Hey, coach - put me in!

Nick Seamon's catering business was growing fast, and he needed advice on what to do next.

He tried several business consultants. But they presented him with an off-the-shelf plan that didn't match his goals.

So 2-1/2 years ago, he hired a personal coach.

Call them the 21st century's answer to corporate therapy.

Once reserved for executives and professional athletes, personal coaches - a combination life designer and personal cheerleader - are going mainstream.

Investment bankers, entrepreneurs, dentists, accountants, secretaries, even homemakers are hiring coaches to help guide them in everything from changing careers or starting a business to balancing work and family.

For Mr. Seamon, the coach devised a better game plan.

They talked by phone once a week about everything from whether he should open another store to how his frenetic work schedule impacted his home life.

"Sometimes you can't back up enough to get a good perspective," says Seamon, who owns The Black Sheep, a deli and bakery in Amherst, Mass.

"[My coach] forced me to get out of the day-to-day running of the store so I could do more strategic planning. It took him a long time to beat it into me."

The change paid off. Last year business grew 15 to 20 percent, generating $1.2 million in revenue. And he expects to take in close to $1.5 million in 1999.

The rising popularity of coaches parallels a growing desire among Americans to find direction in their increasingly fast-paced lives.

"People are working way too hard and way too fast. They have been making a lot of decisions in their life not out of clarity," says Laura Whitworth, co-founder of the Coaches Training Institute in San Rafael, Calif. "Now they want more meaning in their lives. And coaching is a place for people to look in the mirror."

The idea behind personal coaching is simple: Listen to what people want and help them discover how to get it rather than telling them what to do. Coaches don't profess to be experts on a certain topic, but rather experts in the coaching process.

"The coach is there to give feedback - not necessarily advice," says Bill Thomas, a former hospital executive who has been a personal coach in San Antonio for five years. "We're there to help them find the best in them and make decisions accordingly.

And that means not just focusing on one area of a person's life, but all areas.

Stacy Williams, an account manager for an advertising agency in Atlanta, needed help with time management and delegating. So she started working with her boss's personal coach.

"I started with [the coach] for business-management reasons," Ms. Williams says. "Around that same time I started having some issues in my personal life. He ended up helping me more with those, which indirectly helped me with my working situation.

"There were many sessions when I would get on the phone and cry," she says. "After a couple weeks of this, he said, 'I need to tell you something you don't want to hear. You've been getting very self-centered.'

"I probably wouldn't have listened to anyone but a coach," she says. "That's what you pay them for - to call it like it is."

Her coach suggested scaling back to a three-day work week. He also suggested a marriage counselor. Both suggestions were followed and, says Williams, produced positive results.

The professional coaching industry itself is booming.

Membership at the International Coach Federation, a trade group, tripled last year to 1,400 members worldwide. And Coach U based in Steamboat Springs, Colo., has trained 2,250 coaches since 1992 in its program.

Hiring a personal coach isn't cheap. Most charge between $200 and $500 a month. Full-time coaches can earn anywhere from $75,000 to $150,000 a year - with executive coaches taking in $350,000 annually, according to Coach U founder Thomas Leonard.

Seamon, whose coach also happened to be his longtime college buddy, paid out several thousand dollars a year plus stock options.

Almost all personal coaches conduct their sessions over the phone - usually one 30-minute phone session a week.

Critics often question the effectiveness of advice-by-phone, but coaches say phone sessions run more efficiently, and they tend not to prejudge clients they can't see.

Also, the key to good coaching is listening.

"We train coaches to listen for over 200 different things," says Mr. Leonard, from breathing to a person hesitating to what someone might not be saying.

"[My coach] had an uncanny ability to know when I needed a pat on the back, or an ego boost, or a big kick in the butt," Williams says. "It was also easier to talk to someone I never met."

Yet coaching is an unlicensed profession, so be sure to shop around if you decide a coach is for you (see sidebar, below).

"Anyone can put out an 'I'm a coach shingle' and it's so confusing to the marketplace," says Ms. Whitworth.

While critics argue that coaching is just a fad, ready to fade into the background, coaches see increasing momentum.

"We've come through the early adopters - the people who would try anything," says Jay Perry, a personal coach based in Maplewood, N.J. "The clients I've seen in the last two to three years have been mainstream folks - more Republican."

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