What’s With Singapore’s Surge in Self-Proclaimed Life Coaches?

Rice Media/June 10, 2024

By Kimberly Lim

When controversial KOL Sylvia Chan resurfaced in March as a life coach, the general online sentiment was, “Huh, can meh?”

The last time she made headlines, it was for allegedly abusing her staff at production company Night Owl Cinematics. Video footage had emerged of her smoking and shrugging off employees’ concerns during a conference call. A string of influencers called her out and accused her of being a toxic boss.

Now, a couple of years after her life imploded, she’s on a redemption arc. “I can sit with your fears and vulnerabilities as I have lived and embraced mine,” her website declares. And maybe she will. We haven’t booked a session with her, so we can’t say for sure.

Sylvia aside, it seems like anyone who’s a LinkedIn type these days fancies themselves a coach.

Feeling lost in life? There’s a life coach out there willing to help. Want to be a better boss? Maybe a leadership coach is what you need. A little burnt out, perhaps? Oh, look, there’s already a wellness coach in your LinkedIn inbox.  

It’s gotten to the point where actual, trained coaches get painted with the same brush as the hacks out there. And sometimes, clients only realise they’ve hired a dud after spending thousands of dollars in coaching fees. Not to mention how an unqualified coach—and unprofessional methods—can cause actual psychological harm.

The problem is clear: anyone can call themselves a coach. The solution is a little less straightforward.

Why Are There So Many Coaches?

Even though coaches sometimes get a bad rep, there’s still a certain amount of prestige attached to it. It is a career that people do aspire towards. Overseas, you’ve got people like Tony Robbins and Robin Sharma building self-help empires.

People have a mental image when they think of coaches: polished, professional, well-spoken, confident, experienced.

Sure, they tend to use fluffy buzzwords like ‘synergy’ and ‘transformation,’ but most coaches still follow basic ethics and standards.

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) certification is one that most professional coaches will have. According to ICF, a good coach should be focused on outcomes.

Different clients have different goals. That’s why most coach-coachee relationships start off with a formal coaching agreement outlining specific result-bound objectives. The coach then guides their client to achieve their goals.

Rather than telling clients what to do, the focus should be on equipping clients with the tools to discover their own solutions and solve their own problems.

Being a good coach is certainly not easy. So why does it seem like, these days, if you throw a stone, you’ll hit some sort of coach?

The life coach industry is, in fact, growing both globally and locally. Today’s world is so uncertain that business transformations and career pivots are a part of life. Outside of our jobs, we’re all trying to find fulfilment and purpose. There’s only so much YouTube videos and self-help books can do, so people turn to professionals like career coaches and mindfulness coaches.

This uncertainty also makes entering the life coach profession seem particularly appealing. After all achieving time freedom and being an entrepreneur does sound a lot better than being a cog in the machine.

Even so, the boom in coaches might have to do with other factors beyond natural supply and demand. Michelle Mah, a wellbeing and mindfulness practitioner, coach and qualifying counsellor, suspects that one contributing factor may be the way some coaching schools market themselves.

There are plenty of good schools out there, she says. But a few attract students by glamourising the profession and selling the idea that anyone can become a coach and make big bucks.

How much you can earn varies wildly depending on your experience level and personal branding. When Sylvia was still in training, she offered one-hour calls for $35 to $88 a pop. Esteemed UK life coach Michael Serwa famously has clients willing to pay up to £30,000 (S$51,615) a session.

“Financial freedom may sound enticing. However, it may not be as glamorous as it looks. At the end of the day, mentoring, coaching, and counselling are helping professions. The intentions to enter into these professions must be clear at the start. If going in for the money is a primary motivating factor, something is off here.”

Mei Phing Lim, a career coach, has firsthand experience. She’d attended one of these schools (which she declines to name) back in 2019, when she was still climbing the corporate ladder. Though she hadn’t yet shifted into coaching, providing career advice to those who reached out was something she willingly engaged in. She’d thought the certification programme would be a learning experience.

