November/December 2016 Issue
Coaching's Growth Offers New Opportunities for Social Workers
Coaching's expansion provides new career paths for social workers since it shares some similarities with the profession, but there are significant differences that social workers must be aware of before choosing this option.
Samantha Elkrief, LMSW, had worked in social work for several years when she decided to pursue her MSW. But as she prepared to start her graduate education at Columbia University in New York, a bout with severe illness changed the trajectory of her professional career.
Elkrief found herself in and out of doctor's offices as she battled allergic reactions, digestive issues, multiple infections, and side effects from the medications she was being prescribed. Even though she was able to overcome her illness with changes to her diet and help from a naturopath, the dazzling array of advice she was given and changes she had been asked to make left her overwhelmed and wanting to help others facing the same challenges. That desire eventually led her to decide to become a health and wellness coach.
"It was so much information, and I didn't know what to do," Elkrief recalls. "I decided that I wanted to help other people through the process and take small steps that work for them and help them feel better."
Elkrief is not alone in her pursuit of a career in coaching. Social workers around the country are becoming attracted to coaching as a way to diversify their practices, generate additional revenue, and assist clients who would not be candidates for traditional therapeutic services. And, although it may seem that coaching would be an easy transition for many social workers, there are important differences between the professions that social workers interested in coaching must take into consideration.
An Emerging Profession
Besides its obvious connection with sports, coaching is often associated with the corporate sector, with companies hiring coaches to work with executives and other high-potential employees. But the scope of issues that coaches can help address has continued to broaden and can include career changes, financial aspirations, lifestyle changes, leadership development, and personal skills (Caspi). There are, among others, business coaches, executive coaches, leadership coaches, career coaches, life coaches, and sober/recovery coaches.
Coaching has gained more attention as a profession in the past two decades, and the number of coaches has grown significantly in recent years, according to data from the Louisville, KY-based International Coach Federation (ICF), one of several professional associations representing coaching. Findings from the 2016 ICF Global Coaching Study (2016) include the following:
• There are an estimated 53,300 coach practitioners worldwide, and an additional 10,900 managers and leaders apply coaching skills and approaches in the workplace. The greatest number of coach practitioners and leaders/managers applying coaching skills are in Western Europe (21,400), followed by North America (20,600) and Eastern Europe (6,000).
• The majority of coach practitioners are between 40 and 59 years old; managers and leaders who use coaching in the workplace tend to be younger. Females account for about two-thirds of both groups.
• The annual revenue generated by coaching totaled $2.4 billion worldwide in 2015. Ninety percent of coach practitioners surveyed for the study said they had active clients, and three-quarters of these practitioners expected their number of coaching clients and/or their annual revenue to increase during the next 12 months.
• Almost all (99%) of the coach practitioners surveyed for the study said they had received some sort of coach-specific training, as did 73% of leaders and managers who use coaching skills in the workplace. The large majority of these respondents received their training through a program that was accredited or approved by a professional coaching association.
Initially, a substantial number of coaches were nurses, psychologists, counselors, and other health care professionals who came to coaching in search of second—or even third—careers, says Magdalena Mook, the ICF's CEO and executive director. Now, coaches come from all walks of life, including engineering, the arts, teaching, and the financial sector.
Coaching's popularity has been helped by a change in public perception about its purpose, Mook says. Instead of seeing coaching as sign that a person is not performing well, people now see it as a process that helps them perform even better. "[If you work for an organization and] you have a coach, that means that the organization has invested in you, and you're on your way," Mook says.
Despite its growth, coaching is a profession that—in comparison with social work—is still very much in its infancy. This is most apparent in the areas of training and professional oversight. Although there are numerous training programs for coaches, including many approved or accredited by organizations such as the ICF, coaching does not have any particular requirements regarding education or licensing boards to regulate practice. Even how the term "coaching" can be used is not regulated. "Just about anybody can call themselves a coach," Mook acknowledges.
It is unlikely that coaching will become as regulated as social work anytime soon. The 2016 ICF Global Coaching Study reports that slightly more than one-half (52%) of survey respondents said coaching should become regulated. However, when respondents who said that coaching should be regulated or were unsure were asked who would be best to regulate the industry, the vast majority (84%) said professional coaching associations. Only 10% said government entities should get involved in regulation.
Coaching and Social Work — Familiar Yet Different
Coaching's emphasis on partnering with clients to help them achieve personal growth may sound very familiar to social workers. Several social workers who have transitioned to coaching told Social Work Today that many of the skills central to good social work practice—such as empathy, active listening, reframing, and reflection—transfer seamlessly to their coaching practice. Social work and coaching also share some philosophical commonalities, such as an emphasis on a strengths-based, nonjudgmental, client-driven approach with clients.
"Coaching touches on so many aspects of social work practice," says Nate Crowell, LCSW, PIP, a social worker in Birmingham, AL, with experience as an integrative health coach and life coach. "There are aspects of coaching that social workers are already doing that becoming a coach may be just a relabeling of what they're already doing."
But it would be a mistake to equate social work with coaching. The two approaches differ in significant ways, and these differences fall into three general groups: clients served, interactions with clients, and external regulation.
Social work clients typically are struggling with mental health issues, addiction, or some other disadvantage that is interfering with their functioning or their ability to cope with a particular situation. In comparison, coaching clients are functioning well but want to do better in a certain aspect of their lives, says Francine Carter, LCSW, CPC, ELI-MP, PCC, of Action Coaching & Training LLC in Indianapolis. "It's about helping them perform optimally," she says.
