On this page you'll find ample information provided as a comprehensive yet concise overview of the life coaching profession and industry. Head to Services to learn about WattsWorks services and how to get started, or read on to discover coaching and gain a full understanding of this important new profession. Here's just a few of the questions we'll answer:

  • What is life coaching and how does it work?
  • How is coaching like therapy or counseling?
  • What do I do with a life coach? Why do I want to hire one?
  • Whats the history of the life coaching profession?
  • Are there credentials? How do I know if a coach is legitimate and skilled?
  • What types of coaching exist? 

What is life coaching?

Among professionals and organizations, there are many nuanced definitions of life coaching. As you can see below, the perspectives differ but main ideas remain the same.

The International Coaching Federation defines coaching as:

Partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.
Professional coaches provide ongoing partnership designed to help clients produce fulfilling results in their personal and professional lives. Coaches help people improve their performance and enhance the quality of their lives
Coaches are trained to listen, observe, customize their approach to individual client needs. They seek to elicit solutions and strategies from the client, and they believe the client is naturally creative and resourceful

Authors of the seminal book Co-Active Coaching state:

Coaching is a methodology that allows us to work with change on a personal level, an organizational level, or on a relationship level.

On the first page of the comprehensive coaching textbook Becoming A Professional Coach, authors Patrick Williams and Diane Menendez weigh in on the subject:

Personal and professional coaching, which has emerged as a powerful and personalized career in the last few decades, has shifted the paradigm of how people who seek help with life transitions find a professional to partner with them in designing their desired future. No matter what kind of subspecialty a coach might have, life coaching is the basic operating system: a whole-person, client-centered approach.
Coaching the client's whole life is the operating system working in the background. A client may seek creative or business coaching, leadership development, or a more balanced life, but all coaching is life coaching.

With this we see the common threads, that life coaching is about the client and his or her process in creating a desired change. Partnership and alliance are words frequently used because this emphasizes the lack of hierarchy in life coaching. In other words, coaches don't direct, lead, or command their clients. Both the coach and client word together as equals, each contributing to the collaborative work aimed at benefiting the client.  

The fundamentals of coaching are multilevel listening and skillful questioning, used to forward and deepen a client's process by facilitating awareness, clarity, and action. With an understanding of the how develop a more full understanding of coaching, its useful to look at both the similarities and differences of coaching to other people-helping professions.


How does life coaching compare to other professions?

Coaching can be quite similar to consulting, mentoring, training, and especially therapy/counseling. All exist for the benefit and progress of people, yet each has a specific role, methodology, desired outcome, and focus. Lets look at the similarities and distinctions. 

Therapy and Counseling

When compared to coaching, all are people-helping, but coaching is present-future focused and directed by the client whereas counseling/therapy is past-present focused and directed by the counselor. Coaching engages the present and future to facilitate action. Counseling/therapy engages the past and present to facilitate.

To quote the Essential Coach Training manual of the Center for Coaching Excellence, "A qualified counselor or therapist is an expert in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues. The qualified coach is an expert in the coaching process that results in personal growth and discovery. The coaching alliance is a partnership, whereas the counselor/therapist has a hierarchal relationship that is directive for the client."

A coach may use elements of counseling in coaching partnership and a counselor may use elements of coaching with client. Each has a specialized role and domain within which they operate. Both professions provide value, and indeed they are complementary professions, but the coach does not provide counseling to clients.


Training is the impart of knowledge from one who knows (trainer) to one who doesn't know (trainee). This process can be formal, such a training program or college course, or it can be informal, such as person teaching their friend how to cook a stellar pan of lasagna. Coaching partnerships can have moments where a coach steps into the role of trainer, though infrequent and explicitly communicated as distinct from coaching. 


Similar to a trainer, a mentor is an experienced and knowledgable person who provides that experience and knowledge for the benefit of someone with less experience or knowledge. Again, the Center for Coaching Excellence provides a great articulation, stating that "a mentor is someone who has been down the road before, who knows the "lay of the land" and is willing and able to advise someone else on how to navigate that road."

Mentorships can embody a form of partnership similar to coaching, but like training and counseling/therapy there is a hierarchy in the relationship where the client is not the director of relationship. In these professions the client is supported but does not set the agenda or lead in the relationship. In coaching the client leads the partnership by setting the agenda.


