Beginner’s Guide to Become a Life Coach

by Barbra Sundquist on February 1, 2009

Are you interested in becoming a life coach? If so, this article is for you. I’ll be sharing what I tell people when they ask  “how do I become a life coach?”

Keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive guide to becoming a life coach. Rather, it’s practical advice based on my experience over the past eight years as a professional coach, mentor coach and coach certifier. The advice offered here is my educated opinion, not necessarily “the truth”.

How do I become a life coach?

That’s a question I hear often. It’s usually asked by people who love helping other people, who are interested in personal and professional development, and who are looking for a rewarding career. This type of person often has a wide range of interests and life experiences. All these things provide a good foundation for becoming a life coach, but as you might imagine, there’s more to it than that.

Do I need special training to become a life coach?

Yes and no. Yes, you do need training. No, it does not have to be a particular course or degree.

You could compare the training requirements to be a life coach to that required to be a consultant. A consultant needs to have a high level of skills in her area of consulting, but there is not a “consulting degree”. Similarly, a coach does not need a degree or certification to begin coaching.

So what kind of training do I need to become a life coach?

Many people who enter the coaching field come from careers that already involve people skills – such as teaching, counseling, personal training, human resource management, business consulting, sales, health care, journalism, ministry, parenting, and social work, to name just a few.

These people can build on their existing skill base with additional coach-specific training. Depending on how well their background has prepared them for coaching, they may need anything from a weekend workshop to a 2 year program to bring them up to a professional coach skill level.

In addition to learning new coaching skills, some people will need to “unlearn” certain habitual ways of responding. For example, consultants often have great questioning and problem-solving skills but tend to jump into “fix-it” mode right away. They will need to learn how to back off and let the client develop their own solutions. Similarly, parents may have lots of experience dealing with their own family dynamics, but need to learn how to keep an open mind when dealing with other people’s family situations.

How do I know how much more training I need?

The best way to determine how much and what kind of additional training you need to be a professional coach is to get an assessment of your present level of coaching skill. You can get that assessment in some coach training programs (surprisingly, not all training programs provide personal assessment. Always ask for details before registering).

Where can I get an assessment of my coaching skills?

Julia Stewart’s School of Coaching Mastery is one highly reputable school that provides assessments.

Doris Helge and  Nina East are two excellent coach mentors who are well-versed in the IAC exam requirements. They will do a consultation with you for a reasonable fee (probably $150 – $200) to assess your current level of coaching skill, and provide you with feedback on what you need to work on.

All three of the afore-mentioned resources are directed towards IAC (International Association of Coaching) certification.  If you are interested in ICF (International Coach Federation) certification, Carly Anderson, MCC Mentor Coach and active ICF Assessor evaluates coaching sessions from coaches around the world who are applying for their ICF credential. You could also contact the ICF  for mentor coach recommendations.

Do I need to be certified to be a life coach?

At present, there is no legal requirement that coaches be certified.  Personally, I think working towards IAC or ICF certification is important because it shows commitment to the profession. But not all coaches agree with this, and there are many good coaches with successful practices who are not certified.

Here is a link to a 10 minute audio recording called “Straight Talk on Coach Certification” where I explain more about coach certification.

Click link to listen…
http://www.audioacrobat.com/play/WxvykqvK

What’s the difference between ICF and IAC certification?

IAC stands for the International Association of Coaching.  I used to be a Certifying Examiner for the IAC, and my 9 CD Coaching by Example coach training program prepares coaches for IAC certification. ICF stands for International Coach Federation. Both are well-respected independent coach certification bodies.

The main difference between them are:
1)  ICF certification is based on education completed and number of paid coaching hours
2)  IAC certification is based solely on passing a series of exams.  The IAC certification does not require completion of any particular training program or number of hours of coaching.

ICF website  www.coachfederation.org
IAC website  www.certifiedcoach.org

Which certification, ICF or IAC, would be best for me?

