Why the professional coaching associations matter more than we realise.

Why the professional coaching associations matter more than we realise. cover

As a coach, do you find yourself wondering if and why you need to be involved with professional associations like the ICF – why you spend money each year on membership and why you have to bother with accreditation?

Or maybe you don’t bother. Perhaps you have rejected them wholesale as a waste of time and money.

I get it. For some years, I felt the same.

Nobody ever asked me if I were credentialed by the ICF nor even where I trained. My attitude was that I ploughed my own field as a coach and that professional associations wouldn’t and didn’t benefit me. I didn’t need some distant organisation calling the shots and taking a fee to do so.

Yet looking back, it’s clear to me that I completely misunderstood the relevance of the professional bodies and my relationship to them.

I was looking at it as a direct transactional relationship which didn’t seem to offer anything useful. Like many coaches, I paid my fees and wondered what I got in return.

I was missing the fact that they had fundamentally shaped the landscape I was part of. There I was enjoying an easy stroll across a manicured lawn but I wasn’t seeing that there was a gardener working hard to create it.

In more recent years, I’ve noticed this critical attitude amongst many coaches who begrudgingly pay their annual membership for the ICF, or similar body, and dutifully renew their credentials all whilst complaining (sometimes quite vocally) that it’s a waste of time, a waste of money and even that it’s all just essentially a pyramid scheme they are forced to be part of.

Again, I get it. If you look at a professional body as a direct transactional relationship, you’d have to say it’s pretty one-sided. It’s not easy to point to a direct benefit of membership or accreditation that can be equated to the fee one pays. It’s not like when you pay for an apple – a direct, tangible exchange of value.

However, it’s this attitude to the relationship that I hope to challenge in this short article.

If you’re dubious about the benefits of the ICF or similar associations, I would love for you, at the very least, to be open to the possibility that there’s another, more important, way to think about this. Even better, my ideal outcome would be that, like me, you have the epiphany that you’re looking at it in the wrong way and that what we’re involved in is a much longer term movement that is not even slightly about transactional benefits.

To frame this clearly from the start, I would compare membership of a professional association more to a political party or a charity than to a transactional purchase.

You don’t join a political party (if you do at all) to gain specific benefits. You don’t join for the occasional get together or for the monthly newsletter. You join because you want to support the work your preferred party is doing, the values they stand for and the change they want to bring about.

Likewise, when you donate to a charity, you don’t do it for the plastic pen they send you and the occasional update. You do it to make a specific difference through an organisation that can create more impact than you can individually.

I believe the same is true for the professional coaching associations and the benefits we, as coaches, receive are infinitely greater than any given transactional payoff we might hope for.

To understand this, let me take you back a few years.

When I first became a coach in the early 2000s, one of the most frequent questions asked by clients, and even by coaches themselves, was:

”Is coaching just a fad?”

I even wrote a blog post about this many years ago which has long since turned to dust on a non-existent website.

This was a question of real concern because coaching was still new.

The ICF had been set up in the 1990s and we were all feeling our way through the emerging field. There was little literature and little consensus of what coaching even was. It’s hard to imagine this now but the idea of coaching as a non-directive, client-led conversation was not yet clearly established. It was finding a voice, most obviously because of the writings of people like Timothy Gallwey and Sir John Whitmore, but there was no obvious reason this approach should have stuck. There were still plenty of louder voices from the personal development world that were more, let’s say, guru-led and answer-centric.

When I launched my coaching school in 2008, this question still echoed around almost every room I would speak in.

“Nick, is coaching just a fad?”

I well-remember an episode of Dragon’s Den in which a coach pitching for investment for a coaching organisation was scorned by one of the dragons (Duncan Bannantyne, I think!) for daring to think that this person could call themselves a coach when they weren’t a hyper-successful millionaire: “How can you think about coaching in a business like mine when you haven’t achieved what I’ve achieved?” was the basic sentiment.

This echoed a very common misunderstanding of coaching and I spent most of my time explaining what coaching was and what coaching wasn’t.

To sum up this period, coaching was ill-defined, training was generally poor and simplistic, few companies used it, and your average person had no idea what it was.