An easy way to understand a consultant is to view this role as a specialist or problem solver. A client can call upon a consultant to provide solutions for a specific problem or set of problems. Have you heard an old adage about the man and fish? It goes like this: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a life time.

Consultants give their clients the fish they seek. The consultant provides a fish by providing the solutions to certain to problems. This is an important and distinct role. In contract, coaching teaches a man to fish by working with him so that he is solver of his own problems. 


The difference between life coaching and other people-helping professions is subtle and important. Dave Wondra, in the September 2015 issue of SUCCESS Magazine, phrased the distinctions well when he said, "Coaches aren't mentors imparting wisdom to callow colleagues, nor are they 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."

Consulting, mentoring, training, and therapy/counseling are all powerful in their own right and can often be of great benefit when sought in addition to or independent from life coaching. With an understanding of how life coaches define their profession and how coaching compares to similar professions, we can add yet another layer of understanding by looking at the history and roots of life coaching.


What is the history of the life coach profession?

I describe the history of life coaching as a unique synthesis of applied philosophy, modern psychology, and the field of motivation and self-help. Life coaching as we now know it first originated in the United States as executive coaching in 1970's and 1980's. The early forms of contemporary coaching was primarily used by and available to top-level leadership in large companies and the highest echelons of business, finance, politics, sports, and entertainment. As this service gained popularity the distinct profession and industry of life coaching started to take shape in the late 1980's and continued to gain momentum throughout the the 1990's. This leap in growth culminated in Thomas Leonard's founding of the International Coaching Federation(ICF) in 1995, the ICF's rapid growth in the late 1990's, and Leonard's founding of the International Association of Coaching in the early 2000's. These two industry organizations have played historic role of tremendous benefit to the life coaching profession. Their importance and contribution is discussed in detail later, in the section titled Credentials & Training, but for now its worth highlighting that these two organizations have served in the past and present to advance the profession by legitimizing the industry, connecting professional coaches, and representing the interests of life coaches throughout the world.

Contributions and Influences

The earliest seeds of life coaching can be found in the work of ancient Greek philosophers and Socrate's famous method of cultivating truth and knowledge by asking questions in conversation. These ancient thinkers set a standard of learning and growth over 2,000 years ago that still stands and influences today. The ancient Socratic Method, the modern philosophy of existentialism, and the practice of thinking about our thoughts are all contributions of philosophy exhibited in life coaching through the conversational methodology and transformative shifts in thinking that are a hallmark of skillful coaching.

Much can be said on the influence and contribution of psychology, likely ranging as far back as the 1880's. To be concise though, coaching as we know it wouldn't have come into being without the foundational work and evidence-based theories of many psychologists, such as William James, Abraham Maslow, Stan Grof, Carl Jung, Carl Rogers, Viktor Frankl, Richard Bandler, and Ken Wilber—just to name a few. In particular, we can highlight the work of William James on perception, consciousness, and habit; Carl Jung on ancient wisdom, possibility, and the collective unconscious; Viktor Frankl on intention, paradoxical intent, and the importance of finding meaning in work and life; and Richard Bandler on neurolinguistic programing and the influence our words and thoughts have on our actions.

In the field of motivation and self-help, many speakers, workshop facilitators, and best-selling authors contributed directly and indirectly to the development of life coaching. Most notably, the leaders of this field have furthered life coaching by supporting the popularization of self-directed personal growth through books, lectures, workshops, and other resources. Worthy mentions include Dale Carnegie's seminal book How to Win Friends and Influence People; Og Mandino's book The Greatest Salesman in the World; Les Brown's motivational lectures; Tony Robbin's two best-sellers Unlimited Power and Awaken the Giant Within; & Jim Rohn's motivational lectures, philosophy on personal growth, and direct mentorship of Tony Robbins. 

Challenges & Summary

With such a diverse combination of contributions and influencers, we come to appreciate the unique history and optimistic future for life coaching. The relatively young profession hasn't been without its share of challenges though, the most notable of those challenges being legitimacy and misunderstandings of what the coaching profession is and the way it works. In a 2012 survey conducted by the ICF, 43% of respondents believe that the biggest challenge for coaching is "untrained individuals who call themselves coaches," and 30% responded that they believe the biggest challenge is "marketplace confusion about the benefits of coaching." Now, with decades of forward progress and the continued support of industry organizations like the ICF, the industry continues to grow with skillful coaches joining the profession and widespread social understanding being furthered throughout the world. Indeed, the future of the life coaching profession look brighter than ever.