It depends on your needs and your client group.  Right now ICF certification is more recognized than IAC certification, because the ICF has been around longer.  For coaches wanting to work with corporate clients, ICF may be better because corporate clients are more familiar with that designation. For coaches wanting to work with private individuals or groups, certification does not seem to be as much of an issue.

The appeal of the IAC certification is that if you already have the skills, you don’t need to complete more schooling to get your coach certification. The IAC certification is based solely on demonstrated skill, and is well-suited to people who want to be recognized for prior training and ability.

What’s involved with passing the IAC exams?

The IAC certification based on demonstrating knowledge and ability in The Coaching Masteries™.  A workbook describing the 9 Coaching Masteries™ is available at www.certifiedcoach.org.  The test involves an on-line exam and evaluation of two taped client calls.

Although it may seem that the IAC certification is a faster or easier way to become certified compared to the ICF, the reality is that achieving the level of mastery required to pass the IAC exam requires a great deal of coaching skill and experience. My 9-CD coach training program covers what you need to know to pass the IAC exam.

I’ve been “coaching” all my life but I just haven’t called it that.  Would being certified benefit me?

You don’t necessarily need to be certified, but you do need to be trained. When people say they “have been coaching all their life” they usually mean they’ve been a good and caring listener all their life.  Or they’ve been the one people turn to for advice. There’s much more to coaching than this (and in fact, giving advice is a very small part of coaching).

Can I really make a living as a life coach?

I’m going to be frank:  it’s not easy to make a living as a life coach.

Why is this? Well, there are a number of factors. In my opinion, the most significant factor is that in its traditional form (i.e. client meets the coach each week in-person or on the telephone for 30 – 60 minutes, for a typical  fee of $300 a month), it’s just too expensive for most potential clients.

Many coaches will argue that the fee is not at all expensive when you consider the progress that the client will make in terms of career satisfaction, meeting life-long goals and possibly even making a higher salary. I don’t disagree with that. Nonetheless, it’s hard for most coaches to get clients.

I want to be really clear about this, because when you start searching for information on the Internet about becoming a coach, you’re going to come across all sorts of sites that promise you the moon (maybe you’ve already encountered that). That’s because they want to raise your expectations about how easy it is to become a professional coach and how much money you’re going to make.

Keep in mind that most Internet websites exist to sell you something. The coaching field is no different. The exceptions are sites from independent certification bodies such as the ICF and the IAC, and discussion forums such as the New Coach Connection.

Do any coaches make a good living from coaching?

Yes, certainly! There are many successful coaches with a full practice. And there are many coaches who prefer to make a part-time or supplemental income from coaching.  But there are also a lot of coaches who struggle financially.

From what I have observed, there are three factors that make for a financially successful coach. To be successful as a self-employed coach you need:

1) A niche or specialty that is in demand. When I say “in demand”, I mean something that clients are willing to pay their hard-earned money for. Examples include career transition coaching, divorce recovery coaching, stress management coaching, and small business marketing coaching. Each of these examples provides a very tangible benefit or solves a pressing problem for the client.
2) Masterful coaching skills. This is where training and assessment comes in. It’s not enough to be a good listener, or be able to provide advice (in fact, most untrained coaches provide too much advice). Masterful coaching sounds easy but it’s not. It requires highly developed and nuanced communication skills.
3) Business and marketing skills. If you choose to be a self-employed, private practice coach, you will spend at least 60% (in the beginning, probably more) of your work time running your business. This means administration, computer stuff, networking, billing, professional development, and most importantly, marketing.

How much money could I make as a coach?

If you fall into the small percentage of coaches that meet all three of the criteria above, you could anticipate making as much as $80,000 a year working full-time as a coach.

I’ve arrived at this figure like this:

40 hours a week x 50 weeks = 2000 hours a year

40% of those hours are paid (60% is administration and marketing)

800 hours x $100 an hour* = $80,000

That means that in a typical work day you might coach 4 – 6 clients for 30 – 60 minutes each. The remaining time would be spent in administration and marketing.

I do want to stress that only a small percentage of coaches make this kind of income. The ones who do are the ones who:

1) meet all three of the criteria above, and

2) want to work full-time (many people prefer coaching as a part-time or supplemental income).

