing a coaching certificate...
Time. I have less and less of it. (The same is true for you!) I'm giving dead-serious thought to re-engineering a career in an entirely unrelated field of endeavor, so there's no longer any such thing as "spending" time to get a coaching certificate. It's simply a waste of precious time. The older I get, the less inclined I am to sit through someone's re-branding of the same principles from last year. Or last decade, in the case of some certification programs I've looked at.
Compliance. In an effort to differentiate themselves, I'm seeing coaching programs that insist their home-grown coaching philosophy be integral to a coach's practice. I have a deep respect for constraints. Used with skill, they can be particularly effective at directing behaviors. I've also been riding this rodeo for many years, certainly long enough to discover there are things that work well and most definitely a few things that don't work. The very idea of having to mask this experience for the sake of satisfying a program's coaching pedagogy is enough to cause me to walk away. Doubly so if I'm expected to pay for the experience.
Of course, not all programs are like this. But I have had the experience of being told "We don't do it like that.", even in the face of failure when it's done like that. I've built my success on working damn hard to find what works and almost always this involved stretching beyond my comfort zone and letting go of painfully discovered limiting beliefs and assumptions. I wouldn't have it any other way. Remaining confined to a single approach makes for a brittle practice. Maybe this is why I see more and more coaches with an alphabet of certifications dragging behind their name like so many cans behind a newly weds' car.
Weak credibility. A coaching certificate demonstrates that you've met one organization's timestamped version of what it takes to be a coach. The way the industry is set up, with few exceptions it's certain your certificate will expire. That is, unless you continue to pay a yearly fee to stay in the club. Often there are no additional criteria for keeping skills sharp and knowledge current. As long as you can pay, you're certificate is good.
Even if you can and do continue to pay the coaching club fee, the value may erode over time. I've completed I don't know how many software related certifications over the years. Every damn one of them has become irrelevant, a headstone to some long extinct technology. I predict the same will happen for many coaching certification programs in much the same way many of the Total Quality Management (TQM) certification programs for the 80's and 90's have long sense disappeared.
In my experience, there are a number of stronger signals for credibility. To list a few:
Write a book. Completing this task is no small effort (I'm still working on my first!) Assuming what you publish isn't sloppy work, it demonstrates your commitment to a long-term project and that you have subject matter expertise. And after all that hard work, you have something potential clients or employers can evaluate for themselves.
Write articles. Same benefits as for writing a book, except that you can develop and demonstrate a wider variety of ideas that are more accessible and current. Sharing your knowledge signals a measure of confidence in what you know and the value you deliver for your clients. On a more personal level, it serves as an extremely valuable source of feedback. Authorship also helps establish yourself as, in the vernacular of the times, a "thought leader."
Referrals and reputation for the actual work you've done. This usually falls under the heading of good ol' fashioned networking.
A portfolio of work completed and results achieved. Perhaps this is available on your web site or in case studies that highlight the value you've added for your clients.
Cost. Coaching certificates (at least from the better known programs) are expensive to get and expensive to keep. Thousands of dollars for a piece of paper that means little or nothing to the people who will actually be paying me? Where's the sense in that? None of the certification programs I've looked at offer any kind of money back guarantee, and for good reason. There are no guarantees for what will work in any given situation.
Peer pressure can be an intimidating obstacle to creativity and inspiration and not everyone has it in them to withstand the pressure or the temptation for the easy path to acceptance and belonging. And as far as it goes, buying one's way into a tribe may not be such a bad idea. Still, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if my position on coaching certificates caused more than a few initiates to bristle and bark. It happens. I keep in mind that Socrates himself was executed by the Athenian court, having been found guilty of impiety and corrupting the youth. Such are the slings and arrows of a competitive profession. But this is home ground for me, where the rules follow from a more universal set of laws.
A durable coaching practice banks on a reputation based on integrity, trust, professionalism, and results. Long-term success comes down to a coach's fingerspitzengefühl, as the Germans say, and you can't learn that in a classroom or from a book. As I said before, every bit of knowledge you need to be a good coach is freely available on the Web. Hunt it down and then practice, experiment, practice, experiment, and practice. When you have fingerspitzengefühl, it doesn't expire and no one can take it away. Find your tribe that has this as it's core, all the rest is decoration. Backing this up with a variety of credentials can help, but a mountain of paper won't help a coach with a crap reputation or a limited field of view for how to solve people problems.