To sum up this period, coaching was ill-defined, training was generally poor and simplistic, few companies used it, and your average person had no idea what it was.

Fast forward to today and we are in a completely different landscape.

Coaching has become an accepted norm within most organisations and even where it doesn’t happen that tends to be more for budgetary reasons than rejection, scorn or ignorance.

Huge coaching organisations like Better Up and CoachHub are testament to this and whilst there may be a few die-hard cynics (and I bet Duncan Bannatyne might still be one!), the vast majority of executives now recognise the importance and utility of coaching both for themselves and their workforce.

Even life coaching – so long the slightly cringe-inducing member of the coaching family – has gained credibility and more properly sits alongside its cousins of counselling and psychotherapy as a way of navigating the complexity of life.

I very rarely now need to explain what coaching is and isn’t (other than at a more technical, nuanced level of differentiation) as many people have had coaches and the basic principles of coaching have somehow become more generally understood through their increased use in organisations.

The core competencies of coaching – though open to adaptation and individual interpretation – are now soundly understood and defined such that training organisations like Animas have robust standards of skills to deliver and meet.

In summary of where we are now: coaching is better understood, more effectively trained, almost universally adopted within organisations and widely accepted as a form of personal development.

…coaching is better understood, more effectively trained, almost universally adopted within organisations and widely accepted as a form of personal development.

My contention is that none of this would have happened without the professional coaching bodies.

They have slowly built a profession that we are all part of and all benefit from in ways that are not direct yet, to my mind, are utterly undeniable.

I often hear coaches say, “my clients don’t ask to see my certificate” and no doubt that’s true. I also think it’s a red herring that focuses on the individual experience of the coach and client and misses the wider context of acceptance, credibility and assumed competence that a profession offers an individual who works within it (either actually or by assumption).

I have no doubt that people also don’t ask to see a counsellor’s BACP membership yet the very existence of the BACP in that field has created the conditions for counselling and psychotherapy to be taken as serious professions. Almost without fail, people who ask me why coaching is not regulated assume that psychotherapy and counselling are. They aren’t! But the steady, consistent and passionate application of quality assurance, ethics, training and self-regulation have led to a context in which (for good or bad) one can assume someone who calls themselves a counsellor is part of this system.

Coaching is on the same path. I don’t see legal regulation coming but I do see an increasing focus on self-regulation. I think the fact that it doesn’t happen with a bang but rather as a multi-year slow build is what we miss when we don’t value the work of the ICF and similar bodies.

In 1999, the membership of the ICF was around 2,000 coaches. By 2021, this had reached 40,000. Such an increase in the number of coaches identifying with a professional body, I believe, cannot do anything other than bring greater credibility and reassurance to the coaching field. The fact, too, that over 15,000 of those 40,000 are PCC or MCC coaches is a testament to the growing maturity and experience of the coaching field.

And that’s just the ICF. Add in the EMCC, Association for Coaching, APECS, ACTO and other bodies and you have a formidable force for change. The professional associations have turned what was simply a conversational approach to change into a sustainable and sustaining profession.

The professional associations have turned what was simply a conversational approach to personal change into a sustainable and sustaining profession.

But it was not inevitable.

We cannot, and should not, assume that coaching was always going to end up here. To do so is to indulge in a severe case of survivor bias! It might easily have been the fad some feared it to be in much the same way some high-profile personal change approaches have fallen from grace after a few heady years in the spotlight.

The success of coaching as a profession has taken years of hard work, tenacity, commitment and care on the part of the professional bodies to nurture and grow it and to provide standards, codes of conduct, competencies, robust training and more.

This is what we are paying for and supporting as members of the professional bodies.

We are not paying for a transaction or a direct exchange of value. We are supporting the ongoing work to build, nurture and improve the profession that sustains us in return.

This is something we can easily take for granted. But when we look for a return on our membership fee, we fail to notice that the very fact we pay a membership fee for our profession is a result of the context these associations have created that allow so many of us to be coaches.

When we look for a return on our membership fee, we fail to notice that the very fact we pay a membership fee for our profession is a result of the context these associations have created that allow so many of us to be coaches.

We cannot reap the benefits of an environment in which coaching is so accepted and then still complain about the very organisations that have been a key part in making this happen.

