The coaching industry is booming.
Consider this: in 1999, only about 200 coaches worldwide held a credential from the International Coach Federation (ICF). By 2010, this number had grown to 6900. By 2018, a whopping 25,000 individuals from 119 different countries held an ICF credential. As of January 2023, this number has reached 49,603 and growing each and every day.
Indeed, the coaching industry is in its golden age. As globalization marches forward and the latest technologies continue to disrupt every facet of human life, the world we find ourselves navigating seems to change more every day than it ever has before.
And while this growing complexity serves as a challenge for everyone trying to find purpose and satisfaction in their lives, it does have one unmistakably positive effect: it strengthens and affirms the coach’s role in modern society, in both our personal and professional lives.
Whether you’re passionate about coaching and you’re looking to turn your passion into an exciting new career or you’re simply just curious about what coaching means and you’d like to learn more, this guide will help you take that important first step toward achieving your goals.
If you’re interested in learning how to become a life coach, here are the five basic steps:
- 1: Immerse Yourself in Coaching
- 2: Complete a Life Coach Training Program
- 3: Earn Your ICF Credential
- 4: Open Your Business or Get Hired as a Coach
- 5: Develop Your Brand
In this guide, we’ll go over each of these five basic steps in complete detail. By the end of it, you should have a clearer understanding of what a career in coaching looks like as well as the challenges you’ll need to overcome to turn your career aspirations into reality.
Let’s get started!
Step 1: Immerse Yourself in Coaching
Becoming a certified life coach is one of the best career decisions you’ll ever make. But there is a steep cost to getting certified–sometimes upwards of $12,000 or more depending on the program you choose.
Before investing a large amount of money and 6 to 12 months of your time into getting certified, you’ll want to be absolutely sure that coaching is the ideal career path for you. Before paying for an education, you’ve got to educate yourself.
There are plenty of resources–both online and offline–that will give you an insider’s point of view on what coaching is really like. Books, instructional videos on YouTube, industry events, Meetups, and even booking a career coach for a one-on-one session to discuss your career aspirations–these are all valuable ways to get a first-hand look at what a real coach does on a daily basis.
The most widely-respected book on becoming a life coach is Walks of Life by Jill M. Fratto of the National Coach Academy. Filled with real coaching conversations and a complete step-by-step guide on getting certified, Walks of Life was written for the aspiring life coach who is looking for a first-hand account of what coaching looks like. Ms. Fratto is also a Certified Professional Coach with over 15 years of coaching experience, so her perspective is valuable for anyone looking to start a new coaching career.
Once you feel like you’ve got a deeper understanding of the coaching process, it’s time to start investing in your future.
Step 2: Complete a Life Coach Training Program
There was a time long ago when completing a life coach certification program was optional. Back in the early 90s when coaching was still in its infancy and there were less than 10 training programs in the world, a life coach being able to call herself certified was a nice perk, but by no means a requirement to attracting clients.
That day is long gone.
In today’s world where trust is valued over everything, completing your certification is one of the most important steps you’ll take on your journey to becoming a life coach.
If you’ve taken a look at some of the different coach programs available on the market, you probably came back a bit overwhelmed. There are a lot of options–as of 2023, more than 1000 different programs and counting.
How do you even begin to choose the program that will best prepare you for a career as a life coach? It’s not an easy process, but here are three basic considerations you’ll want to keep in mind as you begin your search.
While it’s true that there are over 1000 different coach training programs to choose from, not all programs are created equally.
One of the most basic distinctions you’ll want to make is what kind of accreditation the school has achieved. The gold standard of life coach training accreditation is the International Coach Federation. The ICF was founded in 1995 by Thomas Leonard — the “Father of Coaching” as many know him as today. The purpose of the ICF was two-fold: (1) to help support coaches in an exciting, yet very new, profession, and (2) to set standards of ethics and practice that would help grow and legitimize the coaching profession worldwide.
More than 25 years later, the ICF is the foremost authority on what it means to be a professional coach. If Thomas Leonard were alive today, it’s safe to say he would beam with pride at the job the ICF has continued to do in supporting and legitimizing the world of coaching.
As mentioned, one of the primary functions of the ICF is also to provide accreditation to coach training programs. This is what the ICF website has to say about their coaching accreditation:
“ICF’s Accreditation service for coach-training schools defines curriculum standards to ensure consistency in coach-training programs and consistency among coaching professionals. ICF Credentials are awarded to professional coaches who have met stringent education and experience requirements, and have demonstrated mastery of the coaching competencies.”
