Is the ICF Running a Pyramid Scheme?

I have mixed feelings about the ICF (International Coaching Federation).

As I pointed out in my post Do Life Coaches Need ICF Accreditation, they do at least attempt to advance coaching as a profession.

That even though they have very little power, they do try to educate and guide coaches toward operating professionally and within a code of ethics.

It’s an uphill battle because the industry is saturated with coaches just doing their own thing, many with no knowledge of the ICF.

But they try.

On the flip side, the ICF continues to commission and then publish nonsensical reports every 4-years about the supposed healthy state of the coaching industry.

The one published last year suggested that the average income for a coach in the United States is over $62,000.

Utter bollocks.

I bet it’s less than $20,000.

But, to any person thinking of becoming a coach who stumbles across the report, it makes fabulous reading.

I mean come on, if the AVERAGE coach is earning $62k then surely you can get to $100k?

This offers false hope to people, many of whom may have lost their livelihood to Covid and have no idea how to run their own business.

And it encourages them to spend what little money they may have to acquire an ICF accreditation.

getting paid

Everybody Gets Paid Except the Coach

Because when they do, the ICF get paid, the training companies get paid and the coach gets a lovely, albeit rather expensive, certificate. 

What the ICF doesn’t tell you and what most of the larger training organisations actively hide from you, is how fucking hard it is to get paying clients.

I mean, it’s brutally hard.

Coaching is as competitive as any industry on the face of the planet.

Most coaches have no clue about this when they start their journey.

They don’t realize that the coaches who do really well are as dedicated and skilled at marketing as they are at coaching.

Nobody succeeds as a coach just because they are a good, or even a great, coach.

But how could any new coach know that when it’s being actively hidden from them by the people they are putting their trust in?

You could argue that nobody tells somebody training to become a chef and open a restaurant that most fail in their first 3 years.

It’s not a fair comparison though.

The restaurant industry is mature and (almost) everybody understands it’s highly competitive and volatile.

Opening a restaurant requires a large financial investment and thus it’s more likely to appeal to highly committed people who appreciate the hard work that lies ahead.

Also, the restaurant industry isn’t being preyed on by unethical marketers battering social media with ads about how easy it is to get clients if you just give them what money you have left.

So we have a situation where:

  • The ICF doesn’t tell coaches it’s really hard
  • The training companies either hide the fact it’s really hard or flat out lie and suggest otherwise
  • The marketers say it’s easy if you hire them

It’s a trifecta of utter crap.

There’s no wonder there are so many bewildered coaches who have no clue where their dream disappeared to.

All that’s pretty bad, but it’s about to get worse.

I had a comment to my post Do Life Coaches Need ICF Accreditation recently that made me start to wonder if what respect I do/did have for the ICF was misplaced.

The comment was anonymous and as it’s there for anybody to read in its entirety anyway, I feel comfortable reproducing it in this post.

I’ve done is added some paragraph breaks to make it easier to read, but other than that, it’s as published.

And in fairness to the commentator, she refers to closed-loops. It’s me who used the term pyramid scheme because that’s what I immediately thought of.

Assorted people thinking

Is the ICF Running a Pyramid Scheme?

I found this (article) really helpful as I am in the process of getting my ACC certification.

My employer paid for my coaching training, but I paid for my mentor coaching ($1500) and will then have to pay the certification exam fee and processing fee myself.

It’s a substantial investment, but because my employer does want me to coach, and I want to develop a private practice of clients, I figured it would be worth it.

However, I was going through the ICF site and realized that to renew my ACC certification 3 years after I receive it, I have to go through another 10 hours of mentor coaching (even though, presumably, I will have been coaching the entire three years).

So, 2.5 years from this fall (when I expect to be certified) I will have to invest more money in mentor coaching, because the mentor coaching has to be done over a certain number of months to meet ICF standards.

That made me realize, this is an interesting little closed feedback loop the ICF has created, and I can see why they did it.

So many coaches say they struggle to get clients. However, if people getting or renewing an ACC must get 20 hours of mentor coaching (10 to obtain, 10 to renew), that creates a built-in market for coaches to coach other coaches.

And, in fact, in searching I found tons of websites with PCCs or MCCs offering “mentor coaching packages” that were all $1000+. I would love to know how many of those coaches are doing coaching of non-coach clients, or if the bulk of their business is coaching other coaches?

Corollary question, does the ICF really exist to create a “gold standard in coaching,” as they say?

Or is it to create a closed loop market where coaches get certified, renew, and then can coach other coaches and have somewhat of a guaranteed audience/income stream?

I am still going to get my ACC – I’m too far into it to abandon it at this point. Whether or not I renew will become a different story. I figure if I get the credential, and don’t renew, I can at least then say I had an ACC credential, but chose not to renew it for X reasons.

My education and experience will be verified, but I’m just not sure how interested I am in financially propping up the ICF for the rest of my career.

What Do You Think About The ICF?

I said at the beginning I had mixed feelings about the ICF and that’s still technically true.

But I think it’s obvious that I have way more negative feelings than positive ones.

I would LOVE to hear your thoughts. Whether you agree or disagree with me please drop a comment in below.

 

Comments

  1. Tim,

    You don’t even need a big hammer to hit this nail on the head.

    I have been coaching/consulting to executives on my own since 1990. So what do I know? This:

    1. It is still very hard to find clients. And always will be. (I found one of my best clients in a bathroom/toilet. Or he found me. My point? Don’t give up. You never know.)
    2. The clients/companies that keep using me (over decades, in a few cases) signed on originally for my experience, not a piece of paper. (This includes a huge federal institution.)
    3. It is normally HR who wants proof of certification. Why? (a) It’s called cover your you-know-what if things go wrong; (b) it’s called lazy because they won’t do the homework to get proper referrals. (For the record, one of my long-term coaching assignments came via HR, so please know that not all HR people make these mistakes.)
    4. My most rewarding clients were, and are, only interested in my experience. But then, these clients are executives, who already know what value to attach to a piece of paper with no real world experience. And they know how to check me out before committing.
    5. Is there a problem with training coaches? Yes, when you get “permission” to call yourself a life coach while still in your twenties. For Pete’s sake. I am in my sixties and I am still learning about life! What the hell did I know in my twenties? Even though I had three pieces of paper.

    A final word for your hammer: A pyramid scheme only works because . . . fill in the blank. (Hint: people willing to hand over their cash with no due diligence. Maybe they needed a coach to guide them?)

    May the nonsense be with you.

    James

    • Tim Brownson

      I think when it comes to pure coaching i.e.the co-active method, then age is largely academic because it’s not about understanding life per see, but asking questions that will help shift peoples perspective.

      I think exec coaching is different however, and it would be almost impossible for a twentysomething to be seen as credible for people in such situations.

  2. Emma

    I was encouraged to join ICF after my coach training, but I had an ethical issue in that they wanted details of my clients for accreditation. This goes against privacy laws in my country-so no accreditation for me

    • Tim Brownson

      Wow, you would think that the ICF would have wrapped their head around local legislation. Very strange.

  3. Dirk Eckold

    I have been coaching, training and consulting on a corporate and also on a private level for over 30 years now. I did my trainings and was awarded proper certificates. Not very long ago I threw them all away (just like my old sport trophies) because nobody EVER asked me for them.

    My engagements always went like this: I was hired and my results were looked at. In most cases the engagement went on for many years. Not in every case, though. Some went awry and didn’t last very long. That’s how it goes, in life and in business, n’est pas? There’ always room to learn. And it’s the results our work is measured by, not certificates.

    We all know that the “coaching business” like any other business has been und will be misused. That’s bad enough. But organizations that claim to preserve, protect and defend “the sacred truth” are liable to overdo things once they feel “called”. And especially so if that’s remunerative.

    Rules are guidelines, not iron cages. Or so I learned to see it after having lived in the Mediterranean for almost 20 years.

    I agree with you, Tim – it’s not easy for a coach to find enough well-paying clients. And it won’t probably ever be. But it’s worth the effort, on the long run. If you do your job well.
    That’s all it needs.

    Dirk

    • Tim Brownson

      Yep. I said in the post I linked to, I have only been asked (I think) once if I was ICF accredited. And nobody has ever asked me what training, in general, I’ve done.

      If I were starting all over I’d split the thousands of pounds I spent on training down the middle and spend half on getting marketing help.

      Hindsight is awesome!

  4. Harvey Opps

    Imagine if universities required you to take a refresher semester every three years to keep your degree. Licensing, control and policing is a normal part of Western society. In the US one Dietician organization tried to get legislation that only their licensed members could give ‘diet’, or ‘food’ advice.

  5. Great post Tim. I’ve opted to not use ICF as the cost is really high and I don’t need another piece of paper to tell me I’m an awesome coach.
    If I had known I’d have to learn as much or more about marketing as I do coaching, I would NEVER have started on this journey.
    I’ve been interviewing business coaches, (some are really big names in the industry) and I’ve discovered that all they have going for them is marketing! They have a great message and a promise to help you get paying clients. Then I have to do the work to bring them in.
    Here’s the thing, these folks mostly just suck. 2 of my “interviews” in the last week were the worst conversations I’ve ever had. One was a 30 minute call that lasted and hour (boundaries) and she still wasn’t able to tell me what I’d get for my $5000 other than more do it yourself marketing (while she was distracted by her daughter on camera) and the other was a 30 minute call where after 10 minutes she was trying to end the call, even though I’d previously purchased a program from her (warm lead) and would have paid more to get help getting clients.
    I will be watching to see how our industry evolves. My hope is that we bring a consistent and understandable coaching practice to the public, instead of just coaching each other.
    I’ve been self-employed for 21 years and you don’t get to stay that way if you’re not good at what you do. I’m really good at holding space for others. Grounded with my attention focused on the client. If it’s not about the client, I need to shut the hell up. Thanks for all you do for us Tim and thanks for letting me rant!
    Laura

    • Tim Brownson

      You’re welcome and you can always have a good rant here!

      Maybe you should have contacted a business coach who has done what you want to do.

      No idea who that could be 😉

  6. You make some really good points. Calling the ICF a pyramid scheme might be a bit of hyperbole, but it does highlight the issues of coaches existing purely to coach other coaches.

    However, the ICF isn’t the only group doing that. Social media is full of ads for courses that will teach you how to create your own life coach training program that teaches people how to create THEIR own life coach training program that teaches others how to create a life coach training program…….
    Since 99.9% of the public is unaware of the ICF, I would submit to you it’s actually unqualified coaches and scam courses giving the whole field a bad name and make it harder for trained coaches to overcome the public perception of life coaching as a MLM scheme. That negative perception makes marketing as a coach just that much harder.

    Unfortunately with no regulation in place, there is no lack of scammers willing to sell how-to courses and promise easy riches to gullible people. If the field is to grow in legitimacy and public acceptance, there needs to be more accountability and ICF-type standards can help with that accountability.

    But how do you get there without involving heavy handed government oversight?

    • Tim Brownson

      In terms of your last question, I honestly have no clue it’s a real conundrum.

      If 99.9% of the public don’t know what the ICF is or does then I’m not sure having more ICF accredited coaches really helps matters.

      And yeh, the internet is awash with scammers with a lot are focussing on the coaching industry because supply far outstrips demand.

      The ads in Facebook feed are pretty much entirely made up of marketers selling bs solutions to desperate coaches. I saw one guy advertising a course called 7 days to 7 clients for $7 the other week.

      Does anybody seriously believe that?

      I’m very much an outlier when I tell coaches, this is really, really hard and there’s zero point hiring me if you want quick wins because I don’t know any.

  7. Tim,

    It is posts like these that literally make me love you. You keep it real! Having been in the industry now for ten years, yes 10, my lens looks more to reality than they hype that is out there. When I first began I too believed ICF was the way to go, until something happened in a peer coaching session. I was doing peer coaching after completing a coaching training program (it wasn’t ICF but supposedly accredited). In the peer coaching session I was the client and my coach pushed too much during the meeting on a particular topic and I ended up in tears. Afterwards I realized it was a trigger, as I have since been diagnosed with PTSD.

    Understanding that the school was not equipped to hand this situation, the coach apologized. But I was left with an emotional hole with no resources. I backed completely away from all private coaching certifications including the ICF. I saw how closely psychology ties to coaching. So I went back to school and earned my B.S. in Psychology/Life Coaching instead of seeking an ICF credential.

    One online coaching directory I was trying to join would not accept me because I am not ICF certified, although I have a B.S. in Psychology/Life Coaching. You are absolutely right they do not tell you how hard it is to get clients. After ten years I no longer dedicate most of my time to getting clients. Yes, I am available but I am seeking other avenues to share my coaching programs with the world.

    Once again, Thanks for keeping things real for us!
    Best of luck to you!

    • Tim Brownson

      Thanks Athena, and it’s always disappointing to hear stories like that.

      The coaching world is a better place because you hung in there!

  8. Oh man, don’t even get me started on the ICF. They call themselves the “gold standard”, but gold standard compared to what exactly? Which other certifying organizations are they comparing themselves to? I think they’re like Starbucks….they’re proabably not the best, but they’re the best at marketing themselves.

    Not to mention having to pay $200+ every year just to renew my membership. I’m honestly considering letting my membership expire, but if you let your membership expire then you lose all the Continuing Education credits you’ve gained.

    Like others have said, I haven’t had a single person ask me about my certification and/or training.

    • Tim Brownson

      Yikes! I had no clue you had to pay $200 per annum too.

      It’s really no wonder they published bullshit ‘market research’ and are happy for almost any company to affiliate with them as long as they can pay.

      Something has got to give in the coaching industry because it’s unsustainable at the moment.

  9. Tim, as always, I love reading your posts and how you say it like it is. I wasn’t going to do ICF, and then I got it in my head that it might be a good idea because I do some corporate coaching, and I wanted to please one of my coach trainers. Hahaha! Yes, I said that.

    Of course, the company I do that coaching for has never asked for ICF, and no one else ever has either. Anyway, I hired a mentor coach. I paid $900 for his poor mentoring skills. Sigh! I have one more call to do with him to complete that process. I’m not sure if I’m going to spend the money actually to do the ICF. Because I do believe it is a big scheme, much like when I was teaching Pilates. The Pilates Method Alliance is the same thing ICF is. Take your money and make you keep on paying for certs each year. Sigh again!

    Anyway, thanks for the post.

    • Tim Brownson

      Well, that’s frustrating. To pay that kind of money and not get a highly skilled coach.

      Sorry to hear it Vonie.

  10. I totally agree, they actually say that they have no authority legal that is. That they are a self created and self governing body. The thing is people have been talking about them for so long perception is that they do. And your right about the loop it’s only there chosen coaching trainings that they accept and no others. Saying they don’t meet there standards. What’s that say about all the other trainings when perception is that ICF is king. There are titans in the coaching industry and many others with hugely successful practices in the industry that are trained by other trainings and don’t have or use ICF methods. Weather it was by accident or design but awareness and perception for the public and coaches has to change.

    • Tim Brownson

      It’s actually not that hard to affiliate a training company with the ICF if you have the requisite cash.

      I looked into it with Coach the Life Coach about 5 or 6 years ago before I decided to stop teaching coaching and focus on the marketing element.

      I baulked at the idea because the costs in terms of what I’d have to pay the ICF and associated admin/running costs meant I’d have to triple what I was charging students.

  11. Hi Tim
    I can’t agree more with you on this ,and every word you wrote.
    As a Life Coach, when I began my coaching journey 3 years ago, I also took a training with Symbiosis a training firm in affiliation to ICF and did my ACC .
    I was suppose to renew it this year, which I did not , not on purpose, but that was the time my father passed away on 12th May 2021,and before that his elder brother my uncle , no one due to Covid but due to heart ailments. I was fasting , was a caregiver and finally now a Grief Coach based on what I’ve been through .
    Your articles are something I always read, with 6000 unread emails ,you and few others are the ones I have not deleted , came upon this one today ,and I agree with every word including the appropriate swear on words you have used both for marketing gurus and the research agencies where everyone seems to be only making money through Coaching business.
    In India , it’s simply not just that we have any structure , there is completely no awareness of the profession called Coaching ,when I told my cousins and network I’m a Grief Coach , I was given a second look to go look for a therapist ,as if I ‘m in a deep state of mental suffering .
    It is this unethical reports , and larger than life projections of the coaching profession , that have mislead many , no wonder every Tom, Dick and Harry now wants to be a Coach .
    ICF certifications ,are more useful for those working with corporates ,since big organizations have a good budget for training and development and for their audit purpose they always prefer an organization or an authorized body than an individual or a single person run business .
    I think Coaching Industry actually need a major push from the Government ,to be funded and accredited in order to create a standards for the Coaches both experience and new ,and a body that define and recognize it as a separate Industry ,so that we do not have private players calling the show!

    • Tim Brownson

      Thanks for the kind word Mehnaz!

      I’m on the fence with Government regulation. In many ways, it would be a good thing I’m just not sure how on earth you enforce/police it because coaching is so vague.

      So for example, if you say life coaching is to be regulated, what stops me from saying I’m a peak performance coach, or a lifestyle designer or a goal setting engineer.

      When California tried to legislate for hypnotherapy they had the devils own job, because people just started doing ‘closed eye processes’

      And what do you do with the tens of thousands of coaches already working as a coach?

      Regulation would solve some problems and throw up a whole new set imho.

  12. I was ICF certified and excited to contribute to the organization back in 2008. However, I never found any value in it. And no one, and I mean NO ONE outside of the coaching industry even knows or cares about what the ICF is (MAYBE an HR manager who wants to cover his/herself by pointing to the certification if the coach sucks).

    As a coach who will be above the 6-figure mark this year (last year I fell just short), I agree that it’s hard to find clients. My background in sales/marketing was huge for me being able to only do coaching and no other jobs for the last decade. It can all be learned, but definitely not in most coaching schools and for sure not because you are certified.

  13. Hello…

    Great I had some doubt and now I got it: I will not do it. And yes my small business clients (although some bigger companies as a lawyer’s cabinet or another health clinic -here in Barcelona- are included in my customers’ list), do not ask for it.

    Truly I am spending more time on networking, or taking course for my own expertise than giving the coaching session I’d love to. It is very slow and the money ICF ask for is too important for me right now. I found a lot more important doing Glen Long sprint training or the WBECS you mentioned than spending time and money with/for the ICF.

    Moreover my school here in Barcelona was so ‘on to you’ while we were doing the training and gave us no clue as to dive in the real market… suddenly we were becoming their own competitors. Although all their ‘marketing packaging’ was ICF proof… there’s a great lack of reality as for landing onto the business, ie. I got to your webpage to got some real truth and straight forward data with no b…sh… to make it smooth 😉

    Last but not least: the coach with whom I did my leap to go for my own life changes suddenly went into the business to train coaches and start up her own school. I realized a big part of her income was strictly to train new comers etc. and yes it looked like a loop. Become a coach to train new coaches….. the business is here. This is not where I belong neither what I become a coach for.

    I do love what I do and I know I need to do some extra jobs here and there to go on growing as a person and as a profesional coach. So bye bye ICF…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

I accept the Privacy Policy