April 23, 2024

Good and Bad Reasons to Get a Coaching Certification

A detailed post on why you should (or should not) get a coaching certification.

I am often asked by aspiring coaches whether or not they should secure a coaching certification from a certifying body. I am then asked, if I say yes, to recommend an ideal coaching certification program.

When I get a question often, I usually write an answer so I can reply with an easy link and save me and the asker a 30-minute conversation.

Before I share my view on this, I want to disclose three things.

First, I am woefully unfamiliar with the general landscape of coaching certification programs. I know the basics, the largest players, the emergence of programs at well-regarded US colleges and universities, etc. But I do not have a feel for which certification is good or bad. I know little about pricing for these programs or program components. I’m not that interested in knowing all of this or doing the research, and this is always the first thing I say in response to the question, so there, I’ve said it.

Second, along with Kaley Klemp, I run a Coaching Certification for Leader Coaches each year. This is a program to help working leaders inject more day-to-day (or minute-to-minute) coaching in their leadership. The premise is that leaders can be coaches without leaving their day jobs. If you want to include this program in your consideration set, read more here and apply today. 

Third, in two months, Kaley and I will be releasing our new book Leader Coach: Scaling Conscious Leadership at Work. This book – at a likely price of $9.99 on Kindle – will be a complete documentation of our certification program. It’s a great read for certification aspirants, coaches, and leaders who like the idea of being better coaches at work.

Ok, now for my thoughts on this topic in light of these caveats.

In my view, a critical component of answering the “should I get a coaching certification” question is knowing your central reason for wanting one. Based on my conversations and personal thoughts, there are 5 top likely reasons you may be seeking a coaching certification:

1. To be a better coach

You want to learn how to be a good or better coach. Getting the learning and self-development from participating in a certification program would help you get there. You love the idea of being better at your craft and expanding your skill set.

2. For the sake of brand or credibility

You are or want to be a leadership, executive or life coach, and you want to burnish your standing in a crowded sector with a big, credible brand that backs your stature in the sector.

3. To address your insecurities around coaching or your insecurities generally

You have an imposter voice inside you saying you “can’t” coach, you won’t be “good enough,” the space is “too crowded,” or you can’t “make a living” doing this. A coaching certification will serve to bolster your confidence around coaching (even if not your skills), and it will help to quiet your imposter voice.

4. Because learning is fun, this is something to do

You have a pure love of learning. You’re not even sure you want to be a full-time coach or a leader coach. You may not even be in business. You simply love learning. Last year you tried on pottery. The year before, you sharpened your talent in Thai cooking. You’re one of those celebrated humans who is rich with edification. You’re a gem at cocktail parties. You have great range based on how you learn as a priority in this life.

5. To develop a network for client development (i.e., sales)

You want to be in a cohort of coaches and coaching instructors to avail yourself of a network of future peers and mentors to get future referred business thrown your way based on how much you impress people in your program.

Now that I’ve outlined these five possible rationale for securing a coaching certification, I want to share my partially informed and partially intuitive sense of whether garnering a certification will meet your goal or goals.

Reason 1 (be a better coach) is a fantastic reason to get a coaching certification. I imagine that any program you choose to do will make you a better coach. It will increase your tool set, improve your skills through required practice, and help you look at life through the lens of a coach. You will be taught by seasoned coaches and other professionals in specialties adjacent to coaching (e.g., psychology) to learn what coaching is and what it isn’t. You will get a feel for your style and gifts as a coach. That will make you better as well. If this is your goal and you can afford the program costs, I am a full yes.

I’ll skip to Reason 4 (love of learning) and concur with my thoughts in the previous paragraph. Learning is amazing. If you can afford the time and money and Reason 4 is your primary reason for seeking a certification, go do it. If money or time are constrained, you can compare the value of the incremental satisfaction of your love of learning and do a pretty good cost-benefit analysis to make your decision.