The ICF offers three different types of accreditation:
- Accredited Coach Training Program (ACTP): Comprehensive, start-to-finish coach training programs that cover all of ICF’s Core Competencies and includes mentor coaching, observed coaching sessions, and a final exam to ensure the student is prepared for competent coaching.
- Approved Coach Specific Training Hours (ACSTH): Depending on their focus, these programs may contain some or most of the elements of ACTPs and are approved on an hourly basis. Along with some additional requirements, students who complete at least 60 hours through an ACSTH may apply for an ICF credential.
- Continuing Coach Education (CCE): Supplemental training offered to existing coaches who wish to brush up on new skills or renew their credential, which the ICF requires every three years.
Whether you choose an ACTP or an ACSTH is completely up to you, and will depend on your goals, timeline, and budget. ACTPs tend to be longer and more expensive than ACSTHs, so those with more modest budgets who don’t feel the need to complete an A-to-Z style coach training program will do well with an ACSTH. The ICF offers a credential path to coaches who complete either program.
Cost of Program
When it comes to getting certified as a life coach, as with most things in life, you usually get what you pay for.
You’ll want to avoid any training programs that promise you that you’ll be fully equipped to coach real-world clients after completing their $99 online course. It will not only be a waste of your valuable time and money, but if you actually do go out into the real world and attempt to coach a client based on the limited training you received there, you’ll be jeopardizing your reputation–not to mention wasting your client’s time and money, as well.
Just to give you an idea of what to expect, here are the costs of some the most reputable coach training programs:
- Coach Training Alliance: $3,747
- New Ventures West: $13,400
- iPEC: $13,595
- Certified Life Coach Institute: $995
- Co-Active Training Institute: $6,499
- Coach U: $10,090
- Newfield Network: $11,400
The disparity in cost you’ll find among different ICF-accredited coach training programs has more to do with the amount of face-to-face coach training they include and the sheer length of the program, and less to do with the quality of the training itself.
And speaking of face-to-face training…
Method of Delivery
One of the primary reasons why different programs can vary so much in cost is the methods of delivery used to train students. There are three primary methods you’ll find:
- Distance Learning
- Mixed Delivery
These three delivery methods are exactly as they sound, and there are positives and drawbacks of each. Here are some considerations to keep in mind:
Most programs today are taught with a mix of in-person and distance learning. There are some programs out there that are 100% face-to-face, but with the advancement of teleconferencing technology, the rising popularity of online colleges, and the increasingly remote post-COVID world we find ourselves in, most students feel comfortable supplementing their in-person coach training sessions with online study, as well. The ratio of face-to-face and distance learning will vary by program.
Programs with more in-person training will tend to cost more. On average, schools that devote a significant portion of their schedule to live, in-person training usually cost 3-4x as much as online-only programs. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as it costs significantly more money for programs to organize a multi-day event than to have a single instructor hop on a teleconference call and train students for several hours at a time.
Distance-learning programs are especially beneficial for students with strict time commitments, personal or professional. If you’ve got an especially hectic schedule and find it difficult to take any extended time off, an intensive 5-day coach training seminar held halfway across the country may not be best decision to get your coaching career off to a healthy start. For folks with hard commitments, the “learn-at-your-own-pace” aspect of distance learning programs will be especially appealing.
Remote-learning programs have enjoyed something of a resurgence due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and understandably so. Not only are coaches needed today more than ever before, but the widespread availability of online life coach certification programs has made the process of becoming a life coach easier and more accessible than ever before.
Keep in mind that whether a program delivers its material in-person, remotely, or through a combination of both, the quality of a coaching education should still be your top priority. The ICF does not dock any points for a program being exclusively remote, and they have made clear that a fully remote program can just as easily fulfill all of its accreditation requirements as an in-person program.
The fact that a program is fully remote shouldn’t be an excuse for its material to be any less thorough or comprehensive as an in-person program. Any reputable program should still adhere to a well-defined code of ethics and academic rigor.
Which brings us to our next step…
Step 3: Earn Your ICF Credential
By now, it should be clear that graduating from a reputable coach training program is the single best way to prepare yourself for a prosperous and impactful career as a life coach. But the education you’ll receive is only half of the benefit.
When it comes time to advertise your coaching services to potential clients, you’ll want to show that you’ve been trained professionally and in accordance with a well-defined set of standards. You’ll want to communicate to clients that your training academically rigorous and rooted in ethical standards.
Thanks to the global community of coaches that comprise the ICF, there is a way to communicate all of these attributes: attaining an ICF credential.
