Coaching Qualification & Coaching Quality

Written by May Kwah, Senior Consultant at Linkage Asia & Yin Tong, Associate Consultant at Linkage Asia

Advised by Samuel Lam, President & Managing Partner at Linkage Asia

How can organizations ensure they get the desired results and impact from the Executive Coaching of their leaders? Does coaching qualification equal coaching quality? Read on to find our perspectives.

In search of coaching services, practitioners and coaches should look at the impact and measurable results. Linkage has constantly been exploring and researching coaching practices to track down the real determining factors of effective and impactful coaching.

In 2005, Linkage published “The Art and Practice of Leadership Coaching”, a landmark resource that presents a variety of perspectives and best practices from top executive coaches, including renowned coach Marshall Goldsmith, leadership coaches and best-selling authors Jim Kouzes and Ken Blanchard. This book started a dialogue on the many more exciting viewpoints regarding the observations and analyses of coaching trends, best practices, and top-end thinking in relation to leadership development. It also led to the publication of “Best Practices in Leadership Development Handbook”, by my colleague Samuel Lam with Marshall Goldsmith, David Giber and Justin Bourke. Together, they outlined the best practices for leveraging executive coaching as an integral part of leadership development.

Today, the quest for leadership transformation and self-improvement is stronger than ever, because of the greater complexity and uncertainty in the business world.

And this quest breeds a growing need for coaching within every leader who yearns for deeper self-awareness, higher adaptability, and more open conversations in search of leadership meaning and purpose.

Women Leadership is one of the key areas of interest for many of our clients. Consolidating insights from rich coaching experiences, Susan Brady authored “Mastering Your Inner Critic and 7 Other High Hurdles to Advancement” in 2018. Susan was the Executive Vice President of Linkage Solutions and The Linkage Women in Leadership Institute. In the book, she helps readers confront self-defeating messages and focus on the actionable items to achieve higher career goals. By introducing a practical coaching framework in advancing women leaders, Susan has empowered many to overcome the unspoken barriers in their career advancement.

Another key area of interest in leadership coaching is Purposeful Leadership. Based on Linkage’s rigorous research and continuous reflections, “Become: The Five Commitments of Purposeful Leadership” was published in 2019. Written by Mark Hannum, Linkage’s Chief Research Officer, the book gives an account of crucial findings that demonstrate the five leadership commitments and how they are proven to drive leadership results to the next level in many organizations.

Throughout the years, we have committed to exploring ways of leadership coaching that really works. As the coaching landscape has continued to evolve, we see clear indicators of growth in the following areas:

  • The development of coaching frameworks and professional coaching standards;

  • The variety of coaching accreditation programs (including programs organized by ICF, EMCC, ICC, and other credentialing organizations);

  • And the number of certified coaching practitioners.

The recent ICF Global Coaching Study reveals that coaching qualification has become a major determining factor in hiring a coach. About 82% of global practitioners agree to a certain extent that coaching credentials are expected by organizations (Fig. 1). From the consumers’ perspective, about 85% of the people and organizations on the recipient end of the coaching service expect coaches to be certified as well (Fig. 2).

Practitioners' Opinions of Importance of Credentials in Singapore compared to Global (ICF Global Coaching Study, 2020)
Fig. 1 Practitioners' Opinions of Importance of Credentials in Singapore compared to Global (ICF Global Coaching Study, 2020)

However, if 80% of the companies hired certified/credentialed coaches due to the importance of certification*, how do we explain that only 61% of organizations rate the quality of coaching as “good” and “very good”**?

Consumers' Opinions of Quality of Coaching (Asia Pacific Alliance of Coaches, 2020)
Fig. 2 Consumers' Opinions of Quality of Coaching (Asia Pacific Alliance of Coaches, 2020)

In answering the above question, we probe into the unspoken expectations of an impactful coach. And we find out several distinctions between a qualified coach and a quality coach.

