Inside the Coaching Industry

UPDATED: October 20, 2015
PUBLISHED: July 30, 2015

Atrell Learson wanted a change—in her job and her outlook.

“My problem was self-confidence,” she says. Learson wanted to leave a secure corporate job and go on her own as a personal trainer, but doubted she could make enough to support herself and her daughter. “I just didn’t think I could be successful,” she says.

It was through her employer, online shoe retailer Zappos, that Learson got the tools and encouragement she needed. Learson met weekly with Augusta Scott, Zappos’ life coach at the time, who helped shift her thinking, suggested reading material and gave her assignments. Scott taught Learson to limit the negative influences around her and become more purposeful. Today Learson is “on her journey,” Scott says with pride. Learson left Zappos, began learning the ropes of personal training under a mentor’s guidance and is seeking to become certified.

The style of encouragement and support that Scott provided Learson has applications not only in major life changes, but also in business.

Jeremy Hallett was the CEO of a life insurance brokerage in Minneapolis when he contemplated a risky venture. He wanted to start a companion company that would offer free online quotes without asking for the personal information that insurers glean for follow-up sales calls. “It bucks the winds of the industry. I wanted help—an external perspective.”

Hallett turned to executive coach Dave Wondra. Sure, he could have retained a consultant—he’d used them before with success. But a consultant would just be an adviser. “The coach is someone who helps me work on me and work through things,” Hallett explains.

He began weekly sessions with Wondra, who asked open-ended questions to guide him toward his own answers. “I realized I hadn’t thought through the whole scenario,” Hallett says. Ultimately, however, he launched the new business, Quotacy, in July 2014. “It’s working extraordinarily well. [Wondra] helped me strengthen my resolve to go for it and get results. He’s helped me convey my vision to the rest of the company.”

Hallett is one of a rapidly growing legion of believers (including corporate America) in the merits of coaching. The field is unregulated, however, and ripe for exploitation of unwary consumers seeking coaching or training to become coaches.

Two Categories

Excluding sports, there generally are two broad categories of coaching: 1) business or professional and 2) personal or life coaching. Niches include accountability partners, financial coaches, wellness coaches and creativity coaches. There is overlap, too. Clients grappling with balancing work and life, for example, may see benefits professionally and personally.

“You’re only as successful at work as you are in your well-being and relationships,” says Rosemary Bogan, an organizational health coach and consultant in Helena, Ala. Wondra agrees. “It all runs together,” he says. Regardless of the niche, the methods employed are essentially the same. Coaches aren’t mentors imparting wisdom to callow colleagues, nor are therapists helping other individuals through emotional land mines. Instead coaches treat clients as capable and resourceful, asking them questions aimed at helping define goals and guiding them toward winning strategies.

“It’s the client’s agenda, not my agenda,” Wondra says. “There are many different approaches that will get you to the same  place.”

Jules Howard-Wright contacted Vikki Brock, an executive and leadership coach in Ventura, Calif., when struggling with a career dilemma. Howard-Wright was a television engineering and technical operations executive in London at the time. It was a big job, a good job, but Howard-Wright knew her real passion was fashion design. The prospect of an unknown future in another field, however, “kept me awake for many weeks,” she says. Brock began coaching her via telephone and Skype.

Today Howard-Wright lives in San Francisco, where she is co-founder of a television consulting business. She also takes fashion design classes to prepare her for the day when she has her own label. “Vikki gave me the perspective and confidence to do this. I think coaching always brings you back to who you are and what you want.”

The concept of coaching isn’t new. Socrates methodically asked questions and engaged in dialogue to derive truth and knowledge more than 2,000 years ago. In the first half of the 20th century, Dale Carnegie tapped people’s desire for self-improvement with How to Win Friends and Influence People. He also developed business training courses on sales and leadership. Three decades later, in 1968, Og Mandino wrote the best-selling The Greatest Salesman in the World, followed by other inspirational books promoting a successful and happy life.

Brock—who wrote a book about the roots and emergence of the profession—says coaching concepts slowly seeped into business management, and by the 1990s, the profession saw explosive growth when Thomas Leonard created the first coaching curriculum.

Coaching and motivational speaking have made some practitioners rich and famous. Perhaps the most notable is Tony Robbins, who wrote his first best-seller, Unlimited Power, in 1986. That led to self-improvement seminars; the marketing of CDs and DVDs; infomercials for his personal growth programs; and one-on-one sessions with corporate honchos, movie stars and athletes.

Industry Boom

Coaching is a booming international industry. In a global study released in 2012, the Lexington, Ky.-based International Coach Federation (ICF), the industry’s largest trade association, estimated about 41,300 active professional coaches worldwide generated nearly $2 billion in annual revenue. In North America, about 14,060 coaches earned some $707 million.

