Fortune 500 firms now have them in-house. So do schools and jails. That über-expext, the life coach, is here to stay.
LUIZA CH. SAVAGEDecember42006
You go, girl! That’ll be $300.
THE BACK PAGES
When Samuel Alito, a Yale Law School graduate, was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year, his fellow alumni threw him a nice dinner. The hundred or so attendees included the chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, past and present Supreme Court clerks, and table after lobster-laden table of Washington power-lawyers. One alum, a silver-haired retired business executive from Maryland named Wayne Caskey, asked another guest his thoughts on the $75-a-plate gathering. “He said, ‘Whenever I come to one of these things, it makes me feel inferior,’ ” Caskey later recalled. “I said to myself, if that’s what makes his achievements seem hollow—what a tragedy! ”
And what a business opportunity. At 69, Caskey has a second career as a “life coach” to precisely such under-fulfilled overachievers. They are successful enough—yet dissatisfied enough—to hire a perfect stranger to help them mould their lives into something bigger, better, or just plain different. “An examined life is worth something,” quips Caskey, who has 18 clients. “But a fulfilled life is worth more.” How much more? He charges $250 to $300 an hour.
In a society where self-made is an accolade, self-help a $10-billion industry in the U.S. alone, and where television shows demonstrate how professionals can de-clutter your house, re-sculpt your abs, and potty train your toddler, it was perhaps inevitable that an fiber-expert would emerge: one to remake your life. Woody Allen had an analyst. Tony Soprano had Prozac. Now they could have a coach or a “personal change manager” to help them cope with their angst. As recently as the mid-1990s, the word “coach” only appeared in the sports pages of newspapers. Then life coaches started popping up in the media in the past few years. Today, they are regularly quoted as experts on everything from organizing your garage to “surviving the family Christmas.” Fortune 500 companies have them in-house, and so do some schools, colleges and prisons. The International Coach Federation, an industry association based in Kentucky, counts 10,800 members, of which 900 are in Canada. It’s growing by 200 new members each month. Coaches reached a pop culture milestone earlier this year when The Daily Show mocked them as “really like a friend, who charges” and their clients as “L.O.S.E.R.s.” Proving that there is no such thing as bad publicity, calls to ICF headquarters tripled the next day.
The movement includes everything from “executive coaches” who try to improve the performance of corporate managers to specialists in attention deficit disorder or dating. But the promise of “personal” or “life coaching” is perhaps the most ambitious and the most ambiguous. What is it, exactly? Not therapy, coaches are quick to note. “Therapy is about the past,” explains Caskey. “Coaching is about the present and the future.” Pamela Richarde, a 53-year-old former community college professor and the president of the coaching federation, explains: “If you want to learn to ride a bicycle, the therapist will deal with your inability to get on the bike, the things in the past that make you fearful. A consultant will tell you where to put your hands and feet, how the mechanisms work. A mentor will get on the bike and show you how they did it,” she continues. “A coach, once you decide to get on the bike, will run alongside you.”
Or at least, it turns out, he or she will ask you a lot of questions while you try to ride. The secret is that life coaches don’t actually tell you what to do or how to do it. You may be r ■ 1 , , paying for it, but you re still the one who has to figure that out. “The conviction is that the clients really know what they want and what they need to do to get it,” says Caskey. “I don’t make them do it. I don’t give advice. I may have opinions but I will only give them if asked, and not always.” When he first sits down with a client, Caskey hauls out what he calls the “Wheel of Life.” Actually, he just takes out a piece of paper. In the centre there is a circle with the client’s name. Around it are eight more circles, labelled: friends/family, health, physical environment, money, business/career, fun/recreation, personal growth, and significant other/romance. He asks the client to rank his or her satisfaction in each area on a scale of one to 10. “I ask them what a 10 would look like in each area and how they’d get there. And some say an eight or nine is as good as it’s gonna get, and that’s fine. And then we concentrate on those that are less than eight,” Caskey explains. He quizzes them about their values, their goals, their purpose in life, and how they might “run your job, not let it run you.” Then he asks his clients, “What is 100 per cent fun for you? What’s 90 per cent fun? And on down to zero”—and challenges them to drop everything that is not at least 70 per cent fun. Apparently, it can be done. One client swapped a profitable job for a gig teach ing English-as-a-second-lan guage, moved over 700 km to be with her family, and hooked up with her high school sweetheart—all within six months. Another client left his job to hike the Appalachian Trail. He is still hiking. On the other hand, one CEO emerged from Caskey’s coaching as a cost-cutter and laid off 20 per cent of his workforce, overseeing the first layoffs in his company’s 100-year history. Maybe not fun, exactly, but apparently fulfilling. “He felt good because he was the leader who was ensuring the survival of the company. He drew upon resources he didn’t know he had in order to see the company through the downturn,” says Caskey.
Fortune 500 firms now have them in-house. So do schools and jails. That über-expext, the life coach, is here to stay.
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
Joyce Dubensky, the executive vice-president of a New York City-based non-profit organization that encourages interfaith cooperation, came to Caskey with a pain in the neck, literally. “It became clear that some of the things that were causing me physical difficulty, like constant neck pain, were related to stress, which was related to work.” Her doctor sent her to Caskey. Dubensky says the coaching helped her manage more decisively, fire problematic employees more quickly, clean her office desk, clear out a home office, buy a fancy bicycle, and occasionally go dancing. “I can turn my neck completely now,” she says.
Joseph Perta hired Caskey when he was making a mid-life career change from a mergers-and-acquisitions job at a boutique investment bank to a high-end wealth-management firm where, he says, “If you fail to meet expectations you are history.” He hired Caskey to help him reach his firm’s ambitious financial goals without becoming the kind of pushy salesman he found distasteful. “Sure it’s worth it,” Perta said of the four years of coaching. “I think I have a leg up on everyone in my office. I have someone to talk to, who understands my situation. I’m not sure my colleagues have that. They carry all their burdens inside themselves.”