Reason 2 (brand/credibility) is a decent reason to garner a coaching certification. Credentials matter to some people and some organizations in choosing a coach. If you have a certification from a well-respected coaching program and/or, say, a major university brand that people swoon over, I imagine this can be a difference maker in some selection processes. In evaluating this reason, I think it’s important to look at your other credentials on your resume or LinkedIn profile. If you secured an education at a well-respected college or university, if you worked at a well-respected company for a reasonable amount of time, you may already check the brand box. If that’s the case for you, this brand enhancement is likely less worthwhile than for those people trying to enhance their rep with a new status signal. I think this analysis holds true in lots of areas of life and career. A dear friend went to a large university in the middle of the pack for undergrad. When she was accepted at Harvard for graduate school, it seemed more important (in my eyes, and I think hers) to buttress her resume by choosing Harvard over a less expensive or more geographically convenient grad program.

Reason 3 (addressing your insecurities) is similar to Reason 1, but it’s slightly different. Almost everyone I’ve ever met has insecurities (stated or unstated). Becoming more confident in any pursuit is important as a prerequisite for embarking on it and succeeding in it. If you feel low confidence in your ability to be a coach and a high desire to be a coach, a certification from a respected program might do the trick, in part because of the learning and the brand. Now, because I am a coach, I want to mention that most issues around confidence are an “inside job.” By that I mean that one ought to do their own work to investigate and understand the parameters of one’s insecurities because extrinsic solutions often fail to bear fruit in a desolate and uninvestigated landscape of self doubt. So, if you’re looking at one or another certification to get you over some anxiety hump, I’d encourage you to explore your unconscious commitment to not being qualified. But if you’re doing your work on the inside already and you feel a certification will help your confidence in the near term, sure. This again comes down to cost-benefit analysis: what’s the time and money required, and how much value will this certification create in terms of bolstering my confidence? Asking that question should get you to your answer.

Last, Reason 5 (network/sales and revenue). I have a strong point of view here, and that doesn’t make me right. I think Reason 5 is a terrible reason to secure a pricey (time and money) coaching certification. This might be an outgrowth of your participation in a program, but from what I hear, the odds of it converting to revenue near- or long-term are low. You are going to be the central driver of your likelihood to make money as a coach. Your experience, network, style, and sales talents will drive this income. In my view, I would discount this reason to exactly $0 and make the decision based on Reasons 1-4 as such.

Now I appreciate that for most of you, your rationale incorporates more than one of the above reasons. So do some homework. Stack rank your reasons and try to create a more analytical approach to this decision if my thoughts are useful (or not).

Finally, I want to share what I believe are the two most critical drivers of your “success” (being able to make a living) as a coach.

First, life. I know there are extremely capable people with very little adult life experience who are great listeners, great question askers, and wonderful reflectors for others. However, with a primary focus on leadership and executive coaching, I believe there is absolutely no substitute for life experience (personal and professional) as a primary qualification for being a great coach. I’m biased here. I’m 58 years old. I have had plenty of life experience — three careers, two major economic downturns in my sector of tech, a long stream of strong personal and professional relationships. I do pattern matching all the time as a coach, looking back on my experience as an operator, lawyer, venture capitalist, and coach. I think that materially enhances my value to my clients. My suggestion to those of you coming out of college or close? Go get a job. Work for others. Learn how companies and relationships work better by doing this. Or start your own organization and make all that happen with you at the helm. Win, lose, fall on your face, hit the gong. Earn some chops and lessons. Then consider coaching.

Second, see how you feel when you’re “coaching” when you’re not a coach. If you absolutely love being a resource to friends and colleagues in ways that garner excellent feedback and bring you joy. If people seek you out for input. If people admire how you create intimate and revealing conversations. If people constantly comment on the quality of your questions and your listening, see how it feels to you when you do this. You are already coaching. And if you love that, if it feels like it’s in your Zone of Genius, then you’re well on your way to being a great coach, and you are already building a network of people who will refer prospective clients your way. I believe strongly that people succeed more often if they are doing what they love. So, check with yourself on whether coaching is that for you. If you know, you know.

These opinions are loosely held. Well, except for my view on Reason 5 above. Please share your own views of this topic (since many of you are better informed than I) with me and others on LinkedIn.

Sue Heilbronner

Sue Heilbronner is an executive coach, Conscious Leadership facilitator, and catalyst for change.

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