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Getting Personal

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Illustration by Michael Wertz

Life is a game, and a new breed of coach is here to help

By Traci Hukill

THE WEEK AFTER CHRISTMAS I was wrestling my obstinate luggage through an airport parking lot when a behemoth sport utility vehicle caught my eye. It was a hulking linebacker of a machine, its paint job gleaming coldly in the moonlight, its license plate a smug advertisement for a lucrative new profession that is unregulated, ill understood and slippery with the lather of soft skills. The license plate said, quite simply, "COACHNG," and I would have bet every Christmas present in my portly suitcase that the driver doesn't carry a whistle or wear polyester shorts. It was highly likely that I was observing the fully loaded chariot of a personal coach.

The once-rare personal coach, also known as a life coach, is a mystifying animal whose numbers have steadily increased since the '80s. Not a therapist, not a consultant, not exactly a friend and definitely not a gym rat, a personal coach is more like a midwife of happiness, encouraging clients to name their goals and achieve them. Want to get organized? Change jobs? Write that novel? A coach offers a tireless ear and practical advice for making a plan. A good coach is like a wise friend who asks nothing in return but timely payment for services rendered at a cost of $75 to $150 per hour. Generally the services are rendered in half-hour chats over the phone.

Most coaches care about their clients and feel good about their work. They are unaware that at first glance their trade looks like shameless chicanery, a disquieting hybrid roaming the continuum between the Psychic Hotline and psychotherapy. Coaching is hard to defend because it deals with intangible matters of well-being. Being coached, I found, is a slightly embarrassing but pleasurable indulgence, like getting a pedicure for the first time: It's nice, but is it really necessary?

Surprisingly, it may be more necessary than first appearances would suggest. This is an uncertain world fraught with change and poor in plans. Getting by requires a little help from friends, even if their time is purchased. But coaches themselves are going to take some getting used to.

The first coach I ever met, a boyish-looking man, sat opposite me in a cafe on a lovely summer day earnestly describing his work. It sounded very much like the work of a teenage girl: talk to people on the phone about what they really want and plot with them how to get it. When he told me what he charged, my mind leaped to the classifieds: WORK AT HOME! EARN $100K ++ TALKING ON THE PHONE!

Personal Coach Encounter Number Two improved my attitude some, but not much. This man at least had some business experience backing him up. But his résumé, printed on fancy paper with a compass motif, fairly quivered with terms like "goals," "strategize" and "successful"--words that usually mean a yuppie is nearby and ready to strike.

Cut to a Tuesday morning in November 1998. I am sitting in a sunny spot in a restaurant waiting for Ray Charland, erstwhile host of the Silicon Valley/Monterey Bay Coaching Alliance. I am about to have Personal Coach Encounter Number Three. And against all odds, like it.

WHILE I STIR my coffee, I mentally catalog what I already know about coaching. I know that people go to coaches because they want to make more money, spend more time playing with their kids or realize a long-dormant dream. I know that a coach needs no certification to go into business. The overhead is low: just the cost of business cards. I know that the coach's natural habitat is any center of commercial or industrial wealth: Boston, Washington, D.C., Dallas, Silicon Valley. I'm aware of the magnitude of the fees. I also know that day planners cost about $15 and career counseling Web sites are free.

Charland walks in and I recognize him instantly by his description: 60 years old, 6 feet tall. A trim, thoughtful person with graying hair and hazel eyes, he's dressed in a gray turtleneck and wool blazer. There is a placid quality about him that suggests trustworthiness. Immediately he makes it clear that for him this work borders on the spiritual.

"Expressing your potential and talents fully is highly related to your satisfaction," he says. "I love helping people explore those issues. I might start with helping to improve a client's bottom line, but if we continue to work together, they're going to know that there's something else they need to focus on, too."

"If you get a good personal foundation," he continues, "where the financial is held in place, the relationships are in place, and personal well-being is in place, things can happen."

These "things," I gather, amount to personal transformation. Amazingly, Charland's speech doesn't trigger a gag reflex in me, probably because he was a family and marital therapist for almost 30 years before getting into coaching three years ago, and therefore can't be too much of a flake. His credentials serve him well; many coaches come off as New Age hucksters, former business execs who got tired of going to the office, discovered yoga and now pass themselves off as experts on living well.