When Tom Fahy hired Caskey, he already knew he had to leave his job as a lobbyist for a professional association, and strike out on his own. “I was unhappy. I was in a state of confusion. I was looking for answers. What is it that the Sean Connery character says in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, after realizing that the Holy Grail exists? The character says he received ‘illumination.’ And that’s what I was looking for when I went into this relationship.”
But the question arises: couldn’t they have cleaned their desks, quit their jobs, or switched careers on their own? Skeptics see the coaching phenomenon as just another self-help fad that encourages people to abdicate responsibility for their life choices. “I think it speaks to a generalized directionlessness among this generation, specifically the need today’s adults have to entrust their decision-making to almost anybody else besides them. We are so terrified of taking responsibility for what we do that we want to have somebody else rubber-stamp it first,” says Steve Salerno, author of SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made American Helpless.
But some people just “need a kick in the pants to get it done,” says Ray Williams, an executive coach and president of the 160member Vancouver chapter of the ICF. At 60, Williams has parlayed a career as a former high school principal, superintendent of schools and consultant, into the vicepresidency of Premier Career Management Group, which helps managers become “better leaders.”
You would think that the people who could most use a coach would be precisely those who can’t afford one. But Williams says the more successful the individual, the more he or she seems to need a coach. “With respect to managers and executives, one of the most significant problems is the problem of their ego—their inability to put it aside in order to come up with solutions. They are too controlling, they’d rather be right than anything else, they feel that having other people participate in decisions is a sign of weakness,” he says. “The biggest lesson for me is to be really courageous in confronting clients about what needs to be done—to the point of risking getting fired over your honesty,” he says.
Dubensky says she was more motivated after setting goals with a coach. “I’m not only doing it for me when I do it, but because I told him I was going to do it. I gave him my word.” Fahy said he eventually would have struck out on his own, only because “I probably would have burned out.” Perta said he needed someone to help him get over “the anxiety of saying, ‘heck, what happens if I don’t make it?’ ”
ONE CLIENT SWITCHED CAREERS, MOVED 700 KM TO BE NEAR FAMILY, AND LOOKED UP HER OLD SWEETHEART—ALL IN SIX MONTHS
It turns out he did make it. But what if he hadn’t? Cleaning your desk is nice. But should everyone necessarily be encouraged to follow their dreams? Salerno says no. “Emotionally, you want someone to buy into your dream and to give you some adrenalin to tell you to go out and follow it—but it may be the last thing you need,” says Salerno. But coaches say they aren’t there to judge your goals, just help you achieve them. “It’s entirely possible that a good coach would say, ‘you don’t have it in you,’ ” says Salerno, “but I think no one would say that because they’d be killing the golden goose.”
What if someone wants to quit their job to write a book, for example, but doesn’t have the talent? Richarde doesn’t see a problem. “If they are no good at writing, they can go learn. They can get a ghostwriter. There are solutions. They will come from the client when they stretch into the goal,” she assures.
,TH£ DAILY SHOW’ MOCKED LIFE COACHES AS ‘REALLY LIKE A FRIEND—WHO CHARGES.’ CALLS TO THE COACHING FEDERATION TRIPLED.
Another criticism about coaches is that, unlike therapists, they do not require a degree in psychology or psychiatry. Anyone can call themselves a coach. Or as The Daily Show segment put it, “All you need is a computer, Internet access, and hands.” Sensitive to this perception, the International Coach Federation created a certification system. A “Professional Certified Coach” must have 125 hours of training and produce a log demonstrating 750 hours of coaching experience. A “master” coach must log 2,500 coaching hours. And there is a mandatory exam. Various coachtraining organizations focus on how to listen and ask questions, or as Richarde puts it, “the art of being with someone to help them be in a safe space and explore and not worry about what they say.” The curriculum also includes issues such as how to “positively confront” a client who is not making progress.
The skeptics want more evidence. “There is no other area in life that we would invest $250 an hour in if they can’t prove that it works,” says Salerno, who argues that even in corporate settings evaluations of coaching’s effectiveness rest on ephemeral measures such as improvements in “morale.” Williams says that, on the contrary, results are measurable, especially in the corporate setting. “What you might measure is whether relationships have improved between a manager and employees. For example, has absenteeism gone down? The biggest reason for absenteeism and lack of engagement in work is employees’ relationships with their bosses.” The ICF has commissioned a study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers to examine the returns on coaching, and hopes to have it in hand this month, says Richarde.
The movement that grew out of collaborations between psychologists and financial planners now has global ambitions. It’s already popular in Britain, and growing in Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere. Richarde recently returned from promoting coaching to business groups in Shanghai and Seoul, and is headed next to Colombia and the Czech Republic. “It’s not just about a coach getting clients, but how can we bring coaching into the world as a way of being,” she enthuses. “It’s a fabulous conduit and tool for peace.”
Not everyone is up for that kind of peace. Caskey had a client who quit after she realized how much income she’d lose to start up the business she dreamed of. Another client, who was sent to coaching by investors who wanted him to change his abrasive management style, quit after four months, deciding his style was just fine, thanks. (He lost the investors.) Williams had a client quit over “feedback” about the disrespectful way in which he was treating his employees and his wife. “He said, T just can’t take this from you.’ ” Apparently coaches are a bit like the Almighty: they can only help those who help themselves. “Unless there is a willingness to change and a sense of urgency about it,” says Williams, “A coach can’t do anything.” Even at $250 to $350 an hour.
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