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Is experience necessary in order to be a good coach?

So this was the question raised on Twitter last week by my friend Sukh (@sukhpabial), asking whether life experience, work experience and coaching experience all contribute to being a good coach.

Sukh also asked “does experience equal credibility in being a good coach?“… a related but perhaps different question.

Is experience necessary in order to be a good coach?

Firstly, let’s deal with what we mean by “a good coach” and I’m going to take it that we are talking about coaching within an organisational setting.

Being “a good coach” for me means that you help the client achieve sustainable change using a contracted & ethical coaching approach that follows the clients agenda. The change may be a different way of the client seeing their situation or it may be that they change the way they perform or behave – there’s a reasonable spectrum. However, the result of coaching is about achieving and sustaining change – if not what good is it?

So when “good” is defined thus, coaching competence matters quite a lot and is achieved through training, ongoing development, coaching experience as well as experience of being coached. These all develop over time and add to your experience as a coach.

So the more hours of coaching you’ve done the better you are?

Many accreditation schemes would use coaching hours as a yardstick, yet we know quality is often much better than quantity. I’ve also come across plenty of “peers” with similar or even greater years of coaching experience than myself who for various reasons I would never recommend as a coach.

So in being a good coach, I would say coaching experience matters but not as much as your competence, track record with clients and your own active development. Any coach with 100’s of coaching hours and without those fundamentals is just very successfully selling conversations…

So what about “life experience” & “work experience” – are they necessary to be a good coach?

Well theoretically (and there are folk who would doggedly argue this stance) life experience doesn’t matter. If you are a good & competent coach then you could be of any age couldn’t you?

Try testing that assertion with these scenarios, working on the assumption that the individual is good & competent and a trained coach:-

    • Could an 18 year old school leaver train as a coach and successfully coach a soon to retire manager on life transitions?
    • Could an 25 year manager successfully coach a senior executive of a FTSE100 company to develop a more empathetic leadership style?
    • Could 30 year old male coach with no children successfully coach a 35 year old woman on maternity leave considering worklife balance choices?
    • Could a 40 year old coach who’s never been to university, successfully coach an 18 year old students on career & university choices?

Hopefully these help to shed light on our own opinions on who can coach for what purpose based on apparent life experience (age). It also shows how life experience and work experience start to get a little mixed together – maybe that’s just as it should be.

It makes it trickier to answer the question of whether life experience & work experience contribute to being a good coach… here’s my take…

Life &/or work experience are no substitute for rich experience, the ability to build perspective and the skill of speaking with care & truth. For many of us we gain these through life & work but this doesn’t need to be the case.

Does experience equal credibility in being a good coach?”

In a great many ways all of the above experience adds to your credibility as a good coach. I think that connected to this is how you show up…

Are you authentic & trustworthy? Do people talk about you & your ability? Do you show & share your learning? Do you work in a professional manner?

Much of how we show up is a reflection our experience. It’s also an expression of our values, ethics and who we want to be in this world.

So experience doesn’t equal credibility in being a good coach. However, I think it does represent others belief in whether we truly are a good coach.

What do you think?


14 thoughts on “Is experience necessary in order to be a good coach?

  1. Thanks for taking up the question and responding, David. Very good of you 🙂

    It’s a good debate about experience over competence, and I like the angle you’ve taken on this. It’s something I’m mindful of when I’m working with various groups/people.

    If I look at the medical profession, they become competent quite early in their specialist careers. Experience matters though, and influences a lot of what happens in the future. Would I put my life in the hands of a novice surgeon, or with someone who has a proven track record?

    The perception of that experience matters too. Do I hire you who have industry experience, or do I hire you who have the requisite skills?

    And then there’s a piece there about the self-perception of the coach. I, as a coach, want you to know I can certainly help you because I am a credible choice – and here’s my credentials to prove as much.

    I’m not sure where I sit on this, but your post helps to guide the thoughts.


    Posted by Sukh Pabial | May 29, 2013, 8:06 AM
    • I strongly believe experience shapes our competence, though duration doesn’t necessarily mean the right experience or competence enhancing experience.

      I also recognise that we all have to start somewhere… in my experience that start is often with someone saying I believe you can do it. In a way it’s saying your lack of experience doesn’t mean you aren’t able to do this.

      So I guess, now that I reflect on your comments, what I’m holding on to if anything is that belief in someone’s ability is potentially more important than anything else. Thanks for prompting that thought Sukh!


      Posted by David Goddin | May 29, 2013, 5:10 PM
  2. It’s a grey area indeed, full of opinion and subjectivity about what makes for a good coach. I’ve worked as a coach for —– all my working life in some way and on the way I’ve had some brilliant coaching from others, think I’ve inspired a few people myself, and possibly not helped some others as much as I might have wanted to. #Lplates. Those coaches who were “brilliant”! have been those who helped me see myself more clearly through bringing their own honesty into a conversation and who have helped me to see how much responsibility lies with me for making my life what it is. On the subject of age I was mentored into tweeting by two people 20 years younger than me. We all have a lot to give each other.

    Accreditations and other qualifications are no guarantee of anything in isolation. However, if you parcel up a willingness to reflect and share experiences (as evidenced by own learning and supervision activities) add a capacity to accept people for who they are (see below for my evidence indicator) a range of experience – for which age is no guarantee, and a qualification/relevant training you are building a picture of someone who has a solid offering. When I hear criticism of coaching qualifications by coaches I feel a doubt creep in. What are they closing down?

    On a note of “who” the coach is – listen to yourself coachee/purchaser. You can judge through your own interaction with a potential coach certain attributes; how do you feel when you’ve had a conversation with the coach – do you go away thinking about yourself, or them?.