Note*. Those who rate “Strongly Agree” and “Agree” consist of 80% of the survey results in the ICF Global Coaching Study, as demonstrated in Fig. 1

Note**. Those who rate “Very Good” and “Good” in quality of coaching consist of 61% of the survey results in the 5thCoaching Survey conducted by Asia Pacific Alliance of Coaches, as demonstrated in Fig. 2

The Five Expectations of An Impactful Executive Coach

Tapping Linkage’s decades of work on executive coaching, we identify five main expectations of coaches. Firstly, a coach must make a sensible diagnosis of the current level of development for clients in alignment with business purpose. Secondly, a coach is expected to co-create a trusted partnership and to act in agreement to optimize clients’ capabilities. Thirdly, a coach is supposed to develop clients’ capacity and prepare them to perform outside their comfort zone. Fourthly, we expect a coach to expand clients’ perspectives by leveraging the coach’s experiences, know-how, and insights. And lastly, a coach is expected to account for progressive, accelerated and transformative learning that benefits clients in the long run. It means that coaches have to dig deeper into the list of core competencies and focus on meeting these five high expectations to become top coaches in the world.

Five High Expectations of Executive Coaching. Copyright © Linkage 2020.
Fig. 3 Five High Expectations of Executive Coaching. Copyright © Linkage 2020.

We understand that these are tall orders for coaches, but organizations can look out for four elements in a coach that ensure the above expectations can be met.

The FOUR Elements

That Separate Great Coaches from Good Coaches

From our experience in coaching different levels of executives, four things stand out to separate a great coach from a good coach. They are the ability to develop a high-quality coaching relationship, the acquired knowledge and expertise to bring about transformative learning, the valuable experiences to create or capture successful coachable moments, and the ability to create sustainable results.

A) High-Quality Coaching Relationship

A coaching relationship is contextual. Successful approaches to business coaching incorporate significant consideration of the relational dynamics among the triad – the coach, the coachee, and the organization representative. These approaches manifest a laser focus on the coaching relationship and a systemic interface with the business environment. This sounds easy in theory, but working with different clients means the context for the triad is constantly changing.

Between a coach and a coachee, the relationship is an evolving one. And it could be best described as a partnership, one in which both parties work together to reach an agreed goal. It thrives on trust, confidence, and takes accountability for the results. Great coaches inspire the foundation for a strong partnership from the very early stage of development. The coach must build trust, adjust the coaching process to meet the coachee’s strengths and pace, and foster the conditions necessary for success. The coachee has his or her responsibilities too: the coachee must commit to the hard work and risk to step out of their comfort zone and embrace the process of learning and growing.

From our coaching experience, irrespective of the coaching objectives, whether they are directed toward strategy, personal leadership, transitions, or organizational change, at least 75% percent of coaching focuses on the human dynamic over the more technical aspects of the challenge.

Ultimately, the success of the coaching partnership is not measured by coach-coachee chemistry or the satisfaction of the coachee, but measured by the impact, outcome and business results. Nevertheless, the partnership is a mutual benefit, in which both parties feel the satisfaction of working towards the results. At the end of a coaching assignment, the coachee has taken a journey from vulnerability to competence with a new base level of performance. The coach, in the same journey with the coachee, will see that work come to success and gain a valuable experience, insight and self-awareness.

B) Coaching Expertise: A Coach’s Explicit Knowledge Base

Coaching qualification courses can equip aspiring coaches with a basis of knowledge that can be practiced right away. The explicit knowledge base is acquirable through training and extensive reading on the professional knowledge of coaching or domain knowledge relevant to a coaching assignment. Many coaching schools and certification bodies have worked on the scientific or philosophical principles that underpin the coaching work.

And the science of coaching extends to many of its root disciplines such as philosophy, psychology and andragogy. Nonetheless, we are reminded that coaching is also an artful practice. For example, even the best coach may not be able to articulate the entire thought process behind the coaching work.

Coaching expertise is more than a list of competencies to be ticked in terms of skills and behaviors. On one hand, the quality of a coaching conversation is conditional to a combination of “knowing” how to coach, “doing” the coaching job with high self-awareness and “being” a coach who can create long-term values. On the other hand, coaching is an ever-growing field that absorbs a diversity of perspectives and practices. It is not just a toolkit of frameworks or activities that will guarantee positive results, but a journey that never ceases to be challenging, enriching and engaging. Just like a fresh graduate from medical schools or law schools, the real test takes place after you are licensed to operate.

