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Master or Muppet? 3 Questions to Determine Whether a Coach Is Reputable. Professional coaching has become so commercialized, it's starting to resemble a puppy mill -- and disabling businesses in the process.

By Mary Rezek

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


Becoming a "certified coach" these days is easy: Read a book, attend a weekend workshop and get a certificate by mail. Ta da! You are now a certified coach.

According to the International Coach Federation's 2016 ICF Global Coaching study, there are 53,300 professional coaches worldwide, and an estimated 33 percent are operating in North America.

Related: Why Executive Coaching Is a Critical Part of the CEO Journey

The commercialization of professional coaching, in fact, has become so rampant it's starting to resemble a puppy mill. And that's a huge, huge problem, because of the excessive number of "certified" muppets out there who lack the needed depth and breadth of experience.

That alone is causing clients harm and disabling businesses. Evidence? Here are two theoretical scenarios you might come across:

Someone attends a two-day workshop, receives her coaching certificate and then has business cards made stating that she is an "executive coach" -- without any practice hours or supervision logged.

Someone received feedback that he was excellent at his functional role, so he decided to try coaching as a way to become an entrepreneur.

If I had a dollar for the number of times I've heard people say, "I really want to 'help' people," I'd be a millionaire. Harm is done when coaches think they're going to "help" people. 'Helping' implies a self-directed focus: The "coach" is merely fulfilling his or her personal need to feel good about himself/herself rather than focus on responding to the client's needs.

Real professional coaching, however, is singularly focused on enabling, not "helping."

Vetting your coach

Stimulating, nudging, agitating and providing insight and awareness, to take a person to his or her learning edge, is the core of coaching excellence. As an executive coach, I'm an enabler and a truth-teller, not a helper.

The ICF has established criteria involving discipline, rigor and science to qualify coaches. However, the industry overall still resembles the Wild West: That ICF study referred to found that nearly a third of coach practitioners studied hadn't received even 125 hours' worth of training. This was analogous to buying a fancy product labeled "organic" and then finding out that it has artificial ingredients.

To determine whether someone is a reputable coach, then, ask these questions:

1. What would your clients say about you to me?

Because coaching is a raw, personal experience, clients may not want to discuss their experiences.

However, if a coach has assisted a client with achieving significant results, the client will likely be delighted to speak about what happened, what he (or she) gained from it, what would have made it better and how he/she is still using what the lessons learned.

Although providing client references isn't a deal-breaker, it is a barrier to determining a coach's depth and breadth of impact. Because it's natural for people to overrate their abilities, it's important to dig into a potential coach's experience.

If you think about it, why would anyone say he stinks at his job? In fact, research published in Harvard Business Review found that 24 percent of leaders surveyed overrated their coaching skills. So, the message is: Push for references.

Additionally, it's a myth that your coach needs to have experience in your particular industry. A coach doesn't tell you how to run your business or how to make decisions (you hire a consultant for that).He or she helps you navigate decision-making through active questioning, so you can think out loud to arrive at your decision.

Related: The Hidden Danger of Online Business Coaches

For example, I don't know much about advertising, television or public relations aside from being an active end-user, yet I coach seasoned execs in those industries globally.

Being the "expert" is not the coach's job -- it's the client's job.

2. Can you walk me through your coaching process?

The ICF study found that the primary concern highly qualified coaches had was untrained people calling themselves executive coaches.

Allow me to paint a picture: I know of a coach who claims to be an expert in operational process methodology. She relocated to Shanghai, has no corporate experience and has failed the methodology certification four times, yet she actively secures clients (and consistently breaks businesses).

What she's good at is pitching. Repeatedly, she secures a client by connecting and wooing, applies the methodology without a proper diagnostic, starts attempting to fix things and is subsequently fired because she cannot coach the company through the change.

Don't fall into that trap. Coaching methodologies are like ice cream -- there are monthly favorite flavors. You can find a litany of methodologies in books, online and in presentations. Ask potential coaches where their methodology comes from and how they have refined it to get results for their clients. If they have refined it, they've demonstrated that they're adaptive to clients' needs.

Finally, ask the coach to draw his or her coaching process on paper or a white board and explain it to you. This will stimulate a discussion that shows the coach's ability to clarify and articulate each phase of the engagement, the timing, the desired outcome and this individual's ability to distill the process into understandable chunks. That way you can get a sense of this person's coaching and teaching style.

3. What are you looking for in me as a client?

Readiness, willingness and clarity of development needs are key indicators of a coachee's ability to gain something from the process.

Just remember: Coaching is not a social hour. It is intimate and intense work in which the good, the bad and the ugly are revealed. If a coach says, "Seth, I'm really feeling connected to you right now," or, "I think we're a really good fit, and I can see us working well together," turn around and run as fast as the wind.

A better response would be: "Seth, during the past 45 minutes, I have noticed that you've mentioned seven times that you're having trouble acclimating to your company's culture. My interpretation is that you're a bit disoriented. What would it be like to get feedback about what's working well and what's not in how you're accomplishing results?

"Let's get some facts together, to identify your strengths, to get you grounded. From there, we can identify the development areas for refinement."

In short, it's not a coach's role to make ambiguous, touchy-feely statements to endear himself or herself to you. A coach's role is to identify and unpack the dilemmas the client is struggling with so the client can see them clearly enough to decide what to do with that information. The magic happens when coaches are masterful at providing the context, clarity and connection that clients need in order to see what they couldn't see before.

Related: 4 Ways a Coach Can Help You Lead Your Business to Success

If potential coaches can't provide satisfactory answers to these three questions, keep looking. I promise: If you're careful with your search, you'll find a reputable coach who will guide and incite you to achieve your desired personal and professional results.

Mary Rezek

Founder and Principal Consultant, Saatori

Mary Rezek has cultivated her leadership development and corporate expertise over 25-plus years working in China, Asia Pacific and the United States. As a global executive coach, leadership advisor and TEDx speaker coach, Rezek has earned the nickname "consigliere" from her clients. Since founding Saatori in 2006, Rezek has coached and consulted in a diverse portfolio of industries, delivering cutting-edge, practical solutions with sustainable results.

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