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The Path To Becoming A Coach

Steve Schlafman
Steve Schlafman
8 min read
The Path To Becoming A Coach
Photo by Stephen Leonardi / Unsplash

Interest in the coaching profession is at an all time high. I receive emails almost daily asking how I became a coach and what the path looks like. Rather than answering the same questions over and over, I thought it would be helpful to write some thoughts down and share my own process.

Before I dive into those specific questions, I’d like to share a quick story.

About three years ago, I was starting to explore Buddhism. I had read a few books and even took a Coursera titled ‘Buddhism and Modern Psychology.’ Frankly, I was overwhelmed because there were so many resources out there. I decided to email Jerry Colonna who is a devout Buddhist and someone I’ve turned to over the years. I asked him where would be a good place to start if I wanted to learn more about Buddhist philosophy and how to apply the teachings in a modern context.

Here was his response:

“The Buddha taught that there were 84,000 doorways to the dharma (I kid you not…that’s the number) and the point is to just pick one and walk through. Don’t worry about picking the “right one.” The point is to Start Where You Are.
The wish to know the path wholly and clearly before taking a step is, in fact, a reaction to fear. The brave heart takes a step.

I tell that story in the context of coaching because there are many doorways into the profession and craft: courses, workshops, certifications, retreats, podcasts, books, mentors, mastermind groups and more. There’s not just one path but thousands. Each one is unique based on who you are, your values, life context, experience and passions.

What I’m about to share is my journey. I’m not saying this path is the right one for everyone who aspires to coach, serve others and/or learn about the craft; but I hope by my sharing, you are inspired to discover your own path that calls to you.

The First Door

In the fall of 2011, my wife founded The Sill in our Lower East Side apartment. This provided an unfiltered view into the life of an entrepreneur. I saw the wins, losses and everything in between. This situation helped me gain a much deeper appreciation for entrepreneurs and the daily battles they endure and sacrifices they make to bring their visions to life.

I witnessed it all. Breaking up with a co-founder. Running payroll late at night. Taking calls and sending emails at all hours — even while on our vacations. Balancing the books at month end. Being treated differently by suppliers and partners because she’s a woman. Waking up at the crack of dawn to receive a truckload of plants. Creating and sending proposals to clients. Working all weekend to help at the store or a photoshoot at the office. Having an employee quit a few days before a big project. Feeling like the task list is never ending. Dealing with employee matters such as hiring and firing. Losing key clients. Worrying about running out of cash. Crying at the end of the day because sometimes she feels alone and it’s just really fucking difficult.

When I came home at the end of each day, I inadvertently morphed into the role of a coach without even knowing it. Around that time, other founders and operators in the NYC tech community would reach out to me as a neutral sounding board and friendly counsel. I loved playing this role. Every time I walked away from one of these conversations I felt energized and inspired regardless of the topic. Deep down inside, I believed I was providing more value in this context than I was as a VC.

The Second Door

In April 2016, I attended a Reboot retreat for VCs and had a profound experience. I returned from that trip to Boulder and said to my wife, “I want to become a coach. This work is badly needed in the startup ecosystem.” She replied, “Steve, you’ll make an amazing coach one day but you can do that later in life when you retire.” Despite Eliza’s comment, there was a quiet voice in my head whispering that coaching could be my calling.

About a year after that retreat, I made Partner at RRE Ventures where I had been for three years. This was a big deal. As my close friend Seth Goldstein once said to me, being a General Partner at a large VC firm is like getting tenure at a university. If I closed my eyes and envisioned the future, I saw a very comfortable and successful life as an institutional investor. Despite my promotion and vision, didn’t have the fire or passion for that role and style of investing. Something felt off so I made the tough decision to step away from RRE.

During my transition, I began to think about what might come next. In addition to seed investing, I kept on coming back to coaching. That voice deep down inside was calling for me to explore coaching and leadership development. I couldn’t shake it. I finally gave in.

I contacted some friends and acquaintances who had transitioned from being operators to coaches. This included Sharon Dougherty, Jonathan Basker, Ravi Raman, Dan Putt, Albert Lee and Tarikh Korula. They were all very generous with their time and advice. With their help and direction, I began to form a basic understanding of the profession and how to get started.

Many of them suggested that I consider participating in a coaching certification course. One in particular, Coaching for Transformation (CFT), seemed to be the most popular among my friends. It also happened to at The Open Center, only twenty blocks from my apartment.

The Third Door

After giving it some thought and talking with my wife, I decided to make an investment and enroll in CFT. It was a nine month commitment to complete the course and become certified. Even though I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a long-term endeavor, I decided to jump in with both feet. I also reasoned that CFT would give me the basic tools to build on top off should I want to go deeper.

As soon as the course began, that voice inside my head was no longer whispering but rather screaming, “this IS your calling.” That was nearly two years ago.

Since that first certification program kicked off nearly two years ago, I’ve participated in more than a half dozen trainings ranging from Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) to Non-Violent Communication (NVC). I’ve read consumed dozens of books and podcasts. I’ve also facilitated a series of workshops, team off-sites and Mastermind groups. Most importantly, I’ve logged hundreds of hours of coaching with clients and classmates. I can’t get enough!

