Tuesday, October 27, 2009

ICF Credentialing Process Overhaul

The ICF is considering a major overhaul of the existing credentialing system. Since I feel like I know a thing or two about credentialing because of my years in aviation and a thing or two about coaching because of my time serving on the local board of directors, as well as a thing or two about the current regulatory environment because of my involvement in local legislation impacting counseling and my participation on the ICF Regulatory Committee, I took the time to think carefully about how I feel about this effort.

The following letter that I sent to the credentialing committee is the result of my thinking on the matter. I share it with you now because there are coaches out there discussing this subject who might benefit from some of these thoughts, only if it's to help clarify their own, and there are potential coaching clients who would be well-served to understand more about what is happening in this industry.

Please feel free to comment as you see fit. My intention is to help open up discussion. I have no day-to-day dealing with the ICF credentialing committee, however, so if you want to reach them, you should do so more directly.

I am writing with my thoughts about the proposed credentialing changes as an ICF member holding an ACC credential and as a former chapter president and member of the ICF Regulatory Committee... deep analytical skills in this arena, experience in dealing with this matter at a regulatory level, and the farthest thing possible from being any kind of reactionary on the subject.

I have read all of the materials I can locate on the ICF website pertaining to the proposed credentialing changes and also have scanned through various external letters and discussions on the subject. Last week, I sat in on the October 20 open conference call on the proposed credentialing changes, during which two basic questions were asked which I’ll attempt to answer here: First reaction to the proposal (how does it sit) and what should be considered.

My first reaction is to stand back and pay attention to the landscape because I don’t feel sufficiently confident that enough other people are doing so, either on the planning side of things or on the feedback side. Sensing a great deal of confusion and a huge amount of emotion surrounding this effort, I’d like very much to cut through as much of that as possible and look at this opportunity to update the credentialing standards and the process through which we achieve our credentials as objectively as possible.

The general landscape I see as worthy of consideration while undertaking further planning includes the following:

People are calling themselves coaches without doing what the ICF considers coaching. People are calling themselves coaches who may be doing coaching, but not necessarily well or with any kind of coach training; still others are engaged in what might be recognized as coaching but calling it something else altogether. Fact and entertainment-based media are increasingly including references to coaching – often in a facetious manner that does not reflect well on coaching and not always referencing activities the ICF would recognize as coaching.

Meanwhile, individuals with coach training often identify themselves with the fields in which they specialize much more so than with the field of coaching itself. Some of them have even given up calling themselves coaches, finding it more helpful to refer to what they do using anything but the confusion-laden term coaching. My individual assessment is that coaching as a term for a standalone industry made up of a standalone skill is in significant danger of becoming irrelevant. How credentialing is handled will either speed that process and essentially kill off the industry or revitalize the field by proving to ourselves and others that there really is a ‘there’ there – and hopefully the ‘there’ that’s there applies to more than just training and mentoring other coaches because if it’s not, then it’s just a pyramid scheme.

Assuming for a moment that there really is a legitimate ‘there’ there, I see two primary hurdles we must overcome. They’re not new, but so far, I’m not convinced we’re taking these considerations fully into account either in our individual day-to-day practices, in how our professional association is run, or in how we are approaching the credentialing process so far.

First, there is the barrier to entry issue. Anyone can lay claim to the title of coach, and many do both with and without training, with and without any significant meaning behind the use of the term especially in the context of activities engaged in that are unique to coaching. All too often those who are described in the media as coaches are not trained or credentialed as such. It should be telling that there are a number of trained and credentialed coaches who find it more advantageous to refer to themselves by other titles altogether. Any credentialing system or process that does not take this consideration into account is dooming the ‘profession’ to failure.

Second, there is the distinction between coaching and other similar helping professions such as therapy and counseling. Differentiating between coaching and therapy may not be altogether difficult, and in fact there are some distinctly useful parameters defined in recent Washington State legislation aimed at counseling credentialing that we may be able to use to our benefit. However, this same legislation written so as to protect the title of counselor was written so overbroad in doing so that it endangers our legal ability to distinguish coaching from counseling which is itself less distinguishable from therapy at this point in the State of Washington with the exception of the use of the title.