"What about the phone?" I ask. "Don't you miss cues when you can't see people?"

"It's like what happens to blind people with their other senses," he explains. "You become a very good listener. I hear doubt or encouragement or excitement in someone's voice and respond to that."

Plus, he says, phone work is flexible. Local clients don't have to battle traffic to get to his office, and his clients in Vermont and South Dakota save thousands on weekly airline tickets.

I find myself charmed by the understatement and nodding in agreement a lot as I listen to Charland's reasons for coaching. Before I know it, he's got me thinking that in this era of serial careers and too much traffic, professional help might be in order for people stuck on "overwhelm."

"Life has gotten so fast," he says. "People used to handwrite a memo and send it out in the mail, knowing it would be a week before it came back. Now people are pissed if you don't answer their email by the next morning. Life has changed."

IF THE SCRIBES AT U.S. News and World Report are to be believed, coaching is the nation's second-fastest-growing consulting field, just behind the equally nebulous "management consulting." The International Coaches Federation, the field's governing institution, estimates that there are some 10,000 part-time and full-time coaches in the nation. ICF's own membership has tripled in the last year alone.

So coaching is booming. But don't go out and buy a whistle on a neck band just yet--coaching still bears a snake-oil stigma. Coaching ads that rub elbows with past-life-regression therapy ads in the pages of publications like the Bay Area Open Exchange don't help.

"One challenge I face as a coach is that on every bulletin where I put a flier there are 10 ads about channeling," says Laura Worth, who started Worth Coaching Services in Los Altos five years ago. "In fact, coaching has developed into a real mainstream profession."

Ellen McGrath, a clinical psychologist and head of the Bridge Ventures Executive Coaching System of Laguna Beach and New York, is one of a growing number of professional therapists who is integrating coaching into her practice. Coaching, she says, focuses strictly on changing behavior, not on understanding the reasons behind a given behavior. Because the line between the two areas is so fine, McGrath warns that the potential for coaches to do unwitting damage to their clients is "huge."

"You get someone who was liked around the water cooler and decided they wanted to get out of Corporate America," she says, "and they hang out a shingle as a coach. I think coaching has a New Age flavor because there are many New Age practitioners doing it. They're not trained in dealing with complex human behavior, and they're equally likely to coach to failure as to success."

Peninsula-based coach Worth, like others of her ilk, insists that her work is very distinct from therapy. Therapy, she explains, deals with the past. Coaching deals with the present and future. Worth considers her coaching skills a mixture of intuition and experience--soft, but unimpeachably professional.

"A lot of people come to me with a vague sense that they don't like what they're doing, but they don't know what to do," she says. "People pay for coaching skills because they have a need. They've tried [attaining their goals] themselves. They've tried to set up networks with friends and they fell apart. There's something about having a warm body to ... I don't want to say 'hold you accountable,' because I'm not a hired mother, but there's a weekly check-in."

Ah, accountability. Coaching lingo is not for the fainthearted. There is much talk of the tools in one's toolbelt, of possibilities and distinctions. And there's accountability. It's embarrassing to talk to someone week after week and have to tell her you still haven't done things you said you were going to do a month ago. Accountability is one of the reasons coaching works.

And there's that little matter of the money exchange. Hiring a coach and not doing the homework (and there is homework) is like joining a gym and not going: eventually the guilt over money squandered functions almost as well as willpower. We're all eager to get some good out of our purchases.

Worth, like Charland, comes well recommended. After getting a master's in social work with an eye toward counseling, she got sidetracked and started a medical technology company. After burnout set in 15 years later, she started coaching part time, retaining the vice presidency of her company. Something of a maverick in the field of coaching, Worth doesn't claim membership in any of the local coaching associations, nor is she a graduate of any institution specializing in training coaches. Her whole style is different; for example, she prefers working with people face-to-face rather than via telephone.

"I've thought many times that in a sense I'm a professional friend," she muses, "which sounds cynical, but I don't mean it that way at all. To the extent that people are looking for connections in life with another human being--that's more appropriate face-to-face, I think."

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A new generation of personal coaches conducts nationwide 'class' by conference call.