The Endless Path

Through all of this training and practice, I’ve come to appreciate that coaching as a profession has tremendous breadth and depth. Traditional coaching touches upon psychology, philosophy, spirituality, adult development theory and so much more. Additionally, your unique path is influenced by who you aim to serve and your subspecialty (e.g. life, career, executive, nutrition, financial, etc.). In my case, I work with leaders so I also spend time a tremendous amount of time and energy learning about strategy, management, conflict resolution, systems thinking, interpersonal dynamics, organizational design and so much more.

I’m now realizing the path to becoming a coach is endless and always evolving. I could literally spend the rest of my life participating in training programs and reading books. There would still be more ground to cover. The key is to just get started. Take that first step and then the next one that feels intuitive and right in that moment. Don’t worry about choosing the wrong one. Remember, there are thousands of doors to walk through.

Before I leave you, I wanted to share a range of resources that might help you on your journey. This includes certification programs, books, online courses and podcasts. My list is far from comprehensive but should provide enough doors for you to to get started on your own path.

Best of luck on your journey. I wish you nothing but fulfillment and prosperity through serving others and helping them bring their visions to life.

Some Open Doors For You

Certification Programs

There are literally hundreds of coaching certification programs globally that are accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). Many of these cover the core competencies and ethical standards created by the ICF but they differ in a number of ways. For example, the program I took, CFT, has a strong social justice component. New Ventures West is heavily influenced by Ken Wilber and his integral philosophy.

The standard certification course takes roughly nine months and 200 hours to complete. As part of the process, you’ll participate in five or six highly interactive and inspiring weekend-long workshops. These will be supplemented by weekly teleclasses to learn and practice core coaching concepts. In addition, these programs provide plenty of opportunities throughout the nine months for peer-to-peer coaching and mentoring. Co-Active Training Institute (CTI) provides a bit more flexibility. Their program is broken into modules so you don’t have to commit nine months. You can sign up for the first one module, see if you like it and go from there.

At the end of these programs when you graduate, you’ll become a certified coach. However, if you want to become certified by the ICF, you’ll have to become a member and pass an exam. I went through that process and recently received my Associate Certified Coach (ACC) designation. The next two ICF distinctions are Professional Certified Coach (PCC) and then Master Certified Coach (MCC).

The industry is a bit like the wild west. Certification is not necessary to practice. In fact, I know a number of amazing coaches who are not certified. Life experience and other forms of training are equally as important. But like in any industry there are charlatans and inexperienced practitioners. That’s why I believe having the certification is a good notch on your belt. It shows that you’re dedicated to learning and the profession. Some organizations won’t hire you if you are not certified.

Below are some programs worth checking out. Again there are hundreds of them. These are the ones that I’ve heard good things about from my friend and colleagues. Just because the program you’re considering isn’t listed here does’t mean anything. When considering a program, I recommend talking with faculty and alumni from the program. I suggest trying to understand why they chose the program, what they walked away with and how they’re using coaching in their life and profession.

  • Coaching For Transformation (link)
  • Co-Active Training Institute (link)
  • New Ventures West (link)
  • iPEC (link)
  • The Hudson Institute (link)
  • Columbia University (link)
  • Georgetown University (link)


Over the last few years, I’ve probably read two dozen books around coaching and personal growth. This list also isn’t comprehensive and doesn’t include all of the books I’ve read in these domains and others related to leadership and business. You can see some more of those here.

  • Non-Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg (link)
  • Changing On The Job by Jennifer Garvey Berger (link)
  • The Mindful Coach by Doug Silsbee (link)
  • The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron (link)
  • Coaching For Transformation by Martha Lasley (link)
  • Mindset by Carol Dweck (link)
  • NLP: The New Technology of Achievement by Steve Andreas (link)
  • NLP: A Changing Perspective by Rachel Hott and Steven Leeds (link)
  • Inside Out Revolution by Michael Neill (link)
  • Effective Support Groups by James Miller (link)
  • The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallway (link)
  • Coaching for Performance by Sir John Witmore (link)
  • Co-Active Coaching (link)
  • Immunity to Change by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey (link)
  • Effective Group Coaching (link)
  • A Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer (link)
  • Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans (link)
  • Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness (link)
  • The Prosperous Coach by Steve Chandler & Rich Litvin (link)
  • Atomic Habits by James Clear (link)
  • Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness by David Treleaven (link)
  • Mastery by Robert Greene (link)
  • The Power of Now by (link)


I’ve come across more than a dozen coaching and personal growth related podcasts. These two are the ones that I listen to the most frequently.

Online Course Providers

I’ve taken a handful of online courses and have gotten tremendous bang for the buck. For example, I’m currently taking a 20+ week Neuroscience of Change course on coaches rising for less than $700. I think this is an area of the coaching profession worth watching. I believe it’s going to take off.

CoachingCareer Advice

Steve Schlafman Twitter

Exec coach. Writer. Student of Change.


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