C) Coaching Experience: A Coach’s Tacit Knowledge Base

The best coaches may not have the highest number of years in coaching, but they must have built a significant tacit knowledge base out of their coaching experiences. The tacit knowledge refers to the reflections and accumulated experiences of success and failure, which may shape a better coach. Compared to explicit knowledge, which focuses on the learning from “knowing”, tacit knowledge focuses on the learning from “doing”. Many professional coaching bodies have incorporated “doing” in their credentialing process, by asking for the number of coaching hours and recordings of coaching sessions. A beginner coach keeps the faith that if one reaches thousand hours of coaching, he or she will eventually be better at it. Unfortunately, this is a myth. The coaching results after years of accumulated coaching experiences may not guarantee the fact that one has mastered the art and science of coaching.

The tacit knowledge of a coach is the ability to characterize the knowledge from coaching experience that has an implicit yet valuable quality. The ability of this coach’s intuition seems to infer that coaches process information in an unarticulated way. The executive coach will acquire knowledge in many areas such as leadership development, communication, business and management, organization development and so on. Such knowledge allows for coaches to put themselves in the shoes of their clients and to understand them “from within”.

In other words, coaching experience helps a coach to understand coachees in context. Along the coaching journey, the context expands and involves risky evaluations and decisions for coaches regarding planning for development, giving feedback and reporting. These evaluations and decisions require coaches to utilize their experiences to root for their choices and actions. Coaching experience becomes the source of confidence and effectively guides coaching actions that transfer leadership skills and competencies to their coachees.

The important thing to take note of experience is that experience is not about the hours, but the intentionality of each coaching exercise. The increase in the number of coaching hours may not proportionally reflect how much one has learned from what happened in terms of success or failure. Usually, we pick up more learnings from our failures and remember what we should not do next time. But great coaches take heed of success as well and they constantly ask for feedback from others to ensure that his success is well earned.

D) Ability to Create Sustainable Change

While coaching is about facilitating clients to make better decisions independently, the real test on coaching expertise is if the coaching results in positive changes, growth or “transformation” that are sustainable in clients. The best coaching is on-going, where double-loop learning happens and it goes beyond the traditional problem-solving.

Great coaches are able to help coachees achieve new self-awareness, sometimes called the “aha” moments or insights, which open up powerful new areas of learning. Working closely with the coachees, great coaches support the coachees in creating the kind of actions that build up to habits and get results. Only when the actions become habits, can the change become sustainable.

Prioritize Quality over Qualification

Getting qualified or certified is an important step in the coaching journey. A coaching certification gives a prospective coach the confidence to practice and the acknowledgment to demonstrate one’s efforts in learning the concepts and theories behind many great coaching conversations. However, the success or failure of the coaching practice only happens between a coach and his or her coachees. No matter how many theories one has grasped in the classroom, the actual assessment of the coaching practice and performance takes place outside the classroom.

At Linkage, we believe that there is no easy way to select the right coach. And our word of advice for organizations in search of coaching service as a development tool, is to beware of any shortcuts in selecting, identifying and evaluating coaches, and to prioritize quality over qualification when impact and results are expected.

About Authors

May Kwah is Senior Consultant at Linkage Asia and based in Singapore. She has over 20 years of senior leadership experience in global multinationals throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East. May is trained in The Art and Practice of Ontological Mastery on Ontological coaching. She has been coaching executives both in global MNCs and start-ups. Her interest is in executive learning and leadership growth through learning and understanding of mindsets. It is May’s personal mission to unlock the leadership potential of leaders by helping leaders make shifts in how they see themselves and the world around them for lasting personal growth and business results.

Yin Tong is Associate Consultant at Linkage Asia and based in Singapore. At Linkage, she equips herself with a suite of leadership development tools and has supported partners and consultants in diagnosing, designing, developing and delivering a number of projects for global and local clients including Lenovo, Philips, Deloitte, Dorel, Jackson Laboratory, Philippines Police Force, Sarawak Civil Service and Nanyang Technological University. She is one of the recipients of Singapore Ministry of Education Scholarship, and one of the active members of Young Women’s Leadership Connection in Singapore to drive impact in mentorship, leadership, community engagement and networking with other aspiring local women leaders.

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