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Does coaching have an image problem?


Hannah McNamara looks at how coaching is perceived and what coaches can do to improve the general opinion of the industry.

Back in 2004 the CIPD's report 'Coaching and Buying Coaching Services' warned that coaching was in danger of being given a bad reputation by 'cowboy coaches' who were inexperienced and had little training. Six years on, has this changed?
Over the past few years, becoming a coach has been a very popular option for career changers. Some would argue it has led to new coaches 'flooding the market' and an industry driven more by providing coach training and business resources for coaches, rather than coaching itself. In some circles, becoming a coach is advertised as a 'business opportunity' or even a route to instant fame and fortune. Pity the people who are buyers of coaching; how on earth do you know what you're getting?
It's fair to say that coaching has a PR and image problem.
That in itself is a problem because many coaches do not have the business know-how to change how the profession is seen (and those who attempt to teach them are seen as 'cashing in' on vulnerable coaches).
As someone who has not only built a successful coaching business over the last six years, but has been there to help out some coaches along the way, the issue of the marketing of coaching is something I feel very passionately about.
Let's focus mainly on workplace coaching and see where this PR problem comes from. A large number of people providing coaching in the workplace are trained in life coaching or personal coaching. This causes issues straight away because the training often teaches you that 'you don't need to have experience in what the client is going through, just follow the process'. While it may be true that in some cases coaching is best kept 'clean', i.e. where the coach doesn't have a similar background and can be 'curious', prospective clients haven't attended the course that says you don't need experience and they expect their coach to have it. This equals instant lack of credibility and means coaches don't get hired.
"It still amazes me how many people go into coaching to 'leave the old me behind' and throw away all the knowledge, contacts and common sense when it's exactly that which will help them to make a living as a coach."
Coming from a senior-level sales and marketing background (agency, corporate and small business), when I retrained as a coach back in 2004, I found it relatively easy to get clients: it was a natural thing to write a business plan, a marketing plan and get stuck in. It also meant I could understand what was going on for my clients and could talk the language.
It was apparent right from when I attended my training that not everyone coming to coaching has either a business background or knows where to start, so alongside my own practice I helped other coaches get clear about what they were doing and had a book published on the subject, Niche Marketing For Coaches (Thorogood 2007). You could argue I was 'cashing in', but this was more about doing what I could to educate newly-qualified coaches and stop them either wasting money on things that weren't working or freezing 'rabbit-in-headlights' style.
Many of these coaches obviously did have a talent, but not the know-how to market themselves or even identify what that talent was! It still amazes me how many people go into coaching to 'leave the old me behind' and throw away all the knowledge, contacts and common sense when it's exactly that which will help them to make a living as a coach.
Often when I'm working with coaches, I find we have to undo all the 'you can be anything you want to be if you just mediate on it' wishful thinking and focus on what they're good at, what they're not, what needs to be done, break it down step-by-step and make it happen - ironically what coaches are taught to do. Incidentally, not knowing how to do something (in particular how to get clients) isn't a limiting belief, it's reality and no amount of putting fingers in ears or affirmations will change that.
My company has just completed some research called Has the Coaching Bubble Burst? and it's really interesting to see what's come out of it, with many people saying they would give themselves advice along the lines of 'treat it as a business', 'choose a niche', 'specialise', 'do more marketing' if they could go back and talk to themselves when they launched. I think most coaches know this, but they're stuck.
Coaches are told time and time again that 'all good coaches have a coach'. I agree up to a point: pure non-directive coaching is suited to certain personal development situations but certainly doesn't replace the need for all coaches to get down-to-earth solid business advice.
Every year countless people have a 'bright idea' for a business and no idea how to develop it or run a business. It doesn't stop them wading in and blowing stacks of cash and then winding it all up within a few years if they haven't sought out help and advice in time. People get so caught up in their enthusiasm that they don't always stop and do the necessary research to find out if there's a market for what they have in mind, if people want it and if they are prepared to pay for it.
For the coaches who do treat their practice as a business, there is plenty of work out there. Organisations are bringing in the services of external coaches who can demonstrate the value they bring and offer tangible benefits. Sadly, a proposal promising to help someone 'achieve their dreams', 'be all they can be' or 'feel better' is difficult to get signed off by the finance director.
As a coach you should be able to back up your claims. You also have to focus on results, talk in real world language and specialise. In order to change how coaching is seen, we have to change and become more business-like.
This feature was first published in Learning magazine, available at this year's World of Learning Conference and Exhibition
Hannah McNamara is the managing director of HRM Coaching Ltd which specialises in Executive Coaching. She is the author of the book 'Niche Marketing for Coaches' and founder of the helpful site

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