How to become a coach or consultant
So you want to become a coach or consultant? Before you start, you need to build solid credentials that show you have in-depth knowledge of the specific subject matter you will focus on (in addition to solid coaching skills).
Coaching (including independent consulting) is an unregulated industry which means anyone can call herself a coach and start practicing. However, you can’t help anyone if you don’t know what you are doing and it will be hard to sign up clients without any credibility.
For that reason I strongly suggest having a background or training in the specific coaching area you are interested in. You should also learn (and practice) the fundamentals of coaching so you have a repertoire of techniques to pull from.
Does this automatically mean that you should become a “certified” life coach. Not necessarily because, again, certification is a voluntary process. And, most certification programs teach you the act of coaching but don’t build subject matter expertise in a particular area.
For example, when looking for a health coach wouldn’t you rather work with someone who has built up credibility within the field of health, fitness and wellness than someone with just a generic coaching certification?
What you need are credentials that show you have in-depth knowledge of the specific subject matter you will focus in addition to solid coaching skills. This will show your clients that you are fully qualified to help them.
There are many different ways of getting both general coaching and subject matter experience. Read along to learn more about the preparation process and further explore the various options you have at your disposal.
Assess your background and interests
Determine your coaching focus area
Explore available training avenues
Decide if you want or need certification
Choose an ICF-accredited program
Explore alternative coach training paths
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ASSESS YOUR BACKGROUND AND INTERESTS
Before embarking on a training regimen, it pays to have some idea of the type of coach you want to be.
I advise against just calling yourself a general life coach as it's too vague. Most people seek coaches to help them solve very specific problems (business, career, health, relationships, etc.) and will want to know you are knowledgeable about this area.
Start by thinking about your background and whether there are any themes that stand out. Using myself as an example, I am very specific about who I want to work with: creative entrepreneurs who want to build thriving businesses and brands.
Perhaps you used to be a competitive athlete and can heavily draw from your experience as a fitness coach. Or maybe you worked for several years in a corporate environment and can draw from that experience as a business coach.
Regardless of how much experience you have, you should also assess your personal interests for direction. For instance, I have a strong business background (including an MBA) but I’m also a creative (writer, singer, aesthete). This is why I’m so passionate about helping creatives with their businesses.
The interests and affinities you naturally gravitate to reveal a lot about what type of topics make you happy — and what you might be good at.
For instance, if you spend tons of time reading wellness blogs and incorporating new health trends into your lifestyle, perhaps this is a topic worth pursuing as a coach.
DETERMINE YOUR COACHING FOCUS AREA
Once you compile a short list of potential topics, do a bit of market research to verify how lucrative these areas are.
You ideally want to focus on an area that has a high demand for coaches but is also not so competitive that it's hard to establish a foothold.
Obviously business and entrepreneurship, money and finances, and health and wellness coaching are popular areas. Though it will be tougher to stand out amongst your peers in these fields.
On the other hand there are a lot of people who seek assistance with their relationships, finding happiness, and even their spirituality. These may not be the most popular topics but they are lucrative enough to build a business on — and give you a chance to stand out.
EXPLORE AVAILABLE TRAINING AVENUES
Now that you’ve decided on your topic you should seek to build your knowledge in that area if you don't already have experience and expertise.
You may decide to go all out and pursue a higher degree program, but it's also enough to take online courses, attend seminars, read reputable books, and talk to people in the field you are interested in.
From your research you will likely already have a sense of what you need to do to be deemed as a reliable expert. So take the time to develop those topical skills so lack of knowledge won't be a barrier to your success.
DECIDE IF YOU WANT OR NEED CERTIFICATION
Certification is a great avenue to explore but you should recognize the pros and cons as it is an expensive and time intensive process and may not be immediately necessary depending on your focus area and experience.
Because the industry isn't regulated being certified as a coach gives you an instant seal of trust that makes it easier for clients to say yes to working with you.It's also a much needed attempt by fellow coaching professionals to eliminate shady practices in the industry.
If you don't have a lot of experience or expertise, particularly in your area of focus, it's well worth considering getting certified. Do this in addition to building up practical knowledge on your topic.
However, if you have a lot of experience and expertise in your subject matter you may not need certification — at least not right away. For instance, an individual who has already invested in an MBA and has several years of corporate experience has much to offer as a business coach.
They already have strong credentials and may not necessarily need to invest several thousand more dollars into a coaching certification program to jumpstart their practice.
There are strong opinions with great arguments on both sides of this. My stance — based on experience — is to prioritize subject matter training first then focus on building your coaching skills.
For example, if you want to be a nutrition coach I think it's better to build skills as a nutritionist before building skills as a coach. Clients will first want to know that you are well-versed in solving their problems. Whether you are certified might come up but, depending on your topic, it'll likely be an afterthought.
CHOOSE AN ICF-ACCREDITED CERTIFICATION PROGRAM
If you do decide that certification is the best avenue for you then you should choose a program that's accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF).
ICF is a voluntary association of coaches working hard to elevate the coaching industry as a whole and provide some level of accountability to clients. Going through ICF to find your coaching program is the best way to know it is legitimate.
The ICF offers two types of credential paths and holds accredited programs accountable for taking you through a rigorous curriculum to properly prepare you for the trade.
EXPLORE ALTERNATIVE WAYS TO BUILD YOUR COACHING SKILLS
It may very well be the case some day that certification or a degree program will be required to practice as a coach.
As a result, I think becoming certified or going though a rigorous academic program that integrates coaching (ideally that culminates in a masters-level degree or higher) should be in every coaches short or medium term career plan.
However, as it stands now certification isn't necessary to start and grow a thriving coaching business, especially if you have a wealth of experience and expertise in your chosen topic.
That said, you shouldn't practice as a coach with zero coaching skills. It isn't fair to your clients and seems counterintuitive: if you really want to be a coach then why not learn how to coach?
There are a comprehensive set of techniques and tricks of the trade that every coach should add to his or her repertoire.If you decide to postpone the certification or higher education path, you should still explore options for self-directed learning and practice.
You can start by accessing my list of curated books on the craft of coaching.