Of course, I am not putting the success solely at the doors of the professional associations. Many individuals and organisations have contributed to the success of coaching including the authors and academics who have contributed to the robustness of theory and practice and, of course, the coaches themselves whose work with individuals and organisations have ensured the gradual ascent of coaching. All are immeasurably important.

But I’m not convinced these authors and coaches would have been so prolific were it not for the professional associations bringing credibility and coherence to the coaching landscape.

I suspect that without the cohering element of the professional bodies, coaches would simply have fragmented into effective individuals rather than being part of a recognised and understood approach to change that organisations could engage with in a more general sense.

Certainly there would have been coaches who succeeded regardless, due to their charisma, self-promotion, business-nous, effectiveness and so on. However, I believe the coaching associations have ensured that clients in general, and organisations in particular, are first and foremost buying into the category and concept of coaching and then finding the right coach within that. You don’t have to be a Tony Robbins to succeed – you are now a part of a profession in which you represent certain norms and expectations.

None of this means the professional associations are perfect and we should continue to challenge them even as we support them. I have my own specific criticisms of them – particularly the somewhat imperial, proprietorial approach to the language around coaching that rides roughshod over the many other kinds of non-humanistic coaching that exist. Others might challenge them on levels of diversity, or the values that sit within a given body, the specific competency framework or the taken-for-granted cultural assumptions about coaching.

These are all important conversations that should, and already do, take place but they are debates that can be had without undermining the essential importance of professional bodies.

So where am I going with all this?

Well, I said at the start that I wanted to challenge the transactional notion around being a part of a professional body. I would love to see coaches understand and embrace the true importance of the professional associations.

Indeed, the profession of coaching has become an increasingly important concept to me over the years.

Where once I saw myself as a lone wolf, I now recognise both Animas and myself as part of a much wider movement around the power of dialogue, personal change, an epistemological position of unknowing and emergence, of humanistic values, of systemic connectedness and more. I certainly didn’t invent these things that’s for sure yet I benefit from their existence as do all coaches.

The more we recognise that we are part of a largely coherent body of principles and practices that are being nursed, nurtured and developed by the professional bodies, the more we can see that we are part of something much bigger than a direct transactional relationship with a provider.

The fees we pay are not for us, they are for supporting and growing the profession, which in turn supports our ability to survive, thrive and prosper as coaches in the widest possible sense.

The fees we pay are not for us, they are for the profession, which in turn supports our ability to survive, thrive and prosper as a coach in the widest possible sense.

I think it is impossible to overestimate the impact of the professional bodies and, I would say, the ICF in particular. Without them, as I shared above, I do believe coaching would have fragmented and become the fad it was at risk of being.

That’s why I have been thrilled to see the exciting expansion of quality coming from the ICF over the last year in particular. Not because it means I get some new benefit but because it adds to the power of their voice in advocating for, promoting and giving credibility to coaching.

Their recent changes to accreditation, for instance, created a huge workload for Animas and led to us rebuilding much of our course and how it worked. Yet I was delighted by it as I could see how it was going to bring a whole new level of quality and robustness to the coach training world which, in turn, will lead to ever better coaches and a greater reputation for the profession.

Whether we realise it or not, the coaching profession’s growing reputation is helping coaches do better than ever. I think we all need to care about the profession.

Some years ago, I had my own fear that coaching was just a fad and that the only coaches who would really make it were those with a unique combination of entrepreneurialism, absolute determination and, of course, the ability to deliver good coaching. But as the coaching profession has grown, I have become ever more confident that we are seeing the emergence of a true profession in which there are (and will be more) structures and organisations that enable coaches to do what they love – to coach.

By giving a coherent voice to a profession, coaching is being normalised so that it is now the quality of the coaching and not the effectiveness of a coach’s marketing that leads to success.

I don’t believe any of this would have been possible without the professional bodies and I think recognising that this is why they truly matter will enable us to stop looking for an immediate return and instead start thinking about how we contribute and support the wider profession.

Nick is the founder and CEO of Animas Centre for Coaching and the International Centre for Coaching Supervision. Nick is an existentially oriented coach and supervisor with a passion for the ideas, principles and philosophy that sits behind coaching.

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