8) How important is certification as a coach?

01/01/2011 00:00

    “Significantly, coaches were evenly split on the importance of certification. Although a number of respondents said that the field is filled with charlatans, many of them lack confidence that certification on its own is reliable."


    The statement above was made by P. Anne Scoular, Managing Director of Meyler Campbell (which also offers coaching certificates) and instructor of coaching at London Business School, as quoted in the Harvard Business Review Research Report, “What Can Coaches Do for You?” by Diane Coutu and Carol Kauffman, Jan. 2009. P. Anne Scoular observed that that the plethora of certificates exacerbated the problem. Over 50 firms offered certificates in England alone, many of them with stages of "increasing prestige." This "excess of choice" undermined credibility.

    Over and above the English contenders, as of 2010 there were at least another 150 firms offering Coach Training Programs of one kind or another. Examples include:


1) The International Coaching Federation (ICF) has awarded (2010) 5,800 persons in 65 different countries one of its three levels of certificates: ACC, PCC and MCC. Roughly thirty firms offer ICF Coach Training Programs.

2) The Worldwide Association of Business Coaches (WABC, founded 2002) also offers three levels of certificates: CBC, CMBC and ChBC.

3) The European Individual Accreditation (EIA), another UK organization, offers four levels: Foundation, Practitioner, Senior Practitioner and Master Practitioner.

4) In the German speaking region the Deutsche Verband für Coaching & Training (dvct) has (2010) 730 members, of whom 435 are "dctv certified."


All of these organizations have many outstanding coaches. However until a coaching certificate surfaces with serious entry1 and exit (formal examination) requirements, any such certificates are to be viewed with saltshaker in hand.

    An ironic review of a new attempt (2010) out of the UK for  a more demanding certificate, the SWIFT Executive Coach Certificate, or SWIFT ECC is presented on its subpage. Although the SWIFT certified Bridges coaches are among the very first to be awarded this distinction on the continent, the firm is not entirely convinced of the merits. However by all means read the review and draw your own conclusions.

    One really needs to look at the CV and the track record of the coach. Equivalent certificates in the much larger field of management consultancy have not gained general credibility, or a foothold in the top tier firms of that industry either. Therefore we do not expect an "industry standard" certificate to surface for executive coaching any time soon.

    In general, the credibility of certification is a function of the entry and exit requirements. At the top of the certification pyramid in the U.S. are those for commercial airline pilots and for many of the professions, such as for law, accounting, or engineering (entry- university degree, exit, stiff -- usually national -- examination). Particularly demanding is the process for becoming a "board certified" physician. The entry requirement is to be an experienced physician. The exit requirement is an examination conducted by other physicians.

    As an example, a friend of the author´s is a board certified ER (emergency room) physician. Three physicians journeyed together from their hospital to the written and oral examinations. All three had attended top of the line medical schools. Each had a decade of experience. All had prepared themselves. Only one, the friend, passed. Other demanding certifications are 

    In the middle of the "certificates pyramid" are those where the entry and exit requirements are less demanding. Years of academic study are not required, with experience substituting for that. The examinations are less strict than for the disciplines mentioned in the paragraph above. U.S. examples include the certification for project managers offered by the Project Management Institute (PMI) and for real estate appraisers by MAI. (Project management and real estate appraisal are subjects taught at universities as well.) Both the PMI and MAI certificates are well respected.

    At the bottom of the "certificates pyramid" are those where the entry is open and there is no exit requirement, i.e. no examination at all. One pays a fee and attends the certification program. These programs range from a seminar of a few days to regular courses held over a period of six to ten weeks. At the end everybody proudly goes home with his newly minted certificate.

    In management consulting there are some certification programs where the entry requirements are serious (significant, verifiable business and consulting experience), however the examinations, if any, are not.2 Therefore there is no requirement for partners at McKinsey & Company, or similar firms such as Bain, BCG, Roland Berger, etc., to become "certified" as consultants. The consultants´ and partners´ certifications are their academic degrees and professional experience.  Those recognized by their peers as exceptional are anointed as partners in the firm. (At McKinsey, for instance, about one out of eleven new hires eventually makes it to senior partner -- as hard as becoming a general!)

    Furthermore these consultancies do not offer "certification" programs, as many coaching firms (but not Bridges) do. There are, incidentally, surprisingly few management consulting courses offered at the leading business schools, even though in some years a good 20% of the graduating classes enter the profession. Even Arthur D. Little´s Management Education Institute, renamed the Hult International Business School in 2003, does not list courses in management consultancy in its MBA program (as of 2009).

    To avoid offending anyone, let us re-phrase "bottom of the certificates pyramid" to the politically correct "base of the pyramid." This broad, imposing base even includes certificates from world-class universities! The leading business schools all offer continuing education for executives, a lucrative business, especially for the market leader, Harvard. These expensive seminars, open to the general business public, are taught by eminent faculty and well worth the price. However every now and again someone attends for the specific purpose of adding "Harvard" and the attractively printed attendance certificate to his CV.

    Other examples of the broad and imposing base of the pyramid are many of the certificates (as opposed to real university degrees) for teaching English as a foreign language. A specific example is CELTA, the Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults awarded by Cambridge ESOL, associated with the University of Cambridge. As of 2010 CELTA is offered at 286 centers in 54 countries with about 10,000 people a year receiving it, not a bad little business. It is aimed at people with little or no teaching experience. It entails submitting four written papers, which are graded, and six hours of teaching practice but no final examination.

    A Russian student who was badly failing a business course taught by the author was asked how on earth he had managed to get admitted to an undergraduate program conducted in English with so little command of the language. He explained how he had beaten the system. Friends had written the application for him. Advised it was incomplete because of no validation of his command of English, he had faxed his CELTA to the school. Obviously someone certified as an English teacher by the University of Cambridge must be fluent!

    He had taken the seminar in London and his fellow students had helped him write the short papers. The instructors had rolled their eyes at his broken English during his six hours of practical teaching. However he had paid the fee and attended faithfully, so with no final exam, that was that. Some English language schools feature their instructors as having this certificate because of the power of the University of Cambridge "seal of competence." Certainly all kinds of outstanding teachers have it; nonetheless it is to be taken with a grain of salt.

    The broad base of the pyramid includes a multitude of coaching certificates, more than 50 from the UK alone, as noted in the first paragraph. Caveat emptor.

1 To be fair, the College of Executive Coaching (www.executivecoachcollege) offers a distance-learning program aimed at professionals who have graduate degrees, or who are at least enrolled in a graduate program.



2 An example would be the examinations of the Institute of Management Consultants. These consist of two 45 minute open book (!) multiple choice tests, 20 questions each on ethics and on competency, followed by a two and one quarter hour oral exam. The competency sections can be waived if one has sufficient experience. In 2010 the procedure cost $350 and the results were valid for three years.


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