The 8 common delusions of coaches

Coaching is a young profession – if indeed it is a profession – see later.  I have been a coach for nearly 25 years and a coaching supervisor and trainer for 18, and have met, mixed with and trained many hundreds of coaches, often following their progress over a number of years. I notice that we coaches are peculiarly prone to certain common delusions.

Delusion 1. People know what coaching is

They don’t. Here is a typical scene. I am on holiday in Spain, alone, so it is essential to make nice conversation with the other folk there.

Person A: What do you do?

Me: I’m an executive coach

Person A (politely): What’s that?

Me: (attempting to explain)

Person A: But what do you coach people IN?

Me: (courteous reply but essentially give up at that point having seen blank expression on person A’s face)

Delusion 2. All coaching has a happy ending

It doesn’t. Much coaching ends in half-success, some ends in failure. A lot of clients fail to complete their coaching programmes. Some clients are rightly critical of the service they get. Doctors don’t expect all their patients to be cured or to love them, lawyers expect to lose cases as well as to win them. Why would coaching be different from any other profession where some failure and mediocrity is par for the course?

Delusion 3. Everyone can benefit from coaching

Not really. The client has to be ready to change, has to be able to take responsibility for their own behaviour and to be in a resilient enough frame of mind to do both. Depending on what is going on in the client’s life, coaching may or may not be able to help them and they may or may not feel that it is likely to be useful.

Delusion 4. Anyone can be a coach

No they can’t. You need high levels of self awareness, the self discipline to keep yourself out of the client’s way, tolerance for ambiguity, a high degree of insight into human psychology, curiosity, warmth, maturity and the ability to suspend judgement. These qualities are rare. And even when you do have them you can still, as I know all too well from my own experience, make what are frankly beginner mistakes. Coaching is a high level skill but when done well it looks deceptively simple.

Delusion 5. There is a big market for ‘life coaching’

No, there isn’t. If there is a market at all it is tiny. This myth is peddled by companies who offer suspiciously cheap ‘introductory’ courses, dangling hope to sometimes desperate people who have been made redundant that all you need to do to become a successful ‘life coach’ is to ‘like people’. The market for coaching is in organizations. To be an executive coach you need business nous, track record as a boss yourself and a deep understanding of organization behaviour. This is to add to all the other things you need, see above.

Delusion 6. Qualifications make you more employable

Well yes – to some extent. It depends on the quality of the training and whether or not you have individual accreditation rather than just getting through a batch process. Some so-called ‘credentialing’ is frankly sloppy. Employers may ask for qualifications but mostly this is as evidence that you have taken your own development seriously enough to invest in it. Employers  have a well-founded degree of scepticism about how far a qualification guarantees the quality of your work. It gets you over the doorstep, that’s all. And with individual clients I have yet to be asked by a single one whether I hold a qualification. They buy on word of mouth not on certificates.

Delusion 7. All professional coaches have frequent supervision

Actually they don’t. When supervision is provided as a continuing part of your training, ie is paid for already, coaches do get supervision. After that, if as a coach you have to pay for it yourself out of your coaching income, which may be very small, my guess is that you buy it very infrequently, if at all.

Delusion 8. Coaching is a profession

Not yet. We’re still many years away from fully professional status. We can’t screen people against a national standard reinforced by statute, reprove, punish or expel miscreants in any meaningful way. The word ‘coach’ is not protected in the way the word ‘nurse’ or ‘doctor’ is and probably never will be.