Coaching is focused on the client's present state and where the client wants to go in the future, in contrast with traditional psychotherapy's focus on exploring past experiences and wounds as a path to healing, says Karma Kitaj, PhD, a licensed psychotherapist and coach in Brookline, MA. Interactions with coaching clients also can be much more action-oriented than those with social work clients. "There's a lot more accountability with the coaching," Kitaj says. "In coaching, you might start out with asking clients about what they want to do, what their goals are, what they want to accomplish next. That forces people to focus more on what they really want instead of talking about anything."
Crowell says the interpersonal dynamics between practitioner and clients are different in coaching vs. social work. In social work, clients typically see practitioners as experts who will help heal or fix them. The power differential between practitioner and client is less apparent in coaching, Crowell says, and practitioner and client work more as partners.
In addition, self-disclosure by the practitioner is less frowned-upon in coaching than in social work. For example, Elkrief's coaching website features information about her background and her struggle with illness. Such information gives clients comfort that they are talking with someone who has faced many of the same challenges, Elkrief says. "I remember in social work being frustrated that I couldn't be as open with my clients," she says. "[With coaching], there's a lot more freedom for me to be fully me."
Perhaps the biggest differences between social work and coaching lie in the external regulation of practice, or lack thereof. Since there is no licensing in coaching, coaches can work with clients anywhere, and interactions with clients often happen more frequently by telephone or over the internet rather than in a traditional office setting. And since clients pay for coaching out of pocket, coaches are free to charge what they want for services and don't have to deal with the paperwork and other administrative headaches of working with insurance companies.
The freedom that coaching offers attracted Alyssa Johnson, LCSW, to start a private practice in coaching to complement her existing social work practice in Brownsburg, IN. Johnson believes social workers in private practice no longer can expect to survive just on word-of-mouth and referrals from insurance companies. "Coaching is a great way to diversify your practice," she says. "Social workers have to get outside their comfort zones and the old way of doing things."
While the practice freedoms of coaching may be attractive to social workers, they also put a greater burden on practitioners to ensure that clients are being protected and that coaching is being done in their best interest, says Lisa Curtis, LCSW, CHWC, of Charter Wellness in White Plains, NY. For example, Curtis says, while it may be possible to use some coaching techniques with therapy clients, it is inappropriate to slip into the therapist role with a coaching client.
Social workers can avoid confusion and ethical quagmires if they create clear separation between their roles as therapists and coaches and not serve the same client as both, advises Lynn Grodzki, LCSW, MCC, a social worker and coach practicing in Silver Spring, MD. If a coaching client shows signs of a mental health issue, that person should be referred to someone else for therapy, and social workers who coach should have distinct websites and paperwork for each service, Grodzki says. "You need to be grounded and really clear about the differences [between coaching and social work]," she says. "Even though they fit well together, you need to treat them as separate services."
Is Coaching for You?
Social workers are well suited to be successful in coaching because their education and experience gives them a level of credibility with clients that other coaches might not have, Carter says. "I do think [my background as a social worker] is extremely helpful," she says. "We are able to see human behavior at a deeper level."
Although coaching may be attractive to many social workers, the decision to start coaching should not be taken lightly. Social workers considering coaching should take time to consider whether it is really the right fit for them, Mook says. She suggests starting the discernment process by checking out the myriad resources about coaching on the internet, including the ICF's website and its becomea.coach website, which outlines the steps needed to get started as a coach.
Just because social work and coaching share similarities, that does not mean that all social workers will make good coaches or can make the transition right away, says Carey Yazeed, PhD, LCSW, who recently started a coaching practice in Baton Rouge, LA. For example, Yazeed says, clinical social workers already providing therapeutic services may more easily transition into coaching than social workers employed in other areas of the field, such as case management. She adds that clinical experience is particularly helpful in coaching because it gives the social worker a better sense of when coaching clients are dealing with mental health issues and need to be referred to a therapist.
"If you've never done anything in the clinical realm of social work, get your hands dirty in the clinical work before transitioning to coaching," Yazeed says.
"Coaching may not be a good fit if you don't see yourself as someone who feels comfortable being out there in terms of social media and the internet," Kitaj says. "And the more you can carve out a special place for yourself in the market, the more your name will pop up when people Google a certain type of coach."
There are many ways to get a feel for the coaching profession before diving in. Several of the social workers/coaches who spoke with Social Work Today suggested that anyone interested in coaching should talk to colleagues who have made the transition to find out what the day-to-day work of a coach entails. Others suggested getting involved in local chapters of professional organizations such as the ICF, doing research about coaching, and going through coaching sessions to experience the process from the client's perspective.
Social workers who determine that they want to pursue coaching should get coach-specific training and not assume that their social work education and experience will be enough to make them a good coach, Carter says. Because coaching is much less regulated than social work, Curtis advises social workers to be careful about training and look specifically for programs that are accredited by a professional coaching organization. "There are a lot of coaching programs out there that offer quick training and quick money," she says. "And, like any other get-rich-quick scheme, that's just not reality."
— Christina Reardon, MSW, LSW, is a freelance writer based in Harrisburg, PA, and an editorial advisor at Social Work Today.
International Coach Federation and PricewaterhouseCoopers. (2016). 2016 ICF global coaching study. Retrieved from www.coachfederation.org/files/FileDownloads/2016ICFGlobalCoachingStudy_ExecutiveSummary.pdf.