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ONE MORNING, at the designated hour, I call Ray Charland for a complimentary coaching session, something many coaches offer to prospective clients. My problem: how to stretch my princely income to accommodate the lifestyle to which I and my debtors have grown accustomed.

We discuss money-saving options: wedging a roommate into my cubby-sized apartment, moving out and sharing a house, budgeting myself. We discuss income-generating options: moonlighting, taking a weekend job waiting tables until I'm debt-free. The obvious and the foolish choices alike stand out in high relief once I announce them to an objective party, i.e., one who isn't bound by friendship to listen to me whine. Charland urges me to painstakingly document every expenditure for a week to see where I fritter my money. I also receive an assignment to start a list of what I want and don't want from my living situation.

I feel pretty good after hanging up. I have an X-ray of what has seemed like a nebulous problem and the outline of a plan of action. I am not unduly bothered by having conducted the session via telephone. And I feel a pleasant buzz from having just been listened to intently for almost an hour.

Several days later I meet with Laura Worth at La Dolce Vita in Palo Alto. A 48-year-old with a bright face and dazzling silver hair, Worth has a comforting presence and a very alert way of listening. The topic for the day: my long-range career plan. Like many fields, writing has no prescribed career ladder. All I know I've gathered from lore and legend, and from here the options look like this: Novelist. Alcoholic. Alcoholic Novelist. Teacher. Waitress.

Worth recommends starting a notebook of dream jobs. Metro's Bora Bora correspondent would be an example of a dream job. Cowgirl would be another. Worth also suggests making a list of the obstacles, because sometimes the solution, she explains, is the flip side of the problem. We talk in depth about what I'd like to be doing in a few years, and Worth tells me about informational interviewing. That's talking to people who have ideal or close-to-ideal jobs and seeing what their work entails. I leave the session faintly exhilarated by the possibilities awaiting me in Bora Bora and elsewhere, and with an assignment to do two informational interviews.

I also leave the session with a sense of wonder and gratitude that I even have the leisure to think about these things. Years ago I saw a magazine in the grocery store with the headline "While Charles Analyzes His Dreams, A Beleaguered Diana Battles Bulimia and Depression." The moral I carried away from that check-out stand is that relentless introspection is the province of the wealthy, and not a particularly healthful one.

This musing cuts to the very quick of the coaching question, which is really the same as the human potential movement question. As citizens of the wealthiest civilization in history, we've come to expect total fulfillment. We want Nikes and inspiration. Are we fat, soft babies squalling for chocolate milk, self-obsessed and unaware of how good we have it? Or is it part of the next step in human evolution to move beyond drudgery, even the well-paying variety, and recognize the need to feed the soul?

Says McGrath, "It's the thing we must learn how to do. Successful emotional management will be a critical survival skill in the 21st century. Clinton is a poster boy for what happens if you don't do it."

The Age of Enlightenment followed hard upon an era of ascetic suspicion of ideas. Millennial fever aside, are we preparing for a similar shift out of an emotional dark ages?

It's enough to make a simple journalist flee to the practical for a gauge of coaching's usefulness. And coaching, it turns out, has a very practical application as we enter if not the Age of Aquarius, then the Age of Decentralized Corporations and Shrinking Personal Time.

EXECUTIVE COACHING has been around since the '70s. Personal coaching such as Charland and Worth practice got its start in the '80s when Thomas Leonard, a financial consultant in San Francisco, found his clients' questions straying into personal territory, like when to have kids. In 1998 Leonard started Coach University, a "virtual university" fully dedicated to grooming legions of coaches in a most coachlike manner--by telephone and Internet (see sidebar). Since Coach University got its start, 2,500 students have enrolled in the $3,000 coach training program. Ray Charland attended Coach University, and that is supposed to add to his credibility, but frankly, I put more faith in his 30 years of counseling experience.

Three years ago Leonard, an ardent fan of former est trainer Brian Regnier, sold Coach University to Sandy Vilas. Now an irrepressibly happy Leonard posts missives to his Web site from various locations around the world, where he's touring in any of an assortment of lavish purple vehicles.

Coach U was a key step in the popularization of the profession. With its inception a whole service industry designed to cater to high expectations was born. As coaching client Lee Lukehart says, "The top-level people, professional athletes and executives, have had this for a long time. Now the masses do too."