The ICF offers three credentials:
- Associate Certified Coach (ACC): Minimum of 60 training hours and 100 hours of coaching experience
- Professional Certified Coach (PCC): Minimum of 125 training hours and 500 hours of coaching experience
- Master Certified Coach (MCC): Minimum of 200 training hours and 2500 hours of coaching experience
Once a member has achieved the Professional Certified Coach (PCC) credential, they may apply to become an MCC once they have completed the study and coaching experience requirement.
For those just starting out, though, there are three different application paths for the ACC and PCC credentials:
- ACTP Path
- ACSTH Path
- Portfolio Path
The ACTP Path is just what it sounds like: complete an ACTP, fulfill the minimum number of coaching hours, pass the Coach Knowledge Assessment (CKA) and you’re just about set.
The ACSTH Path is a bit more involved as some ACSTHs are more comprehensive than others, and therefore won’t always fulfill the complete set of requirements that the ICF puts forth to achieve a credential. In addition to graduating from an ACSTH program, fulfilling the minimum number of coaching hours, and passing the CKA, students wishing to pursue the ACSTH path have two additional requirements.
First, the student must have completed 10 hours of Mentor Coaching with a PCC, MCC, or an ACC who has completed one full cycle of their credential (with renewal). At least 3 of the 10 hours must be on a one-on-one basis.
Second, the ICF will conduct a Performance Evaluation on each student applying via the ACSTH path. This comes in the form of a submitted audio recording as well as a written transcript of a coach session.
The Portfolio Path is for students who have completed a coach training program not accredited by the ICF and/or those who are counting Continuing Coach Education (CCE) units to fulfill their requirements.
As you might imagine, students who opt for the Portfolio Path will face more scrutiny in their application than students who apply via the other two paths. The reason for this is simple: if the program they completed is not accredited by the ICF, there must be, in their words, “robust documentation” that the program is comprehensive and follows the same core principles that the ICF has established.
As with the ACTP and ACSTH paths, there is also a Mentor Coaching requirement, a minimum number of coaching experience hours, a coaching evaluation, and the Coach Knowledge Assessment in order to receive your credential.
A Quick Word on Non-ICF Accreditations
At this point you might be wondering: does anyone else other than the ICF grant coach certification? The answer is yes. You have organizations like the Certified Coaches Federation that perform many of the same functions as the ICF. We’re sure they do great work, but reputation and popularity matter when trying to show potential clients that you’re a trusted resource and you know what you’re doing.
If you were making a doctor’s appointment, you wouldn’t think anything negatively about a doctor who graduated from Amherst Medical School, but if given the choice, you’re booking an appointment with the Harvard Medical School grad. Life coach accreditation is just the same. The ICF is not the only accrediting organization, but it’s by far the most trusted. And any program you complete that has the ICF seal of approval will go a long way toward establishing your name in the coaching industry.
Step 4: Open Your Business or Get Hired as a Coach
Once you’ve attained your ICF credential, it’s time to put your training to work.
The first major decision you’ll have to make is whether to open up your own coaching practice or to find employment as a coach within an established company.
Here are some factors to consider as you decide between these two options.
- While most coaches decide to open up their own practice, being an entrepreneur is not for everyone.
If you’ve always dreamed of opening your own business and can’t even fathom the idea of working for someone else, then perhaps entrepreneurship really is for you.
But if you feel intimidated at the thought of complete autonomy, or if the responsibility of having to be a business owner in addition to being a life coach is weighing heavily on your mind, you should know that there is a way to practice your craft as a coach without all of the extra baggage that comes with running a company.
Multinational corporations, gyms, senior living facilities, universities, government organizations…these are just some of the different places where you’ll find full and part-time coaches making a difference every single day.
- As an employee, your income potential is excellent; as an entrepreneur, your income potential is limitless.
According to various job boards online, the average salary posted on life coach jobs is about $70,000. Given that the average salaried worker in the United States earns about $54,132 a year, life coaches do quite well for themselves.
If the idea of earning an above-average income while helping others become their best selves and, to top it all off, not having to stress about running a business appeals to you, then employment is very much a viable option.
If, instead, you prefer to become an entrepreneur and go into business for yourself or with a partner, you should understand that your income potential is extreme in both directions.
As an employee, the profit you generate for the company you work for gets split in a thousand different directions, all out of your control. The part that you keep is whatever is left over once all other business expenses have been covered.
This has its pros and cons. On the one hand, you’ll earn a steady paycheck regardless of how much money you’ve brought into the company through your work. For many coaches, this helps take the pressure off and allows them to practice their craft in the most authentic way possible.