The purpose of this section is to provide a basic summary of the ICF and its most important contributions. As previously stated, one the biggest challenges for the coaching profession is legitimacy. To address this issue numerous industry organizations have developed their own system of credentialing or certification. The most prominent, well developed, and widely recognized industry organization is the International Coaching Federation (ICF), which is the institution I have aligned myself to as a professional. To support the advancement and legitimacy of life coaching, the ICF developed a Code of Ethics, a set of coaching Core Competencies, numerous levels of credentialing for individuals, and a system of accreditation for coach training programs. We'll look these contributions in more detail below.


  • A nonprofit organization founded by Thomas Leonard in 1995
  • Based in Lexington, Kentucky, with regional service centers in Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America and North America
  • Current membership is over 20,000; with an average monthly increase of 500
  • ICF’s goal is to keep growing membership and maintain a solid direction, presence and professional voice for coaches.
  • The organization continues to focus on professional standards while remaining adaptive

Code of Ethics

Designed to maintain and promote excellence in the coaching profession. The ICF Code of Ethics is made of three parts, with five key sections. Below is an excerpt. For more info or to view it in entirety, you can view a web-based PDF version or checkout the ICF's Code of Ethics Overview webpage. 

ICF Code of Ethics excerpt

Part one: Definitions

Part two: The ICF Standards of Ethical Conduct (five sections)

  1. Professional Conduct at Large
  2. Conflicts of Interest
  3. Professional Conduct with Clients
  4. Confidentiality/Privacy
  5. Continuing Development

Part three: The ICF Pledge of Ethics

As an ICF coach, I acknowledge and agree to honor my ethical and legal obligations to my coaching clients and sponsors, colleagues, and to the public at large. I pledge to comply with the ICF Code of Ethics and to practice these standards with those whom I coach, teach, mentor or supervise.

If I breach this Pledge of Ethics or any part of the ICF Code of Ethics, I agree that the ICF in its sole discretion may hold me accountable for so doing. I further agree that my accountability to the ICF for any breach may include sanctions, such as loss of my ICF Membership and/or my ICF Credentials.

Core Competencies

The ICF developed 11 competencies clustered into 4 groupings. All eleven are considered crucial and, according the website, they "were developed to support greater understanding about the skills and approaches used within today's coaching profession as defined by the International Coach Federation." Below is a list of the 11 competencies. For more info you can visit the ICF's highly informative Core Competencies webpage.

ICF Core Competencies summary

A. Setting the Foundation  
1. Meeting Ethical Guidelines and Professional Standards
2. Establishing the Coaching Agreement

B. Co-creating the Relationship
3. Establishing Trust and Intimacy with the Client
4. Coaching Presence

C. Communicating Effectively
5. Active Listening
6. Powerful Questioning
7. Direct Communication 

D. Facilitating Learning and Results  
8. Creating Awareness
9. Designing Actions
10. Planning and Goal Setting
11. Managing Progress and Accountability

Individual credentials

The ICF has created and maintained three levels of credentialing for professional coaches, which are titled Associate Certified Coach (ACC), Professional Certified Coach (PCC), and Master Certified Coach (MCC). These credentials serve as a badge of quality and legitimacy for coaches, helping to ensure clients that the coach is a skilled professional. As the ICF website eloquently states, "With an ICF Credential, coaches demonstrate not only knowledge and skill, but also a commitment to high professional standards and a strong code of ethics." 

Each of the three levels requires a certain amount of training hours and experience, as well as mentorship by a more experienced coach and the completion of a Coach Knowledge Assessment. The PCC and MCC level credentials also include a performance evaluation to ensure that a high level of coaching competency is demonstrated. 

Below is a brief summary of the requirements for each credential. For more information explore the ICF website or visit their webpage about individual credentialing

ACC summary

Required training hours: 60+
Hours of coaching experience required: 100+
10 hours of mentor coaching
Completing the Coach Knowledge Assessment

PCC summary

Required training hours: 125+
Hours of coaching experience required: 500+
10 hours of mentor coaching
Completing the Coach Knowledge Assessment
Submitting a performance evaluation, i.e. two audio recordings with written transcripts of coaching sessions

MCC summary

Required training hours: 200+
Hours of coaching experience required: 2,500+
10 hours of mentor coaching
Completing the Coach Knowledge Assessment
Submitting a performance evaluation, i.e. two audio recordings with written transcripts of coaching sessions