Besides being more prosperous than their forebears, today's masses expect more from their work--things like fulfillment, challenge and the occasional warm glow. But there are other reasons besides affluence and high expectations for coaching's growing popularity. Terri Norvell, a business coach and consultant based in Menlo Park, has some ideas on the matter.

"I think a big piece of it has to do with the flattening of the organization," she says. "In the past there were levels that would assist a person in moving up. Now the pace of business is so fast and the organizations are so lean, there's no one inside the structure to help."

Lee Lukehart agrees. A 42-year-old former software marketer who quit his job four years ago to start Lifescope, a clearinghouse for books on motivation and transformation, Lukehart thinks people are suffering from a dearth of examples.

"In the last 200 years apprenticeships have been thrown out," he says. "The key reason coaching comes into play is because we don't have the role models we need to have, or if we have them we don't have access to them."

Oh, the double-edged sword of freedom. Both information technology and the decentralizing forces of the new economy have created a whole class of educated people with jobs that never existed before. Instead of working within a hierarchical structure, they contract from home, writing code or brochures or making sales calls and reporting via email. They're more like self-contained pods than integrated components of any one organization.

That's freeing in many ways. But when it comes to making career decisions, the absence of an established hierarchy or prescribed career track complicates things. Now, separated both from the hierarchy of the pared-down institutions and from each other, these workers bob around without a map. They may need--and can probably afford--occasional guidance as they navigate the economy and try to create satisfying careers for themselves out of a bewildering range of possibilities. In many cases, as Laura Worth points out, the solution is a "mosaic" career much like her own--pieces of this, pieces of that. It's a new model that most people just aren't comfortable with yet.

Even regular employees of Silicon Valley companies, where four years is a long tenure, experience a high degree of mobility. They, too, have to chart career trajectories without clear blueprints. And most people, not just high-tech workers, can expect to have four or five careers over the course of their lifetimes.

In this scenario, coaches are the perfect smoothing ingredient in what can be a rough path. Coaches could become a regulating force within the body proletariat, keeping worker bees happy and productive in a brave new economy.

And they help preserve their clients' sanity in an ever-more-demanding world. Janet Tarr, a 40-year-old massage therapist and mother who found herself juggling roles and feeling like she wasn't doing "any of it well," used coaching to define her various roles and prioritize them--to quite salubrious effect.

"Now I find myself planning ahead," she says. "I take more time with my daughter. I'm doing things like going to the park with her, getting exercise, spending time with friends. I feel better about myself."

Although coaching is as yet unregulated, with no agreed-upon criteria in place to dictate what makes a coach legitimate, help's on the way for people who simply must see a license number next to their coach's name. In an attempt to remove the "quasi" from coaching's professional image, this month the International Coaches Federation initiates a credentialing process for coaches. In order to get the coveted piece of paper, coaches will have to have attended an ICF-accredited institution or pass an ICF-administered exam. Coach University and the San Rafael-based Coaches Training Institute, which also employs some virtual training techniques, will likely be two of the accredited schools. Under this new system, coaches like Laura Worth who have remained independent will have to take an ICF exam and pay several hundred dollars in filing fees if they wish to be recognized as coaches--at least as ICF defines them.

There is little evidence to suggest that coaching will become commonplace any time soon. It's too expensive, for one thing, and faces too much skepticism. Although psychotherapy has paved a road through the difficult terrain of public opinion, coaching can only take that path so far before it will have to clear its own way. Without psychotherapy's scientific affiliation, coaching will continue to be filed with innumerable healy-feely New Age arts for a long time to come.

"Buyer beware" is the key phrase. Some coaches are no better equipped to help people find spiritual fulfillment than good friends or trusted family members. But in this period of rapid social and economic change, when career shifts, family disintegration and sensory bombardment are the norm, a perceptive coach can provide a steadying presence in dizzying moments of change.


For more information:
Coach University: 800/482-6224
Coaches Training Institute: 415/451-6000
International Coaches Federation: 888/423-3131
Ray Charland: 408/426-1868
Laura Worth: 650/949-4230

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From the January 7-13, 1999 issue of Metro.

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