It is not enough that we see ourselves as different from these other professions. The public must understand the differences and governing bodies must be comfortable that there are differences and that we have safeguards in place to avoid putting the public at risk. When coaches begin getting into areas of ADD coaching, relationship coaching, health and wellness coaching, etc, the waters become much tougher to navigate and I believe we risk serious exposure, not just for the individual coaches involved but also for the industry as a whole. It is imperative that whatever credentialing system we espouse be created to specifically address this aspect as well.

The risk of these two issues coming together is both ubiquitous and severe. All it takes is one person calling himself or herself a coach, behaving inappropriately (or not - just a claim from someone unhappy or vindictive enough to lodge a complaint would be sufficient), and suddenly a state prosecutor with an axe to grind is out there re-interpreting language intended for something else to prove that this person was actually counseling or providing therapy without a license. Therapists might disagree with that claim and leave us well enough alone but the counselors in Washington State have already proven themselves a powerful force determined to protect their interests and it seems quite likely that this scenario is true well beyond the state of Washington. Many of these counselors are also coaches but that gives small comfort when you’re essentially talking about a political turf war.

Much as I personally desire and advocate remaining a self-regulated industry, it may be prudent to re-visit the advisability of some kind of state-level involvement. Perhaps a hybrid approach is sufficient, proving ourselves capable of self-regulation but sun-rising a protection of title legislation similar to that produced on behalf of counselors in Washington State. Whatever choices we make along those lines, our credentialing efforts must support those choices and help protect against any remaining risks.

In addition to these two primary points, I believe it is important that we not waste the past several years’ worth of tangible and intangible marketing capital (including time, energy, money, and public goodwill developed) expended in the process of promoting the existing ACC/PCC/MCC credentials. There is nothing wrong with these existing credentials that a little tweaking in definition, rigor in assessment, and some more public education can’t cure. I see this as a matter of significant refinement that’s needed more than complete re-architecting in terms of what the credentials are meant to signify. Let’s not squander the investments we’ve already made by completely abandoning an appellation just as it’s beginning to gain a foothold.

To those who have indicated that other professions have a single credentialing process so why not collapse our own, I disagree. There are some professions that do not compare directly with coaching that may; others do have active or de facto leveling indicators so it’s important to compare apples to apples when heading down this line of logic.

Aviation: multiple levels of credentialing with higher standards for the same activities with each higher level credential as well as increased expectations around new behaviors or knowledge at higher levels. Credentialing for subspecialties also exist. Don’t have to be a licensed pilot to be alone in an airplane, but do have to have proven basic level of skills and there are restrictions to what is allowed as a student pilot and also at other levels of certification – part of the certification process requires demonstrating knowledge about what is and is not allowed at that level. Excellent comparison because there is both fact-based information and knowledge assessments as well as skills-based behavior assessments. There was a time when aviation struggled to find appropriate assessment methods to get around assessor bias and otherwise deal with the ‘art’ of flying and we could probably learn a great deal about the behavior-based standards that emerged from that effort. In addition to encouragement of continuing education, there is also requirement for regular proof of currency in basic skills as well as regular re-assessment of standard skills.

Medicine: not an ideal comparison but consider US standards anyway, especially since this is the one that I’ve heard frequently (and, in my mind inappropriately) referred to as an example of a single credentialing system augmented with subspecialties – doctors move through the system as interns, residents, sometimes a fellowship, on their way to becoming attending physicians. Board certification comes at the latter stages, meaning they typically are calling themselves doctors before that – but not before completing their training and at least a year of internship-residency. So in a day-to-day sense, there really is some indication of levels of proficiency, even if it’s not directly related to board certification and even if the general public isn’t always aware of it.

Law: this is the closest to a single credential system profession but is the least useful in comparing to coaching, especially since when there are groups of attorneys there are still gradations of expertise evident. Yes, there is only a single bar exam to pass, but then most new attorneys join firms as an associate, having often worked first as a junior associate (summer clerk or summer associate) while still in law school. Only after proving their value to the firm do they become senior associates and then later equity partners or shareholders and then senior partners or shareholders. Granted, these distinctions are conferred based on value to the firm rather than necessarily value to the client but since the two are related, clients generally key off of them as well. Clients almost always know they’re trading cost for expertise when they are working with an associate as opposed to a partner or shareholder and they make those choices on purpose.