On the other hand, some individuals might find this arrangement rather limiting. If you’ve built up a lot of experience and you run the numbers to realize that you’ve serviced $350,000 worth of business for your company, a yearly salary of $65,000 might not seem to cut it anymore.
As an entrepreneur, you are the business. Once your basic business costs and taxes are paid for, you keep the rest of the revenue that comes in. And even more importantly, when you decide to expand your business, you get to keep all of that extra profit as well.
It’s this open-ended nature of owning a business that allows for unlimited income potential. As an employee, you’re mostly limited to the goals set by the executive team and upper management. As a business owner, you could branch out to public speaking, seminars, books, etc. You can raise your prices. Again, endless possibilities.
On the flip side, going into business for yourself means…you’re by yourself. Your revenue on Day 1 is likely to be absolutely zero. (Actually, it’s worse: you’ll likely be thousands of dollars in debt on Day 1, combined with zero revenue.) For some struggling life coaches, the clients just never come and the coach is forced to close shop or pivot to a related business. It’s a daunting proposition for many.
Your decision comes down to one simple question: does your passion for owning your own business outweigh its risks and demands?
- Your decision is not final. Career arcs are long, and you can switch career paths at any point in the future.
While choosing between business owner and employee can be a tough decision at the start–especially before you have a lot of coaching experience to base your decision off of–remember that no one is forcing you to stick with that decision for the rest of your life. There are plenty of reasons to change course.
Maybe after 6-12 months of giving it your all, you decide that running your own business just isn’t for you.
Maybe you spend those 12 months loving entrepreneurship, but you feel like it would be more beneficial to get your footing while at an established company first, then using that experience to build your business later on.
Maybe you hop from job to job and eventually decide it’s time to take matters into your own hands and start your business.
Remember: switching paths doesn’t mean you made a mistake. As you mature as a coach and work on helping clients live their best lives, you’ll begin to discover truths about yourself as well. Don’t be afraid to admit that it’s time to go in a different direction.
Realize that your unique career path will serve as valuable experience to draw wisdom from when it’s time to coach your own clients.
Step 5: Develop Your Brand
Whether you choose to run your own practice or join a company, the experience of working with your first set of clients is one you won’t soon forget. There’s no feeling like seeing a goal through to completion, from having that initial spark to finally putting all that training into action.
Go ahead and take a step back to feel proud of everything you’ve achieved to this point. You deserve it!
At this point, all of your work responsibilities can be summarized with one important phrase: building your brand.
What does this mean?
For starters, it’s more than just creating a logo and a business card. Your brand is everything in the coaching world.
Let’s discuss some of the ways you’ll be able to develop, nurture, and sustain your brand as a professional coach.
(Note that this information will pertain mostly to coaches who go on to start their own business. While building a brand is also important for employed coaches, that topic falls more under Resume Building, which is a topic for another post.)
The trap that a lot of coaches fall into is relying on a single marketing channel to attract all of their clients. Even if you’ve got thousands of followers on Instagram or you’re the #1 ranking coach on Yelp, you should remember that different people use different forms of social media, and there isn’t always overlap. In other words, just because you’re all over Instagram doesn’t mean someone who primarily uses Pinterest is going to ever find you.
And this “Be Everywhere” attitude doesn’t just apply to social media. There are plenty of ways to attract clients online that have nothing to do with social media:
- Using your blog to attract readers through content marketing
- Targeted display advertising
- Boosting your website’s SEO to build search traffic
- Building an email list
- Secure traditional media engagements to boost visibility
- Creating listings on sites like Thumbtack and Bark
- Guest blogging on popular websites
- Starting a podcast
All of these channels are opportunities to build your brand, connect with a wider variety of people, and show the world that you’re a modern coach who understands how to navigate the world we currently live in.
Create a Referral Network
No matter how present you are on social media or how much search traffic you get on Google, there is nothing more effective than these simple words: “I was referred to you by…”
That’s right: simple word of mouth has always been and will probably always be the single most effective form of marketing your business will ever receive. But contrary to what you might think, word of mouth doesn’t just happen. While it helps, being really good at what you do isn’t enough to get people to talk about you, much less refer business to you.
You have to develop a referral strategy–techniques and incentives that dramatically increase the likelihood that you will be talked about.