Instead, she found herself going over things she already knew. She looked around and saw that these basic things—like communication skills—were things her classmates found challenging.

These coaching schools actually target people who are “looking for another option”, she says. Maybe these people aren’t happy at their jobs, or maybe they’re unemployed.

“They’re targeting these people and telling them that, hey, if you join this, if you get this certification, then you can become a coach and start working with clients. Anyone can become a coach; you just need some coaching skills.”

Coaching is also a desirable career due to its flexibility and viability as a side hustle, Carol Lim tells me.

While the coach, facilitator, consultant, and adviser doesn’t have any hard statistics, she is convinced that coaching academies saw a boom during the pandemic. With everyone trapped at home, and many dealing with job losses, obtaining coaching certification became a way for people to make gainful use of their downtime.

These coach certification programmes also don’t come cheap. Mei Phing estimates that they start at $3,000 and can go all the way up to $10,000.

With this sunk cost, some coaches might feel “trapped”. Even if it turns out coaching isn’t for them, what else can they do after spending so much on their certification?

Red Flags

We haven’t even taken into account the people who simply slap a “life coach” on their LinkedIn profile. Currently, there aren’t any laws in Singapore which prohibit that.

The result is bad apples who might not even be qualified charging vulnerable people top dollar with the promise of solving their problems. Clients seek out coaches because they feel stuck in life, but they aren’t necessarily aware of what to look out for. Red flags are easily overlooked.

“I think it’s dangerous if you become a coach for the wrong reasons and you don’t know what you’re doing. But the clients are not for you to experiment on. You shouldn’t destroy someone else’s career just because you’re trying to figure out your situation,” Mei Phing tells me.

Career coaches without real corporate experience might lead their coachees down the wrong path. Mei Phing offers a simple analogy. If you eat something unhealthy, you can simply swear off it in the future. If you make the wrong career decision, it’s not so easy to reverse, says Mei Phing.

And she’s seen real cases. Some of them are clients who approached her for help after being burned by previous coaches.  

Carol recalls a recent event she attended where she was floored by a supposedly qualified life coach’s unprofessionalism. He had been talking about his own past during a public talk and suddenly brought up his suicide attempt in graphic detail.

“You couldn’t have seen it coming. Even news articles will have all kinds of warnings before and after,” she tells me incredulously. She was rightfully horrified—it could have been a potential trigger for some members of the audience.

Incompetent or unethical trainers can actually cause real harm to their clients. When coaches realise that clients may be dealing with unresolved trauma and may need professional mental health services, the ethical thing to do is to inform the client, says Carol.

“If the coach doesn’t inform the client about this, the unresolved issues may fester and get worse. Even if it doesn’t get to that point, you are still breeding a certain level of emotional dependency.”

Last August, former Nominated Member of Parliament Kuik Shiao-yin also opened up to TODAY about emotionally abusive training methods she’d experienced in the past.

The sessions pushed her boundaries and left her feeling humiliated and uncomfortable. Her trainer didn’t check in on her during or after the session either, she alleged.  

Some unethical coaching schools can also cross into “cult-ish” territory. Carol recounts a vividly memorable bad experience from a decade ago.

A friend of hers had attended a coaching programme and came back transformed, she recalls. This friend seemed to have found clarity and motivation in life. It was great until the friend started trying to get Carol and their other friends to sign up for this programme as well.

The company, which still exists, offers coaching programmes for adults, children, and youths. Aspiring coaches go through multiple levels, with each level costing over $1,500.

“They want you to go up the levels with them. But they also want you to get your family in,” Carol says. “So there’s a whole entire ecosystem that they want you to bring your whole network into”. Which sounds scarily similar to multi-level marketing schemes.

She still keeps in touch with that friend, but that entire episode left a deep impression on her because of how persistent her friend was.

What Counts As Unethical?

Even within the coaching field, though, there isn’t a single consensus on what is unethical.

