ICF? EMCC? What’s the difference?

Once upon a time (not so long ago, really) there was no profession as a coach. Even coaching as we know it, did not exist as theoretical concept in the business world until the late 1980s. We had mentoring, which was and still is in most cultures a non-directive approach to helping someone with the quality of personal decisions – and indirectly the source of modern concepts of coaching. And we had traditional coaching, which was basically instruction.

By the mid 1990s, we had two organisations shaping the field of what is now modern coaching. The European Mentoring Centre, which became the European Mentoring and Coaching Council, emerged out of a coalition of academics, HR professionals and practitioners. Based initially at Sheffield Hallam University, a key part of its role was then to define the scope and role of an emerging profession. In 1995, the International Coach Federation was founded in the United States from a loose alliance of practitioners. ICF expanded globally, quickly, seeing its market as the world. EMCC confined its ambitions to Europe, although it welcomed members from other countries. Only in recent years has it developed wider regional structures, most notably in Asia-Pacific. ICF claims to have 52,324 current members as of August 2023, of which 50% are in North America; EMCC has 13,990 active members as of November 2023.

These two players remain dominant forces in the field, although there are now numerous other sizeable players, such as the Association for Coaching and the International Association for Coaching, which also offers accreditation. There are also many local coaching associations, which do not accredit. Sorting out the value that each brings to practising coaches and to other stakeholders of coaching can be difficult.

My role as a Special Ambassador for EMCC and coaching pioneer puts me in a unique position to observe and attempt to describe the field overall. Being outside the EMCC governance structure, I am tasked with taking an independent view that challenges current assumptions and practices, both within EMCC and across the wider world of coaching and mentoring. I am, if you like, the provocateur. That doesn’t mean I don’t carry any biases – just that I am mostly aware of them and able (most of the time) to put them back in the box where they belong!

I am most frequently asked about the difference between EMCC and ICF and these are the two organisations I know most intimately, as the programmes for my own global coach education network are accredited by both. This short paper therefore compares only these two organisations. The observations are entirely my own and should not in any way be construed as a value judgement on the relative merits of the two organisations. My intent is to clarify the difference in how each has evolved and the challenges they share as a result of these different histories.

Here are some of the key factors I observe:

  1. Status and structure

I often make the mistake of referring to “the professional bodies” when talking about the coaching field generally. Strictly speaking, a professional body is a non-profit entity run by and on behalf of its members, who belong to a defined trade or profession. EMCC is run on traditional professional body lines, with an all-volunteer executive and with the power distributed mainly to the national and regional associations. ICF is structured more like a corporation, with a more centralised power structure built around a volunteer board and a much larger paid staff.

That may not appear to be a big difference, but there are significant implications. A corporate-style organisation tends to see other players in a market as competitors, which creates a tension between competing and collaborating with other bodies. As a commercially structured body, it made sense, when EMCC pioneered – for example — standards (competencies), the coaching code of conduct or team coaching accreditations, for ICF to develop its own, rather than to join the party. That’s not to say that there is no collaboration – there is far more than might be expected between two commercial organisations and the UK EMCC and ICF UK chapter have recently signed a collaboration agreement. Nonetheless, the compete-collaborate tension remains.

ICF is widely seen as the most commercially oriented organisation in the field. On the one hand, this gives it the wherewithal to fund resources such as an excellent database of research in the field. On the other, the more you charge people, the more they expect for their money. There is also an ever-present tension here between introducing new services on the basis of financial return versus because they fulfil a need. ICF and EMCC appear from an external perspective to be at different points on this spectrum – but they both face the same challenge.

The big advantage of ICF’s largely centralised structure is that it is relatively efficient. EMCC has a much more distributed form of governance, where the 30+ member associations around the world vote on decisions put to them by an executive committee. Member organisations own the governance process. The advantage of this model is great diversity. The price is that decision-making can take longer and be less efficient. The centralisation/devolution debate is ongoing in both organisations.

  1. Audience

ICF is very clear about its audience – coaches and particularly professional coaches. EMCC offers membership and accreditation to coaches, mentors and supervisors, as well as organisational membership to buyers of coaching or mentoring. So, for example, it has for a long time now offered a qualification in mentoring or coaching programme management and accreditation in coach supervision.