Here are some simple ideas to get the ball rolling:
Have a clearly defined niche. It’s hard to refer someone to go see a general life coach. There are thousands of general life coaches to choose from, so it’s harder to see the unique value proposition unless you have a well-defined niche. If, however, you are a coach who specializes in teenage clients with ADHD, it becomes much easier for a client to say, “Oh, I know someone who works with clients who are experiencing exactly what you’re describing.”
Your niche doesn’t have to be this narrow, nor do you have to restrict yourself to just one area of focus. But narrowing your scope beyond general life coaching will certainly provide extra incentive for clients to send more prospects your way.
Keep in mind that your niche doesn’t have to revolve around the client — trauma, career transitions, relationships, work-life balance, etc. Your niche could revolve around you, the coach. What lens do you see your clients through? What unique approach do you take in working with your clients?
Some coaches work with clients dealing with all types of life challenges, but they do so with the aid of horses. This niche is called equine-assisted coaching.
Other coaches also work with all types of clients, but through the lens of philosophy. These are called philosophical coaches.
If you feel that your approach to the human mind and perspective on life is unique, your niche can (and should!) revolve around that unique sensibility rather than artificially choosing one particular life challenge to focus on.
In other words, your niche should reflect you — your unique path in life that has prepared you for this work. A coach’s best work is often the result of a lifetime of preparation, unbeknownst to the coach at the time!
Be accessible in as many ways as you can. In the 1990s, there was pretty much only one way to make initial contact with a coach: over the phone. Today, technology has broadened the scope of basic communication to the point where there are literally dozens of different means of communication–all of them perfectly acceptable. There’s Facebook Messenger, LinkedIn, Twitter DMs, Instagram DMs, WhatsApp, Skype, email, text, and yes, the old fashioned telephone call, just to name a few.
Making yourself available in a variety of different communication channels will make potential clients feel comfortable that you speak “the same language” and will therefore ensure that they feel comfortable contacting you.
There’s a word of caution here though: don’t feel pressured into having a presence on every communication channel known to man. If you’re spending half your day or more posting on Twitter, updating your Instagram, pinning on Pinterest, and designing a Facebook header, you might want to consider focusing your efforts on the 2 or 3 channels you enjoy most and maximizing those.
The point is to be widely available but not spreading your time and attention too thinly that you can’t focus on your actual work.
Connect with thought leaders in your target demographic. While it’s nice to have a recent divorcee singing your praises to her recently divorced friends, think of the referral impact that a divorce lawyer could have if you had made that same connection. The idea of making connections with thought leaders is to take a top-down approach to referral marketing: you want to connect with people who are themselves connecting with your target audience on a regular basis, but in a different capacity.
If your area of focus is health and wellness, connecting with personal trainers and nutritionists would be a fruitful use of your time. If one of your specialties is bridal coaching, then making connections with wedding planners could be a source of future leads as well.
Develop Advanced Coaching Techniques
If someone is looking to thrive in the world of business, they don’t just rely on the basic business courses they took in college; they get an MBA.
Likewise, as a coach, you may have been able to attain your credential through a basic coach training program, but in order to maximize your own potential, you’ll need to continue working on your education well beyond your first credential.
As mentioned, the ICF has designated these supplemental coaching hours as Continuing Coach Education (CCE) units. (These units also count toward your ICF Credential Renewal, so there is a dual purpose).
Some of the most authentic learning also happens outside of the classroom. You can find thousands of different opportunities, both online and in person, that relate to the area of focus that you’ve chosen for your career. The most effective coaches don’t just know about coaching, they seek to understand the world the client is living in, and the best way to achieve that level of empathy is by immersing yourself in that world as much as possible.
As an example, if you’re an addiction recovery coach, attending an open A.A. meeting would be one of the most insightful experiences you can provide for yourself, and will give you a perspective that no classroom could provide.
Seeking out opportunities to more deeply understand your clients, whether they fulfill CCE requirements or not, will make you a better coach and help you develop your brand as an authority in your chosen area of focus.
Look around you. The world is changing faster today than it ever has before. It’s no surprise, then, that this unprecedented rate of change has catapulted life coaching to become the second fastest growing industry in the world.
With the world recovering from the lasting impact of COVID-19, coaches are needed today more than ever. The coaching industry needs intelligent, empathetic, passionate men and women to push the profession even further forward.
Whatever your passion–whether its drug addiction, productivity, work-life balance, emotional health, or any other focus area–there is a place for you in the world of coaching.
If you’d like to pursue this career with full force, take a few days or even a week to try and immerse yourself and fully understand the complex nature of a coaching career.
With hard work, focus, and a great deal of compassion, you can achieve your best life by helping others achieve theirs.