For many years now I’ve been providing advice to CEOs, VPs, and everyday straightforward people. I’ve always described this as “strategic advice and counsel” or “career-life counseling.” I have grounded myself in my university studies of anthropology and in the framework provided by the National Employment Counselors Association (now part of the American Counseling Association (ACA)), of which I’ve been a Professional Member for many years. With the rise of coaching as a specialty and a rapidly growing corporate service, I’ve become vaguely uneasy with the scope of expertise of some people in the market as coaches, given many of the complex circumstances I’ve encountered over the years.

I think back to circumstances that I have come across. The wife of a senior executive confronting decisions about getting back into the workforce but also the end of her marriage. The man who has built a massive organization needing to talk about the future of his company, but also succession, his relationships with his children and estranged wife, and his legacy. The corporate vice president looking for advice on how best to pursue his career ascent but concerned to make sure that this could fit with his and his wife’s life plan. The senior executive whose employer asked me to help him with his retirement plans but who proved to have a serious alcohol and drug dependency problem. All situations where it was difficult, if not impossible, to separate advice about career success from personal dilemmas and fulfillment.

So when I look at the curriculum of, for example, Royal Roads University’s Graduate certificate in Executive Coaching I see that it enables its graduates to:

  • Meet International Coach Federation competencies and ethical guidelines;
  • Adapt their leadership style to a coaching approach;
  • Advance their communication and organizational leadership skills;
  • Understand the complexities of organizations and the benefits of executive coaching;
  • Recognize symptoms, problems and causes of organizational ineffectiveness;
  • Identify the elements required to manage an individual’s progress against established goals.

Now, while this is clearly sound professional preparation, it still leaves me uncomfortable that perhaps not every graduate coach walking into a new client understands the extent of what the situation and may require.

Someone like me, who identifies himself more as a counselor, is going to see what he does as following a considerably broader scope of practice , to quote the ACA’s definition:

Professional counseling is a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.

Importantly, this scope  dictates what techniques and abilities I need to aspire to as a professional, what I need to supply in a strategic advisory relationship, and when to consult with or refer to other professionals.

I appreciate that much of my unease may reflect the fact that my professional activities have always been focused on broad issues of strategic change, organization and the individual, which may well exclude me from the norm. Similarly, I’ve always had a mistrust of too-narrow thinking: as they say, the carpenter sees the solution to a problem in terms of a hammer and nails, the electrician in terms of wires and fuses. People and situations have a habit of being complex.

So I think this comes back to the old adage, caveat emptor — let the buyer beware. I’m not down on coaching or coaches, nor am I advocating the use of certified counselors in their place. But I am suggesting that there’s altogether too much confusion around just exactly what coaches, counselors, strategic advisors and others are really qualified to do. And I have that uneasy feeling that some people don’t take the time to check out the qualifications and experience of the person they’re thinking of hiring. I suppose the moral of the story is, make very sure you know exactly what it is you’re looking for and make certain the person you choose to help you is properly equipped to do so.