How long does it take to become a competent coach?

No wonder coaching is notoriously a revolving door profession. So many people are lured into it because it looks easy, especially if you have been the client of a very good coach yourself. The barriers to entry are low. The training may have promised, falsely, that after a few short days you are fully equipped to become a coach. Yet a year later many of those coaches have given up. What looked easy has become hard. Clients don’t behave in the obliging ways that characterised your fellow participants on the training course. The promise that there was an unlimited pool of potential clients seems to have been misleading.

What makes for an effective coach? I will not waste your time with the endless competency lists prepared so dutifully by the worthy folk who run coaching associations and accrediting bodies. You can look them up for yourself and in any case I am sceptical about the way these lists atomise and try to pin down what cannot be atomised and pinned down with words. Instead I will say that a competent coach has built a successful practice based on word of mouth recommendation and is confident that they can coach more or less anyone who comes their way – and who also knows when to say no to taking on a client.

The figure of 10,000 hours of practice has been suggested (by me and others) as representing that coaching peak. This is because, allegedly, that it what it takes to become reasonably proficient in learning a musical instrument or a language. I also think that real chronological time needs to pass while you ponder and learn from what has gone well and what has not gone so well: probably around three years’ worth. If coaching is the genuine profession we claim that it is, then this level of practice and learning is no different from standards in other fields, in fact, if anything it is a little lightweight.

Speeding things up

Here are 7 things you can do to speed up the process of becoming competent:

1. Take on pro-bono clients. This is especially helpful if you are a beginner. Put it about that you are looking for clients and that to develop your business and gain experience you will work pro bono or for a very low fee. Don’t fuss about whether you know the field in which these clients work. This is a good way of finding out that it doesn’t matter whether you know their sector or industry. If that’s what they want they need a mentor not a coach.

2. Record your sessions. If you acquired a coaching qualification then a rigorous course will have asked you to do this anyway. Get into the habit of recording everything, with the client’s permission, stressing that no one but you will have access to it. Listen carefully. What do you notice? Do you have some verbal tics which could be getting in the way for your client? Are you allowing the client to maunder on while you just make sympathetic noises in the background? Are there questions which you avoid? Do all your sessions have a rather samey feel? Who is doing most of the work in the session? If it’s you, beware. Ask yourself what is going on that might explain it.

3. Make sure you are balancing support with challenge. It comes easily to many coaches to create rapport and many coaches will also find it hard to challenge. Successful coaching is a blend of high challenge and high support. Typically a struggling coach avoids the questions which challenge and confront the client, for instance, that never ask versions of that super-powerful question: what’s your own contribution to this problem?

4. Keep going. Most coaches hit a plateau in the development of their businesses. This is usually for two parallel reasons. First, they have exhausted the goodwill of their previous organizations and have not devoted time to business development. Coaching is just like every other small business: it needs a sales pipeline and this does not happen by accident. The second reason is that the coach has begun to forget the lessons they learnt on their course and defaults to previous bad habits such as advice-giving or forgetting that coaching deals with emotion as well as rationality.

5. Find a supervisor. This may seem like a luxury, especially if you are not yet at the point where you are earning decent money from your coaching. But supervision is not a luxury. It is an essential extension of your training and an investment in your continuing growth as a coach. Take some recordings to your supervisor. Ask them to explore with you which clients you are finding it tricky to work with and look the reasons in the eye.

6. Ask your clients for feedback. By this I mean really ask. Don’t say ‘Was that all right?’ This is a closed question which implies that you don’t want to hear about anything that was not all right. Ask instead, ‘How has this session been for you?’ Then when you hear a politely non-committal reply, press for specifics. ’What worked well for you? What didn’t work so well?’ As soon as the client has left, write down their comments and add them to a reflective journal – one of the best ways of continuing to develop as a coach.

7. Read, read, read, do more courses, meet new people.  Go beyond coaching books and conferences, so many of which are recycling the same old material and where the speakers have been saying much the same thing to each other for many years. Read some therapy books, or dip into the massive field of systems thinking, leadership and organization behaviour. Here are three books which I think all coaches could read, enjoy and profit from:

Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux

Getting More by Stuart Diamond

The Leader on the Couch by Manfred Kets de Vries.