    Posted by Meg PeppinMeg | May 29, 2013, 11:58 AM
    • Hi Meg – It’s funny, I thought this would be a grey area but the more I’ve thought about it the more I see that belief (in self or by others) is potentially where we can find clarity. How we get there just depends! I wonder if too many people focussing on how to quantify “good” has made it grey for some? Perhaps the whole coaching industry would better if it just listened to the clients… who continue to buy based on referral, experience and relevance… they know what good looks like even if we can’t put a number on it.

      I think accreditation has some value but again if the client doesn’t appreciate it (for what it is) then it could be a wasted endeavour. Coaching qualifications have the potential to be a farce unless they are either well respected or backed up by accreditation from at least one of the professional bodies… perhaps coaching qualifications that haven’t got such endorsement deserve to be criticised?


      Posted by David Goddin | May 29, 2013, 5:59 PM
  3. Hello everybody,

    I found this article amazing.
    Especially as it provokes two opinion in me.
    One which agrees with most of it and then the one that thinks different.

    The examples given about life experience are very good. And certainly as a single man, for example, to advise a woman on maternity leave might sound very wrong BUT what about the single 21 year old woman who is advising? Is she more competent?

    Is a coach only qualified because she or he went through all kinds of life experiences and than decides to advise others with their life?

    Is the “university of life” enough combined with some degree in psychotherapy?

    In all my many years of experience in receiving coaching and giving coaching one very important aspect made to me the difference.
    Did I get on with the person.
    Do I feel understood and respected.
    Did the coach notice and give it the right attention where I AM in life in this moment.

    I had coaching sessions which felt more like a monologue telling all the things this person would do. And what about me?

    I give it lots of importance to be seen. If it is in a sales training or a life managing session.

    Competence and life experience are very good two ingredients.

    But what brings it together is the quality of being a good listener and connector with the client, customer… Human Being.

    Thank you for your great article/blog.

    Alvaro Rodriguez


    Posted by Alvaro Rodriguez | May 29, 2013, 12:40 PM
    • Hi Alvaro – thanks for your comments – appreciated!

      The age/relatedness examples I think show to some degree how we are pre-disposed to look for subject matter advice & expertise… theoretically, gender or life stage is not a prerequisite for coaching at all. However, we often look for it in the people we seek to coach us. Curious isn’t it?!?

      Your points on what makes the difference are very well made – violent agreement from me! Ultimately being human, having some form of chemistry and caring for the client make a big difference. My only caveat would be that it’s founded on some innate or trained coaching skill.

      Thanks for adding here!


      Posted by David Goddin | May 29, 2013, 6:05 PM
  4. I have followed this discussion with great interest.My own experience as a coach,and being coached,leads me to conclude that life and relevant work experience are resources to be drawn upon when appropriate,either to help the client to feel safe,or to assist in the bonding process.The skills and personal attributes such as well developed listening,empathy,and creating ownership of future actions by the client are the second layer of the coaching “cake”. Pre-conceived notions of age or gender relevance are a fact of life,and I suspect will continue to be the subjective aspect of choosing a coach.At the end of the day the coaching “contract” is measured by achievement of agreed outcomes,accompanied hopefully by good feelings.My final comment is that I have worked with trained coaches and untrained coaches.In both cases some were effective,some were not.


    Posted by Joseph Sanders | May 31, 2013, 3:51 AM
  5. Joseph – thanks for your interest and for sharing your thoughts & experiences. You’ve nicely unpicked some of what I meant by “rich experience” and the analogy of the coaching cake resonates well.

    Our notions of how age & gender are relevant still fascinates me… on one level it makes no difference and is not relevant, yet I also recognise that it must have perceived value otherwise it wouldn’t persist. It is a fact of life and relevant to our clients perhaps so maybe the emphasis for us as coaches is to ensure we don’t become complicit with this type of thinking if it has no obvious or useful foundations?


    Posted by David Goddin | May 31, 2013, 7:08 AM
    • Hi David,Thank you for responding to me.I think it is essential for coaches collectively and individually to turn the “cake” upside down when communicating with existing or potential clients,and to reduce the emphasis on life/work experience.Greater emphasis on describing the benefits of using a skilled and qualified coach,and examples of specific circumstances where coaching adds value.When clients raise the age/experience objection I suggest it be deflected by acknowledging it,and agreeing to source relevant experience if,and when it becomes necessary.I dont think it it constitutes complicity if the goal is to overcome this thinking over time.I see hope when I look at how the gender issue has given way under public pressure.


      Posted by Joseph Sanders | May 31, 2013, 8:21 AM
      • I like that notion of turning the cake upside down – a useful tool/tip.

        You’ve got me thinking more about the gender issue and how it’s changing. I wrote the following piece a while back and I think it has relevance for this current context too – it may add to the thinking here :-


        Posted by David Goddin | May 31, 2013, 9:41 AM
        • I have just read the piece to which you refer.The relevance to this discussion is quite marked.The reference to younger generations is particularly cogent.When put in the context of the rate of change in work practices,together with technological changes,which together challenge contribution of “old” obsolete or obsolescent experience as a pre-requisite for effective coaching.In essence there is a case to be made that to coach from such a base would be counter-productive in many coaching assignments.I could cite myself in this context– 78 years old and retired for a decade.Whilst I may have retained useful personal skills my old experience would be somewhat irrelevant today.I must say David,I am humbled by time you have invested in replying to my comments.


          Posted by Joseph Sanders | May 31, 2013, 11:30 AM
          • The “programming” that comes with age can be both powerfully informed and limiting by it’s very nature.

            Joseph it’s me that’s humbled and honoured to receive comments that further my thinking. I’ve indicated age should be irrelevant but having you read & comment here has made my day – thanks!


            Posted by David Goddin | May 31, 2013, 3:48 PM


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