While the ICF is the largest and best-known global coaching organization, the New Mexico-based International Association of Coaching (IAC) also promotes professionalism and, like the ICF, certifies coaches who meet standards. There also are coach associations for specific groups such as lawyers, executives and creatives.

“We’re looking for a leveling off [in coaching’s popularity], and it’s not happening,” says Magdalena Mook, ICF executive director and CEO. Part of that results from a change in corporate culture: Companies that once provided coaching only to C-suite executives now offer it to middle managers and others, she says.

“Coaching is becoming woven into the fabric of people’s lives,” says Brock, who has been in the business for 20 years.


Brock has an international client base—she does 95 percent of her sessions via telephone and the Internet. Electronic coaching (or e-coaching) has become a staple of the profession and makes professional guidance highly  accessible.

Financial analyst Evelyn Hamilton, for instance, had weekly coaching sessions via Skype with Aspen, Colo., life coach Andy Wooten, who helped her gain confidence.

When the coaching started, Hamilton already had a well-paid job, but she told Wooten she felt dissatisfied that her skills were underutilized. Still, she was complacent about searching elsewhere. “Getting a job when you already have a good job, there was no sense of urgency,” she says.

Wooten helped her shake her inertia, and if she slacked off in her job hunt, he would call her on it. “It’s accountability,” she says. “I would recommit.” Eventually she landed her current analyst position. “It’s a spectacular job” with more responsibilities but also a four-day workweek, she says.

Hamilton likes coaching because it focuses on the present, setting goals and accomplishing them “with the tools you have in your toolbox.” Wooten would ask her what her wins were each week. “If you’re just living your life, you don’t stop and think about the good things that have happened,” Hamilton says. Reflecting “just naturally builds your confidence.”

Others have had less positive experiences, including Wooten himself. He retained a coach last fall in an effort to grow his business, which he began in 2012, but came away feeling unfulfilled. “The guy was a salesman. He wasn’t a coach,” says Wooten, adding that the coach offered no encouragement or inspiration. “He coached by edict. It felt like working for a bad manager. It got to the point where I loathed the sessions with this guy.”

Wooten suggests leaving your coach if you’ve made no progress after about three months. “It takes about that long to get traction on things”—delving into issues, and developing strategies and action plans.

A coach’s experience is meant to advise possible directions to his student, but sometimes it can work in negative ways. Sophia Wharton of Topeka, Kan., turned to a coach for help in ending a relationship. But her coach was involved with a woman whom he seemed fearful of losing, and when Wharton wanted to develop a plan to leave her own partner, the coach wasn’t helpful.

“It was clear he was resisting,” she says. Wharton felt that her coach projected his relationship anxieties onto her, saying things like, “Being alone is its own selfishness.” Yet he didn’t offer any alternatives to leaving the guy. “We were never making a  plan.”

The unfortunate reality is that anybody can say he’s a coach, trained or not. In the 2012 ICF survey, 43 percent of coaches said the biggest obstacle facing the profession was untrained individuals who call themselves coaches.


The ICF, which has more than 27,000 members in 131 countries, says the core competencies and code of ethics it created—along with its accreditation of training programs that align with them—provides self-regulation.

Both the ICF and the IAC require that coaches seeking accreditation or certification demonstrate their skills either through coaching logs illustrating their experience or audio recordings and transcripts of coaching sessions or both. “There’s a huge difference between knowing what to do and actually doing it,” Wondra  says.

The credentialing process can be arduous. Bogan flew to San Diego one weekend a month for a year—10 hours a day, 24 days total—to complete her training at an accredited program. At the same time, she was being personally coached by telephone every week to become a better coach herself.

The most advanced ICF credential is that of a master certified coach. It requires 200 hours of coach-specific training, 10 hours of being mentored and 2,500 hours of coaching experience with at least 35  clients.

“A credential is a quality seal, so to speak,” Wondra says.

Colleges are stepping up, adding coaching to their curriculums. Columbia University has certificate programs for private and internal coaches, managers, human resources leaders and others. Across town, New York University offers a two-semester certificate, obtainable after successfully completing six courses. At the office of continuing education at George Mason University in Virginia, executives and other professionals “who seek to develop an increased emotional intelligence to better engage employees” can earn a certificate in leadership coaching for organizational performance.

Mook praises the trend as “another step in legitimizing coaching.”

Legitimacy also comes with results. In an independent global survey released last year by the ICF, 85 percent of respondents who had been in a coaching relationship said they were somewhat or very satisfied.

Hallett is one such satisfied client. You might think the successful launch of his online business would have ended the coaching relationship with Wondra. But three years later, it continues. “Building a business is a process,” Hallett says. “I always think I’ll get to the goal I set for myself,” but new problems and opportunities emerge.

“I don’t see myself stopping.”

This article appears in the September 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine.