The consultant started off beautifully in her response to a question about finding a coach:
“There are some very good coaches out there. But finding one that’s trustworthy can be a challenge. The cost of entry to starting a coaching business is low, making it an easy rip-off for consumers…”
So far so good. Even as a professional coach myself, I agreed! Over the past decade I’ve watched the average quality of coaching decline as coaching became mainstream and coaches became sought-after specialists.
But the consultant continued:
“…There are loads of “certifications” and questionable “credentials” that virtually anyone can buy to advertise coaching services. The best way to find a skilled coach is through their happy clients.”
Oops! Another myth about coaching had reared its ugly head. Facepalm!
The consultant was right about relying on word-of-mouth to find a quality coach. She was rightly frustrated by a confusing and often low-quality pool of coaches in the marketplace. However, she was mistaken about certifications and credentials. I saw the opportunity – time to write another installment in my “All About Coaching” article series.
The consultant is neither stupid nor alone. Misconceptions about professional coaching abound even among coaches – I see it all the time as a Mentor Coach (more about what that means, below). In my ongoing effort to clarify and demystify my often-misunderstood profession, read on to learn what “certifications and credentials” actually mean, as well as the training and qualifications that make a “professional coach”.
So grab a beverage, kick off your shoes, and enjoy the ride!
Here’s The Problem
While it’s true there exist multiple coaching “certifications” of vastly varying quality, there aren’t multiple “credentials”. Today, there’s really only one credentialing body — the International Coaching Federation (ICF). There’s another, smaller organization that’s mostly focused on Europe (the EMCC – more about them later), but for the past few years the ICF has been the unrivaled global professional organization for coaching.
Since coaching is an unregulated profession, neither training nor an ICF credential are required to offer coaching services. This is confusing for consumers, and daunting to navigate. However, as the market has flooded with coaches over the past ten years, an ICF credential has become a key differentiator of coaching quality and ethical accountability.
According to the latest ICF Global Consumer Awareness Study, clients who worked with an ICF credential holder were more likely to be satisfied with their coaching experience and recommend coaching to others, and 85% of coaching clients reported it was important for coaches to hold a credential. Discerning clients prefer to work with “certified and credentialed” coaches because of the training and evaluation requirements, the continuing education requirements, and our accountability to the professional standards of the ICF Code of Ethics, This includes recourse for unethical practices through an Ethical Conduct Review Process.
However, what exactly do “certified” and “credentialed” mean? Are those the same thing? How does one obtain a certification or credential? Or is it all a bunch of hooey like the frustrated consultant claimed?
To provide some needed clarity to a confusing and chaotic topic, let’s cover some basic definitions!
Here’s What The Terms Mean
“Certified”, “Credentialed” and “Accredited”? Sheesh, what do these even mean? Who gets them, and what’s the difference? You’re not alone if your head is spinning — even some coaches get it wrong!
Here are some simple clarifications…in simple bullet form (ahhhh!):
- Who gets it: Coaches
- The acronyms: CPC (Certified Professional Coach). Another common, long-standing one is CPCC (Certified Professional Co-Active Coach), granted to coaches certified by Co-Active Training Institute (CTI).
- How you get it: By successfully completing a coach training The ICF does not train coaches (and therefore does not “certify” coaches). There are multiple organizations that provide coach training – that “certify” coaches – at various levels described below under “accredited”.
- What makes this confusing: Many coach training organizations offer their own designations – letters that graduates can put after their names. However, these don’t mean much beyond branding, and are typically only recognized by other graduates of those programs.
- Who gets it: Coaches
- The acronyms: ACC (Associated Certified Coach), PCC (Professional Certified Coach), MCC (Master Certified Coach). These are listed in order of the level of training, experience, and skill required to earn each credential (ACC is beginner level).
- How you get it: By submitting the required documents to the ICF and passing review. Coaches may apply for a credential after becoming certified (completing training). See below for more details.
- What makes this confusing: Many coaches, even ICF board members, sometimes mistakenly refer to the credentialing process as “certification”. To complicate matters further, the names of all three credentials contain the word “certified”! In fact, “CPC” and “PCC” are the same words in different order – even though one is a certification, the other is a credential, and they indicate very different levels of training and skill. (OMG!)
- Who gets it: Organizations that do coach training (in the USA*).
- The acronyms/terms: ACSTH (Approved Coach Specific Training Hours) – old term, now called “Level 1”. ACTP (Accredited Coach Training Program) – old term, now called “Level 2.” There is also a new “Level 3”.
- More details on what these mean: According to the ICF website:
- Level 1 (formerly ACSTH) is for organizations that offer at least 60 contact learning hours, 10 hours of Mentor Coaching by an eligible Mentor Coach, and a performance evaluation to the ACC level or higher. Level 1 education is a path to the ACC Credential.
- Level 2 (formerly ACTP) is for organizations that offer at least 125 contact learning hours, 10 hours of Mentor Coaching by an eligible Mentor Coach, and a performance evaluation to the PCC level. Level 2 education is a path to the PCC Credential.
- Level 3 (new) is for organizations that offer at least 75 advanced contact learning hours, and 10 hours of Mentor Coaching by an eligible Mentor Coach to the MCC level. Level 3 education is a path to the MCC Credential.
- How you get it: Organizations apply for the appropriate accreditation with ICF.
- ** What makes this confusing: Many coaches sometimes refer to the credentialing process (which is for individuals) as “accreditation” (which is for organizations). Also, the other major professional coaching organization, the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC), uses one term – “accreditation” – to describe their process for qualifying “individuals, training programmes, and organisations” With the EMCC, eligible coaches apply for accreditation, not a credential. (Are you cross-eyed yet?)
Now that we’ve got some of our vocabulary words straightened out, let’s dive into the process of how coaches earn their ICF credential.
(You might want to go refill that beverage – or take a break and return when your brain has recovered!)
Here’s How Coaches Get Credentialed
There are 48,000 ICF credential holders worldwide, and an international Standards and Credentials board oversees the process. Earning an ICF credential requires a combination of five elements: (1) hours of training, (2) hours of coaching experience, (3) mentor coaching, (4) an exam, and (5) performance evaluation.
Here are more details on each of these five elements:
Training and Experience
I’ve already explained that ICF offers three credentials (ACC, PCC, and MCC), but each of these has two-to-three pathways to completion (whoa, right!?). The ICF website provides a comparison of the application path requirements in table format, as well as a detailed description of each path.
But before you go down ICF website rabbit holes here’s the gist: Each credential has separate requirements based on the level of that credential. And within each credential, there are separate pathways that differ based on the type and amount of training the coach received.
In general, the requirements for each credential are:
- ACC: 60+ hours of training, 100+ hours of coaching experience with at least eight clients, a passing score on the ICF Credentialing Exam, 10 hours of Mentor Coaching, and a Performance Evaluation at the ACC level.
- Coaches who completed their training with a Level 1, Level 2 or ACTP program receive their Mentor Coaching and Performance Evaluation included in their certification (training) program, and therefore do not have to submit recordings to ICF for evaluation or undergo separate Mentor Coaching. Coaches who completed their training through ACSTH, or who are following the “portfolio” pathway, do need to submit one recording and undergo Mentor Coaching.
- PCC: 125+ hours of training, 500+ hours of coaching experience with at least 25 clients, a passing score on the ICF Credentialing Exam, 10 hours of Mentor Coaching, and a Performance Evaluation at the PCC level.
- Coaches who completed their training with a Level 2 or ACTP program receive their Mentor Coaching and Performance Evaluation included in their certification (training) program, and therefore do not have to submit recordings to ICF for evaluation or undergo separate Mentor Coaching. Coaches who completed their training through ACSTH or a Level 1 program, or who are following the “portfolio” pathway do need to submit two recordings and undergo Mentor Coaching.
- MCC: Hold (or have held) a PCC credential, Level 3 program or 200+ hours of training, 2500+ hours of coaching experience with at least 35 clients, a passing score on the ICF Credentialing Exam, and a Performance Evaluation at the MCC level (by submitting two recordings to ICF for review).
- Coaches who completed a Level 3 training program receive their Mentor Coaching included in the program, and therefore do not have to undergo separate Mentor Coaching. Coaches who follow the “portfolio” pathway do need to undergo Mentor Coaching.
OK, so what exactly is this “Mentor Coaching” bit?
The ICF describes Mentor Coaching as “coaching and feedback in a collaborative, appreciative and dialogued process based on an observed or recorded coaching session to increase the coach’s capability in coaching, in alignment with the ICF Core Competencies.”
In short, Mentor Coaching is a structured feedback process offered in both individual and group formats. Most Mentor Coaches (including me) offer both options. Group Mentor Coaching may count for a maximum of seven hours, and the group must not consist of more than ten participants. The additional three (or more) hours must take place one-one-one, and a mentee may choose to work with two or more Mentor Coaches.
Regardless of format, the ten required hours of Mentor Coaching must take place over a minimum of three months. This allows the mentee adequate time to reflect, integrate feedback, practice their skills, and demonstrate growth.
There is no training or certification required for a coach to serve as an ICF Mentor Coach – however, ICF clearly defines Mentor Coach duties, traits and competencies. Most coaches find a Mentor Coach through the ICF Mentor Coach Registry, but also through word of mouth and Mentor Coach marketing.
Coaches may not provide Mentor Coaching to a colleague who holds a more advanced credential than they do. Coaches who hold an ACC are not eligible to Mentor Coach at all – unless they have renewed their ACC at least once, then they can mentor aspiring or renewing ACCs. Coaches who hold a PCC may Mentor Coach those seeking an ACC, ACC renewal, or PCC. Coaches who hold an MCC can mentor coaches at any level.
The ICF Credentialing Exam
Cool! So what about that scary-sounding exam?
The ICF Credentialing Exam is “a tool designed to measure a coach’s knowledge of and ability to apply the ICF definition of coaching, the updated ICF Core Competencies, and the ICF Code of Ethics against a predetermined standard.” It’s more rigorous than the previous Coach Knowledge Assessment (CKA) which will be phased out by January 31, 2023.
The exam consists of 81 scenario-based multiple-choice questions about coaching practices and ethics. The exam focuses on four domains anchored in the ICF Core Competencies and Code of Ethics: Coaching Foundation, Co-Creating the Relationship (main focus, 38% of exam), Communicating Effectively, and Cultivating Learning and Growth. The range of possible scores is 200 to 600, with a passing score of 460 (77% — which is a passing C+, wink).
The exam is proctored by Pearson VUE and takes about three hours to complete, but accommodations are available. ICF also offers language aids in a growing number of languages to facilitate exam access for ICF’s global community.
The Performance Evaluation
Zoinks, that sounds rigorous! And finally, what’s that “performance evaluation” about?
Ah-ha, some review! As a reminder, coaches who complete Level 2 (formerly ACTP) training have performance evaluation included in their certification (training) program. Coaches who completed Level 1 (formerly ACSTH) training, or who are following the portfolio path to ACC or PCC are required to submit recording(s) and transcript(s) of coaching sessions for evaluation. Coaches applying for the MCC credential are required to submit recordings and transcripts for review. The ICF website provides information on how to prepare and submit recordings for review.
The ICF has trained Assessors who review and evaluate these recordings. The criteria vary depending on the level of credential the coach is applying for, and are outlined in the ICF Minimum Skills Requirements by Credential For coaches seeking the PCC credential, there is an additional document that describes specific “PCC Markers” that ICF Assessors look for in evaluating the skill level of the PCC candidate.
Whoa! So if the coach fulfills all five requirements and earns their credential, then what?
All three ICF credentials are valid for three years and can be renewed by completing 40 Continuing Coach Education credits (CCEs) during those three years. Coaches renewing their ACC must also receive 10 more hours of Mentor Coaching each time they renew.
Whew! So that’s a wrap on the wild and woolly world of coach credentialing.
Here’s How To Keep It Simple
Dizzy yet? Wondering how to keep all this information straight? You might enjoy this chart I made, called All About ICF Credentialing!, that lays out all of the above in visual reference-style format. I even refer to it myself when working with coaches as a Mentor Coach.
You’re welcome! 😊
And Here’s Some Final Thoughts
Yep! It’s not you. It’s a lot. Even most coaches don’t know everything I’ve covered here – and not for lack of trying, or lack of effort by ICF. It’s just the landscape of a global, unregulated profession with multiple diverse stakeholders that’s constantly evolving.
In fact, it took me the equivalent of three workdays to research and write this guide. I did it to inform the public about the rigor behind professional coaching “certifications and credentials.” But I also did it to have ready answers for the coaches I mentor – professionals who are already overwhelmed by work and life, who are just trying to fulfill professional requirements and help maintain high quality in the coaching profession.
Maintaining that high quality is one of my goals. Witnessing a decline in the average quality of coaching troubles and saddens me, because too many clients are experiencing less than the full power of professional coaching. When I was trained in 2014 through the excellent (but discontinued) Coaching For Transformation (CFT) program by Leadership That Works it was an 11-month commitment. I attended class twice a week for 90 minutes each and completed required weekly readings and online discussion group participation. I had to participate in regular peer support meetings, gain 40-to 100-hours of outside coaching experience, complete my ten mentor coaching hours and receive six hours of coaching from a graduate of my program. I was required to submit a written midway review, a written final exam, and a final oral exam.
All told, my coach training program was essentially a part time job for a year and cost me nearly $7,000 (after receiving a $2,000 scholarship). But I emerged with rigorous coaching skills, solid professional tools, and self-confidence. It was one of the best investments I’ve ever made, personally and professionally. My colleagues from CFT (along with early graduates from other major programs like CTI, Coach U, New Ventures West, and the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland) continue to be some of the most skilled coaches I know – even though many never obtained an ICF credential.
While it’s now easier, faster, and cheaper to achieve coaching certification than it once was, I hope that one day we can return to greater rigor and higher quality. Our clients and our profession deserve nothing less. Perhaps more focus on credentialing, and more clarity about what becoming a professional coach truly requires, can help us get there.