My assessment is that it is also imperative that we approach this matter in a way that brings coaches (as well as individuals who may not refer to themselves solely as coaches but nevertheless use coaching skills as a key element in achieving success) together rather than risk further fracturing us as a group. Already we have evidence-based coaching vs. intuitive-based coaching, business/executive coaching vs. personal/life coaching, and individuals who think of themselves more as facilitators of success in real estate or in high tech or in health care, etc than as coaches who specialize in those various niche markets. We don’t need further fracturing over credentialing – it would only create deeper rifts and potentially turn away the very people we’ve worked so hard to bring into the fold.

Furthermore, if we undermine the cohesiveness of our professional association in a legal environment that seems poised to tip one way or another with regard to the legal aspects of our industry, it could completely disrupt any successes we’ve achieved to date with the coaching appellation and in so doing, set up a downward spiral of waning support which breeds further lack of community around coaching which erodes support, etc – a disastrous end that personally, I’d like very much to avoid.

To that purpose, I advocate the following:
  • Yes, by all means, do use ISO as a framework to create the structure around one or more ICF credentials and market the heck out of doing so once we’ve got it all worked out how to best do this.
  • Stick with a three-tiered credentialing scheme – ideally keeping the existing names so that we do not squander our earlier investments; if only one level is ISO-compliant, so be it but all three serve a purpose and preserving the value of our existing investments is important.

    Keep a base-level credential similar to the existing ACC – make whatever changes you must to indicate a base level of training and performance that distinguishes ‘real’ coaches from those just calling themselves that and from bartenders and hairdressers who also listen for money… but just make sure to provide some barrier to entry that also clearly distinguishes coaching from counseling and therapy. Plenty of other professions provide for some restriction regarding oversight and/or allowable activities. Something along those lines might not be out of line here.

    Keep the PCC-level credential as the central ‘this is what it means to be truly professional’ standard but not the only credential. Again, revise as necessary to address the concerns identified but I see no need to do away with the existing credential altogether. Ideally, the shift in this credential in particular primarily would be one of process (how assessments are made) rather than content (which assessments are made).

    If significant changes are made, then there will be the matter of deciding what to do with coaches already possessing this credential. Rather than strict grandfathering or stripping of the credential altogether, I recommend transition time be granted to meet the newer standards, after which time they would no longer be eligible to continue using that credential – presumably it would still be an option to drop back to the ACC. If there are recurring basic-level assessments (as in aviation – pass the original assessments once, but regular re-assessment of basics), I would think it would be preferable to conduct assessments at the more basic ‘review’ level rather than full-on re-certification for such legacy credential-holders.

    Keep the MCC-level credential with or without sub-specialty designations. There is a real need to prove mastery although I believe it makes some sense that such mastery might be differentiated into distinct sub-specialties. Regardless of whether there are sub-specialty designations, it makes sense that mentor coaches and assessor coaches come from ranks of those determined to be operating at a mastery level. Similar issues regarding how to handle existing credential-holders exist here as for PCC, although if this credential is not created within the ISO framework, it seems it would be much easier to keep it largely ‘as-is’ and thereby minimize disruption. Further assessment of how this and the other credentials ‘should’ be handled is impossible without additional detail regarding what we’re specifically trying to accomplish.
  • Regardless of how credentialing is leveled, it is important to maintain some kind of portfolio approach for those who have the skills but not necessarily undergone significant formal coach training. It would of course be so much easier to say that the only way people know how to coach is to receive training but the truth is that it’s a bit more complicated than that. One of the few ways we know what we mean when we say that we’re coaching is through such training, but I’ve witnessed any number of people who take a coaching approach, often with a high degree of mastery, without having undergone formal training themselves. Let’s not unnecessarily fabricate hoops for such people to jump through – since we can’t prevent them from calling themselves coaches, let’s do what we can to make it easier for them to mean the same thing we do when they use the term while still having that meaning be a worthy distinction.
  • Incorporate GAF scores (General Assessment of Functioning) into the definition of coaching and training on appropriate use of this scale into coach-specific training and coach credentialing assessment. No coach designations or claim to title should be possible without having this most basic risk assessment function trained and assessed, along with basic ethics training and assessment as well.
  • Begin an outreach to those individuals who may already be ‘coaching’ and actively pursue getting them credentialed if they qualify, perhaps with a buddy program and/or mapping out the most efficient path for them to become credentialed. Just as damaging to coaching as an industry as individuals who call themselves coaches without any skills or training are those who are plenty successful and well-respected doing what they do (regardless of whether ICF would consider it coaching or not) and see no relevance whatsoever to being part of the ICF or its credentialing process. This only further dilutes the marketplace understanding of the term and makes ICF member coaches sound more like the also-ran wannabes than the other way around.
  • Step up the volume on existing educational campaigns. Regularly send out relevant press releases to local news media with lists of names of credentialed coaches they can contact for interviews or additional information. Some of the releases may be tied into our own efforts, some might be keyed into current water-cooler talk – like when Nip/Tuck features a coach in their plotline or a celebrity talks about hiring a coach, etc. As a professional association, initiate and make it easy for members to initiate conversations outside our own ranks about what it means to coach and the value of being credentialed – again, though, if there are others already successful who don’t see the relevance, we aren’t likely to get very far on that count.
These are my recommendations of elements to consider going forward. As a separate yet equally important matter, I’d also like to address the matter of communication during this process. My experience with both sides of communications around significant change are that those integrally involved feel like they’re communicating very well – even over-communicating – and those outside typically feel the polar opposite. Since I’m much less ‘in-the-know’ on this particular effort, I’ll share an outsider’s point of view regarding areas of concern specific to communication:

  • Please ensure that your message is both clear and consistent – on the October 20 call, coaches expressed concern over collapsing ICF coaching credentials to a single ISO-based credential – the response at that time was that there is NOT an intent to do such a thing, yet I can understand the confusion since the latest substantive update on the credential revision process says exactly that, that there will be a single credential with additional specialty distinctions possible (Q/A section) and in other official communications I’ve seen or heard there would be a ‘central’ credential with add-on specialties, which still sounds rather like a single credential and when it doesn’t, it’s just plain confusing as to quite what it means.
  • Streamline the message but extend it out in a variety of formats and don’t assume that once is enough – while you don’t want to overwhelm people with information you also have to deal with the fact that they already feel overwhelmed and so often are missing information when it does come in because not everything that comes to our inboxes is seen & read right away. Put it in an obvious place on the web, tweet it, put it on FB, whatever you have to do to get everyone’s attention.
  • It’s fair that ‘open comment period’ means you’re not responding yet to concerns or even to questions that have been raised – however it’s important that you’re ultra clear about exactly when and how answers WILL be provided. And when it is a matter of answering questions rather than in engaging in debate (although I’ll certain concede the point that there is both a gray area there and probably a slippery slope as well), I’d encourage you to reconsider your silence. It is human nature (even among coaches) to fill in gaps where they exist, usually with the worst possible interpretation.
  • Answering questions must include a much more clear and meaningful response to why we’re doing this, what exactly it is that we hope to accomplish, and why we’re doing it now. During the October 20 call, I heard repeated requests for this information and no real response to the questions. It seems reasonable the existing credentials might need some refinement, however the effort being undertaken appears to be much more than a simple refinement and this degree of overhaul requires further explanation. What exactly is wrong? How are the existing credentials failing us? What exactly are we trying to accomplish and how will whatever we’re proposing (however far along in that process we are at any given point in time) accomplish that and what are we doing to ensure that the basic requirements for success will be met?
For example – none of what I’ve heard so far convinces me that the new approach, whatever it may be, will be any more likely than the existing approach to address the issue of timeliness when it comes to granting credentials. Even though that is one of the key reasons I’ve heard cited for making a change, it clearly can’t be the only reason, given that completely overhauling the credentialing system from scratch doesn’t seem like an appropriate response to addressing a timeliness issue. And if we’re not completely overhauling the credentialing system from scratch, then it would help to have it not sound so much like that’s what’s happening.

I do hope that despite some length due to the complexity of the matter that I’ve managed to clearly enough convey both my ‘first blush response’ as well as a detailed outline of what I believe to be important elements of consideration going forward. If I can be more clear in any particular area, please let me know. If I can be of any service in moving forward, please let me know that too.

I wish our industry and our professional association the very best and remain hopeful that we can remain both viable and relevant.


Kimm Viebrock, ACC
Former PSCA (ICF chapter) President

As with so many other things, this is one of those where it is important to educate yourself and then form a thoughtful opinion - how does it impact you, what will it take to succeed, what compromises are necessary, and so forth. Whether it's for this matter directly or another one that this helps you think about, I hope I've provided some useful thoughts for consideration. Back now to your regularly scheduled programming...

How are you sharing your carefully considered thoughts?