As something of a purist, Carol shares that relying on personal experience to coach isn’t a best practice. I show her Sylvia Chan’s website, which promises that she will “guide from firsthand experience, not concepts”.

Carol immediately shakes her head.

“The moment you wear on your coaching hat, the ethics of ICF would have taught you that as a coach, we are very clear that we must assume a neutral position so that we do not bring in any biases of our own lived experiences, and we do not coach from a position of experience.”

Ultimately, a coach is different from a mentor, Carol explains. The coach, basically, is meant to be your thinking partner. They come along with you on the process, and will probably ask you a little bit about your past. But they aren’t so much interested in your past as they are interested in the future.

On the other hand, Michelle shares that being open about her own mental health struggles has attracted clients who want her to guide them through their own journey: “I do see a number of clients with high levels of stress and burnout. Some of them approach me because of my lived experience.”

She does, however, add the caveat that coaching sessions still need to be guided with proper and legitimate frameworks and techniques. Lived experience itself is not sufficient for one to become a coach.

Mei Phing, too, has clients approaching her for career coaching because of her stint climbing the corporate ladder and making it to Ernst & Young, as well as Standard Chartered Bank. She asks, “How are you going to bring someone up the mountain if you haven’t been there?”

When it comes to the practice of locking clients into lengthy packages, there’s also a split in opinion.

Michelle is of the opinion that the practice can raise ethical issues: ”For financial stability or other personal reasons, it can appear enticing to lock that lump sum down or have a coachee commit to 10 sessions, for example. However, who are we to decide the arbitrary number that can magically move the needle?”

That’s why any coaching package needs to be supported with proper frameworks and clarity of desired outcomes, she adds.

Some practitioners might not actually know the progress of the client from the get-go. If the client gets what they need out of a few sessions, then they’re stuck with a package they might not need.

But when I ask Mei Phing the same question, she defends the move—it’s fine if the coach has a proper framework and coaching plan in place. For example, her 12-month programme includes step-by-step lessons, group mentoring sessions, and one-on-one coaching.

“When a client signs up for a coaching programme. They are looking for support as they achieve their goals, but they’re also looking for accountability so they don’t get distracted. So I don’t see it as how many sessions. I think we should look at it as a period of time it would take to get the client sustainable results.”

Ask the Right Questions

At the end of the day, coaching, like counselling, teaching, and nursing, is a helping profession. Without regulation, it can definitely cause more harm than good.

But regulation isn’t that simple. How exactly do you define coaching? How can the authorities define what’s ethical and what’s not when there might not be a clear consensus?

Even psychotherapy and counselling aren’t regulated in Singapore. It’s hard to imagine that the coaching field will see any tightening of regulations.

But that doesn’t mean we have to watch unethical coaches fleece clients. All three coaches I spoke to concurred that clients should ask more questions before parting with their hard-earned cash.

What frameworks does the coach use? Mei Phing suggests that clients should find out if coaches have they have a structured plan or a process to help them achieve their goals. If they’re just telling you to “hop on a call and figure it out”, that might not be a good sign.

Beyond the ICF certification, are they trained in their particular niche? For example, as someone who advises businesses and executives, Carol is also trained in Red Team Thinking, Positive Intelligence, and Applied Critical Thinking. Michelle, who focuses on the mindfulness and wellness niche, is trained in the gold standard of mindfulness programmes—Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), as well as rigorous training such as Mindful Self-Compassion and Search Inside Yourself.

And even if they’ve ticked all those boxes, is their personality even compatible with yours? Sometimes, even if the coach seems perfect on paper, the coach-coachee relationship won’t work if the vibes are off.

Despite some scepticism about coaches’ roles, their success shows that there clearly is a market for what they do. And the right coach truly can make a difference.

As Michelle says, ”To work with human beings is a true blessing. And making sure that you have done your due diligence to meet professional standards will go a long way in supporting what should be your ultimate aim in the first place: which is to support the client wholeheartedly.”

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