  1. Theoretical base

The wider audience of EMCC compared to ICF has implications for how each positions the roles of coaching, mentoring and supervision. EMCC sees them as integral and mutually supportive. Mentors are expected to have similar competencies to coaches, but with additional skills of being able to draw upon their own wisdom and, where appropriate, be role models.

Simplistically, it’s about the difference between emphasising the process (ICF) versus the relationship (EMCC). While ICF emphasises the requirement that coaches use as little of their own experience and wisdom as possible, EMCC takes the view that it is sometimes unethical for a coach not to provide context that would help a client avoid, for example, doing something harmful or illegal. Coaching and mentoring are not two incompatible roles but alternative styles within a complex and evolving relationship[1]. This is a philosophical issue. It’s up to individual coaches to decide where they feel most comfortable.

From its inception, the EMCC embraced the concept of diversity of approach and culture. For example, while the culture in China or the Gulf States may lend itself to particular approaches to coaching, the core principles remain the same. From a business perspective this can be confusing. So, it’s understandable that ICF opted for a universal definition of effective coaching practice; and that, originating in the US, this emphasises US cultural values. Now there is push-back across the world against mono-cultural approaches.

Both ICF and EMCC have challenges in how they deal with this tension between diversity and standardisation.

EMCC and ICF have traditionally held different views on the importance and value of supervision. For EMCC and some other professional bodies, supervision is essential for the professional coaching or mentoring practitioner and advised for coaching amateurs, such as corporate line managers and business leaders. ICF has taken a much softer approach. It now requires team coaches in training to have a small number of supervision hours, but does not mandate supervision post-credentialing.

  1. Education and accreditation

Coming from academic origins, EMCC’s accreditations are closely aligned with higher education approaches and are in effect accredited in turn by external academic and other regulatory bodies. ICF is effectively self-regulated.

ICF places greater emphasis than EMCC on the number of hours of coaching a practitioner has undertaken. EMCC places more emphasis on the learning that cones from reflection on practice. Both factors are relevant, but the two organisations have different perspectives on their relative importance in terms of measuring coach performance.

Within ICF there is a growing body of members questioning the assumptions behind the process and model of credentialing; and the educational processes that align with these. The problem is partly that our understanding of what good coaching looks like has evolved considerably over the two decades since the competency framework was created. Similar discussions happen in the EMCC, but are much easier to resolve in the context of standards (which are broadly outcome based) compared with competencies (which are largely input based).

The way forward

The coaching profession in ten years’ time is likely to be radically different from today. Among predictable trends are:

  • A continuing shift of emphasis from externally resourced coaching to internal resources
  • Increasing use of AI to deliver basic level coaching (ICF ACC, EMCC Foundation levels) — raising the issue of where do beginners get their practice?
  • Greater involvement of Government in regulating coaching
  • Increasing demand from buyers of coaching for evidence-based practice. The EMCC desires to be a broad church, encouraging innovation and cultural diversity – and at the same time to prevent the intrusion of pseudo-science. (It’s even had applications from “astrological coaches” – rejected on the basis of bringing disrepute to the profession.) The ICF needs to balance educational quality against revenue objectives. It also has to guard against pseudo-science creeping in by the back door. For example, a programme, which ticks all the boxes in terms of teaching the prescribed competencies, might also encompass dubious content from the world of NLP. A constant challenge for both organisations is the lack of objective measures of what is and isn’t evidence-based practice.

Against this background of uncertainty and change, cooperation between the credentialling bodies and associations is growing — big challenges need to be faced together. At the same time, there appears to be a substantial growth in the number of coaches, who opt to be members of more than one body, to fulfil different requirements for their professional support and development. The differences in approach and philosophy between the main players can therefore be seen as a strength of the sector, rather than a weaknesses.

In place of competition, therefore, the world of coaching requires a balance between increased collaboration and individuation (the maintenance and development of unique characteristics). If we can achieve that, the coaching profession overall will be all the healthier and fit for purpose.

[1] This is in line with the continuing research by the coach maturity research group.

© David Clutterbuck December 2023




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