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How to be a successful coach


There’s more to coaching than turning up, spending a couple of hours with an individual and getting paid for it. Alan Ward outlines the factors that can help you succeed.

My Collins dictionary defines successful as 1. having succeeded in one’s endeavours, 2. marked by a favourable outcome, and 3. having obtained fame, wealth, etc. Whatever your own personal definition, there are some elements of being a coach that are critical if you are to achieve one, two or all three of the above. Successful coaches pay close attention to their purpose, profile and positioning.

1. Understand your coaching motivations

Successful coaches coach for the right reasons. You must be very self-aware about your purpose for wanting to pursue coaching as a vocation.

If you’re starting out, it’s important to be clear what it is about coaching that attracts you. Is it simply a way to escape corporate life, a nine-to-five job or over-bearing boss? Are your drivers away from something you want less in your life? The desire to ‘move away’ from things you don’t want can be a powerful trigger that spurs you into action.

I firmly believe you’ll be more successful as a coach if you have a positive desire to ‘move towards’ coaching. What is it about coaching that really embodies something you want more of in your life? Be very careful of the false promises out there for making easy cash – the gold-rush days are over. If your main driver is to earn £100,000+ and holiday in the Bahamas, then my challenge would be to ask if there are other ways you could achieve these.

If you’re an established coach, it’s helpful to keep in mind why you are doing what you’re doing and to remind yourself of your initial motivations. Do you still have the same drive for coaching? What does success mean for you now? What are you working towards? Where do you see yourself five and ten years from now?

2. Build your credibility

"A lack of knowledge or specific experience doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to challenge as a coach but it may mean that you get a less authentic response to your challenge."

Alan Ward

Clients want to know that you are credible in the role of coach. Successful coaches are able to offer greater degrees of support and challenge when coming from a position of knowledge and confidence.

What do you know about the sector, industry, function, circumstances they are facing? What evidence do you have and how can you demonstrate that you can empathise with their position? A lack of knowledge or specific experience doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to challenge as a coach but it may mean that you get a less authentic response to your challenge. The level of rapport from the client’s perception very often increases if they believe you have credibility in their area.

3. Get qualified

Successful coaches have a continuing hunger for self-development and an expanding knowledge base. This is now becoming much more important in the marketplace, as purchasers of coaching are looking for some sort of credentials that say not only has this person served time in this area but they have also developed their own coaching expertise. Qualifications provide evidence to others that you are serious about coaching and have attained an academic level of competence.

A post-graduate qualification or equivalent should be the benchmark for all professional coaches. I concede that just because you have passed a certain exam doesn’t make you a fantastic coach but if you haven’t passed the exam, it signals to purchasers that you have not taken the trouble to educate yourself to a certain standard. In most other professions, unqualified practitioners are viewed with suspicion by prospective clients. Although experience and expertise gained over many years may have been sufficient in the past, I believe the majority of buyers will demand qualifications going forward. This would be the case if you were looking to advance in accountancy, dentistry, motor mechanics or tree surgery: why not in coaching?

4. Find your niche

Successful coaches realise that they need to differentiate themselves. Having become saturated, the market for coaching is now evolving from the ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Every coach can find a niche, a specialism where they can set themselves aside from the competition. It could be industry-based, it could be function-based or situational. Develop a list of areas where you have been most successful and market yourself in those areas.

For more on finding a niche market for your coaching, see Hannah McNamara’s article.

5. Choose a business model that suits you

It’s possible to be successful as a coach, whether you’re an associate, a partner or an independent sole trader. The point is that you have to find which one is right for you. The choice depends on your attitude to risk and need for income.

"Successful coaches pay close attention to their purpose, profile and positioning."

The 'easiest' route to coaching is to obtain work as an associate. Someone else does the marketing and contracting for you. You’ll be paid for your time but generally won’t get a share of the profits. This is the most popular area of the marketplace for new coaches. However, if you’re just one of a list of associates and the top three get all the work, you may sit around waiting for a while, especially in the current environment.

Joining a partnership means you share responsibility, accountability, marketing and administration. You also share the profits when business is good. Your partners help to shoulder the burden of looking for new clients, so new business can come in even when you’re away on holiday. It is more demanding in that you’re accountable to your partners and you have to be proactive in bringing in business.

Being self-employed is the most risky route. Here, you reap what you sow. You have to actively plant the seeds and nurture them. All the business you win is yours but you have to go out and get it yourself. You also have to manage your own business: head of finance, head of marketing, head of strategy and head of operations. Successful coaches realise that running your own business can be as challenging as the actual delivery of coaching.

6. Be professional

In coaching, ‘how’ you do it is as important as ‘what’ you do. So provide a great service; manage the relationships with your clients and your sponsors; show integrity; be authentic; act ethically; get the right balance of challenge and support in your coaching; ask the right questions; network and market yourself effectively. Ask yourself, what would the best coach in the world do in these circumstances? – then act as if you are the best coach in the world.

I wish you success with your coaching endeavours, may they all be marked by favourable outcomes. If you bear in mind the above factors, you might even obtain ‘fame, wealth etc’.

Alan Ward is a director of Performance Consultants, the coaching and leadership development specialist which runs coach education programmes accredited by the European Mentoring and Coaching Council.

He also chairs TrainingZone’s Coaching Discussion Group, a network of coaches and managers who coach and train managers who employ specialists. The group is a forum for questions and debate on all aspects of coaching, including qualifications, supervision, marketing, coaching methods and building a coaching business

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