Does Professionalism Matter in Executive, Leadership, and Life Coaching?
Updated: Jun 24
Professionalism in Executive Coaching
Not one of my clients has ever asked me whether I am qualified to be their coach.
I find that interesting, don't you?
People assume that by giving myself a particular title, I represent myself fairly and with integrity. Some friends and associates did not understand why I was so eager to obtain the International Coaching Federation's (ICF) Professional Certified Coach (PCC) credential. What difference could it possibly make?
But the truth is, I felt different the day after I obtained the designation than the day before.
I have obtained many certifications in my professional life; some were required to practice Medicine (National Board of Medical Examiners' certification; Board Certification in Pediatrics and Pediatric Critical Care), and some were elective (certificate in biomedical ethics, Instructor in Pediatric Advanced Life Support, among others). They are all important to me but for different reasons, some of which I will discuss below.
Nonetheless, the reasons all revolve around my concept of professionalism.
The field of Medicine has evolved ways to assure the public that individuals who call themselves "doctors" and put the M.D. (or equivalent) degree after their name possess a certain level of knowledge and expertise to care for patients. Every state has a Board that oversees the licensure of physicians and other healthcare providers. To my knowledge, no state has an equivalent organization to supervise the work of coaches.
Anyone can call themselves a coach and make promises about how their work with clients will transform lives and produce extraordinary results without proving that they can do what they claim they can do.
When I graduated from Medical School 44 years ago, I knew I belonged to a "profession." Even though, in those days, it was anticipated that we would absorb the qualities of professional behavior from the air around us, it was evident to me that I would always act in ways that were consistent with what I felt in my heart and gut to be the best attributes of a physician.
So, What Is Professionalism?
Professionalism is a set of qualities and behaviors that reflect an individual's commitment to excellence, ethical conduct, and overall professional development. It is a way of conducting oneself that shows respect, credibility, and dedication to the highest standards of excellence.
It means not doing things one isn't trained to do. Professionalism involves displaying an attitude of respect, integrity, and responsibility. This includes using appropriate language, demonstrating adequate knowledge, and taking responsibility for all actions.
Finally, professionalism involves treating colleagues and clients respectfully, fairly, and courteously.
Central to the notion of professionalism is that the client or patient can know that the health care practitioner or the coach is competent. How does the public know that? That's where credentialing and certification come in.
Professionalism in Medicine
When I teach medical students, or when I used to teach pediatric residents and pediatric critical care fellows, my ability to know if the learner was developing adequate knowledge and capabilities was based on knowing which competencies were required for the learner to take care of a particular type of patient with a specific illness, or in need of a certain procedure.
These items are known as competencies.
Every field of medical practice has its list of competencies believed to be essential to that field.
I must teach students and other trainees from a curriculum designed to produce knowledge of these competencies. And the learner must then demonstrate an adequate level of knowledge through both written and, in many cases, practical exams. Many of the exams in Medicine depend upon passing the prior exam level. If one doesn't pass, one will not be able to practice Medicine at all (if one doesn't pass the three National Board of Medical Examiners exams) or practice in a particular field (if one cannot pass the exam in your specialty and/or subspecialty).
To maintain board certification, one must demonstrate continued competence by re-testing every so often. The system is complex, and I have described it rather superficially.
The point is that the process is not easy, and it never ends.
The result, in Medicine, is that if a physician or other healthcare professional has current credentials in their field of practice, you have reason to believe that they are at least minimally competent to provide care in that area.
Professionalism in Coaching
The most significant difference between professionalism in coaching and professionalism in Medicine is that there is no specific body overseeing the coach's training or credentialing/certification. All aspects of credentialing in coaching are entirely voluntary.
Therefore, it is up to the potential client to investigate the training, experience, and credentials of any executive, leadership, or life coach they are considering working with.
Organizations like the International Coaching Federation (ICF) have published ethical guidelines that members are expected to adhere to. They have competencies and defined levels of expertise and experience to help members of the public understand what to expect when they engage an ICF member coach for whatever reason.
I find the ICF code of ethics to be specific and far-reaching. It is pertinent to all of a coach's interactions with members of the public, and it includes how a coach can or cannot represent themselves and how they handle their business.
The ICF has determined three different levels of expertise in how they provide credentials to member coaches. The first level, "Associate Certified Coach" (ACC), indicates that the coach has had over 65 hours of training and has coached others for at least 100 "paid" hours. The coach has also passed a secure knowledge exam.
Taking this exam was at least as stressful to me as taking a Board Certification Exam in my previous work life. Qualified Assessors have to review a recorded coaching session looking for evidence that the applicant coach meets the specified competencies.
The next level is the "Professional Certified Coach" (PCC) designation, which requires at least 500 hours of paid coaching, 125 hours of training, passing the secure knowledge exam, and reviewing and passing a coaching session that meets a higher standard of competencies.
And the highest level of coach credential is the Master Certified Coach (MCC), which requires all the same stuff in addition to over 2500 hours of coaching and demonstration of an even higher level of competence on review of a recording.
The process is similar in many ways to credentialing physicians, other healthcare providers, and other practitioners whose work can cause harm if not practiced in a trustworthy and safe manner.
This is why, from the very beginning of my coaching journey, I joined the ICF, enrolled in an ICF-accredited coaching program (Healthcare Coaching Institute (HCI)), took the secure exam, submitted recordings (with permission from my clients) of client sessions, and dutifully kept track of all my paid coaching hours.
None of this was necessary.
I could have called myself a coach at any time. But it would not have "felt" right for me, and it would not have been the right thing to do.
Am I denigrating folks who choose another path to becoming an executive, leadership, or life coach? Not necessarily. However, I have seen coaches who use what I would consider unethical practices in their attempts to attract clients ("Work with me for one 90-minute session, and you will be able to earn a million dollars a year") and people who call themselves a coach when they are providing consultations or mentoring (nothing wrong with those but they are not the same as coaching).
If an ICF coach were to do that, a client could bring a complaint to the ICF's Independent Review Board, and the coach would be asked to justify their statements or would potentially lose the ability to call themselves an ICF-Coach.
Am I saying that one should only work with a credentialed coach?
But I am urging anyone looking to hire a coach for themselves or their business to investigate whether that coach is qualified to provide the kind of coaching you are looking for or think you need. You might ask colleagues if they can recommend someone. You might ask any coach you consider hiring about their training and credentials.
I know that not every executive, leadership, or life coach agrees with me.
But, as I hope you can tell, I feel passionate about this topic. I would love to hear your thoughts, questions, and comments.
Thanks for reading. I value your time and am honored you chose to spend the last few minutes reading this post. I hope it provided value for you. If so, I would appreciate it if you would share it with someone who might also find it of value.
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