*I’m using the rate of $100 an hour as an example only. Coaching fees typically range from $40 – $100 an hour for new coaches, and $100 – $200 or more for experienced or in-demand coaches.

What are the different ways to be a coach?

Public awareness of coaching as a profession has really increased in recent years. When I started coaching in 2001, the typical response to “I’m a coach” was “what sport?” Now, people are likely to respond “Cool! I’ve heard of that”, or “I know someone who does that.”

As public awareness of coaching has changed there has been a parallel evolution in the profession’s concept of service delivery.

The traditional way to be a life coach was modeled on the counseling model. You signed up a client with a “client agreement” and agreed on a day and time to meet for “sessions” each week. These sessions might be in-person or over the telephone (the majority of life coaches meet with clients on the telephone). This is still a popular and viable way to deliver coaching services, but there are many other ways. For example:

• Group coaching
• Coaching franchise
• Workshops and retreats
• Print, audio or video courses
• Email coaching
• Instant messaging coaching
• Coaching membership site
• Teleclasses
• Writing and speaking

In addition, there are lots of ways to coach without actually having the title “Coach”. Many people get coaching skills training in order to be more effective in their main job – whether that is as a parent, mentor, manager, or even something as seemingly unrelated as a doctor or a salesperson.

I think the future of coaching lies in less expensive service delivery models. As an analogy, think of the fitness industry. There are so many people who want to get fit, but how many of them invest $40 – $100 an hour in a personal trainer? A pretty small percentage. Much more popular are group fitness classes that cost perhaps $10 – $15 dollars a session.

The same applies for coaching – there are a small percentage of clients who invest in individual coaching, and a much larger group that invests in less expensive options such as group coaching, workshops, products and courses.  It’s important for coaches to keep this in mind when planning their marketing and service offerings.

{ 15 comments }

Tiddly February 5, 2009 at 12:21 am

Excellent insight on coaching! Great work, very nuanced and practical :-)
Best,
Tiddly
Rarely do people comment nowadays, it’s more about reading and digesting the information.

elizabeth February 5, 2009 at 9:34 pm

What an honest account – especially about a lot of the hype that coaching schools throw at you. Not all, but some pile it on so thick they make you think that you could have a full practice by visiting your local supermarket and standing in line and telling everyone what you do.Thanks for being honest and telling it like it is.
I am certified and I give workshops, write a blog, for a woman’s magazine have a column, and have a book proposal with an agency. Sometimes you do have to do more than one on one coaching, but I find it a lot of fun and I am enjoying the adventure.
it is worth it if your passion is calling you to coaching.

Julia Stewart February 6, 2009 at 3:28 am

Great article, Barbra! It’s very straight forward and navigates a complicated subject that confuses a lot of would-be coaches. I do have a slightly different opinion on a couple of issues though.

One is that I’ve noticed a fair number of new coaches searching frantically for the “right” niche and although it’s true that a niche has to be desirable to potential clients, it’s even more important for it to be something that really lights up the coach. That enthusiasm attracts clients.

Which leads me to the other issue: It’s true that some people go into coaching and have a tough time finding clients, but others do it easily. And one of the defining factors it that enthusiasm again.

So if you really love coaching and feel called to do it, your experience will be way more positive than if you think you should be a coach because you’re good at it, or you might make a lot of money, etc.

My 2 cents!

Regina Stafford February 6, 2009 at 3:59 pm

Thank you for sharing all this info from the heart. I get annoyed when I see Coaches trying to make money off other coaches by taking advantage of their inexperience as a coach. I too give freely from my experiences to other coaches but I don’t make it my market strategy.
If I may I want to also add that if one truely wants to be a good coach you need good training. I have a background that gives me the skill to be a good coach but the training and certification I received is invaluable. It also builds ones confidence and understanding of the field as well as respect to you.

Thanks again for the tidbits of info that you freely share. It is much appreciated.

Barbra February 8, 2009 at 11:19 am

@elizabeth – it sounds like you are using a range of things to market your coaching services. That’s a great strategy.

@julia – as you know, I have tremendous respect for you and what you do at the School of Coaching Mastery. Nonetheless, I think we will have to agree to disagree on the niche issue. I think choosing a marketable niche is critical. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

@regina – glad to hear that you found my perspective helpful. As I said at the outset, it’s just my opinion and not everyone sees it the same way I do.

Arnetta January 6, 2010 at 12:55 am

I recently decided that this is a field I am very interested in looking into for a career.
I enjoy mentoring people and participate in a ministry at church that is in line with mentoring.

Thank you for the straight talk about this busy.

Shai Powell March 17, 2010 at 7:52 pm

This is a good article. I had to learn the hard way. You definitely have to think outside of the box when it comes to marketing a coaching business. I have found that group sessions work the best for an hour or two. I try to match people together with similar issues. I coach in groups of four. In the first hour we talk as a group and the last hour I take each person aside for fifteen minutes to focus on their core issues. This way they have privacy to discuss more detailed problems.

Carmen April 20, 2010 at 3:48 pm

Hi Barbara,
I’m a certified school counselor and career counselor. In my work as a high school career specialist I see how little time counselors have to work with individual students, do mainly to a very large case load, 400 + students. I see a huge need specially for for first generation college students to get one-on- one assitance with the college admission process. I love career counseling and helping students /families navigate through this process. What do you think about becoming a life coach in this area? And what additional traiing would i need? Thanks

Barbra April 27, 2010 at 6:48 pm

Hi Carmen,
I think that you have identified a very good coaching niche, and you clearly have expertise in this area. As far as additional training, it’s hard for me to say without knowing more about your specific skills and background. But my hunch is that you may already have much of what you need. I recommend that you get a set of my coaching CDs with a view to taking the IAC certification exam. Once you have listened to the CDs, get an assessment of your coaching skills (I recommend some people who do assessments above). This blog post on preparing for IAC certification may also be helpful to you. Best of luck to you Carmen!

Sally August 25, 2010 at 10:54 pm

Thank you for your honesty. I am a burnt out teacher of 11 years with a therapist who says I’d make a good life coach and that there are a few in our area who have found their niche and who are making a good living. I’m somewhat skeptical for the same reasons you mention. Cost. I would need to talk to these people at a charge, I’m sure, on top of some coursework. This economy isn’t the time to spend savings on training if you’re not a real go getter, in my opinion. I couldn’t sell an igloo to an Eskimo. Padding someone elses pocket I think.

Barbra September 1, 2010 at 10:14 pm

Yes, you do need to be a go-getter to start a coaching practice Sally. There’s just no way around that. It’s good that you recognize your own style. At the same time, understand that you don’t have to market like a used car salesperson :) There are different ways to market services and you may find a way that fits your style. I still think it’s worth looking into!

Lynne Q September 6, 2010 at 3:04 am

Perfect guide which I should have read first before all others. Just two minor questions: 1. I’ve read something on a “life coach degree”. You did not mention this. Is there really such a degree? 2. Is it possible to get two certifications, one from ICF and another from IAC?
I am just starting in this career, and your guide will be very useful to me. Thank you.

Barbra September 7, 2010 at 10:37 pm

Hi Lynne,
It’s possible that some universities now offer a life coaching degree; I’m not up-to-date on that though. You have to be really careful about the language around coaching degrees, certifications and certificates. There is very little standardization in the coaching profession, and some certifications are not worth much. I talk about this in detail in the recording “Straight Talk on Coach Certification” which is available here BecomeACertifiedCoach.com

Yes, it is possible (but not really necessary) to get both ICF and IAC certifications.

Annette April 2, 2011 at 1:31 am

Very informative article. I am looking to offer coaching services for those healing from traumatic experiences and past hurts. I would also like to offer workshops and retreats. The details you’ve provided here have my wheels churning.

Thanks!

Tomas February 10, 2012 at 11:13 am

Thanks you for this very helpful article. The recording cleared up a lot of my questions.

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