When Martha Beck's students approached her after class for advice about their careers, relationships, and life in general, the business-school professor had no idea there was a term for those talks. Months later, she had not only heard the term "life coach," but she'd left the classroom to become one. Today, Ms. Beck, also a wife, mother of three, and three-time Harvard graduate, turns away prospective clients or refers them to her one-year waiting list.
Beck is only one of about 20,000 life coaches practicing around the world today, many of whom opened shop in the past five years.
Unlike psychotherapists, life coaches don't focus on one's past but instead help clients move forward by setting life goals and, it's hoped, getting results.
A diverse lot, they include social workers or therapists squeezed out by managed health care, career counselors or financial planners looking to broaden their scope, disillusioned corporate executives, and stay-at-home parents. Many life coaches choose a specialty - relationships, work and money, or creativity, for instance - but the savvy among them realize these areas are often interrelated.
"I've coached business executives who tell me they are miserable at work, but as we talk, I discover the real problem is loneliness," Beck says.
For her, coaching was a much better fit than the academic world.
"Teaching was frustrating since it's not applied," Beck says. "It's applying a philosophy and seeing results that interests me." Her philosophy has to do with helping clients put a higher priority on living their values, pursuing what brings them joy, and appreciating their wholeness and individuality. "I'm a cheerleader for their true selves," she explains.
Motivated clients only
Beck's approach is far from sugar-coated. "I'm very direct, I ask pointed questions, and I give regular homework," she says. If the homework isn't done, clients can forget that day's session. A typical assignment might involve devoting one hour each day to pursuing an activity a client enjoys but considers a waste of time. You'd be surprised, she adds, how difficult this is for some people.
Marcia Reynolds, a Phoenix-based life coach and author, doles out an even tougher assignment: Put on paper exactly what a typical day might be like in one year. "I've done this for the past two years," says her client Andy Rachelski. "She encourages me to dream big about my work, my relationships, and how I'd spend my free time. During the year, we work on making those dreams come true. About 80 percent of what I write actually happens!"
Like many clients, Mr. Rachelski is also a coach in training. He will graduate this June from a two-year program at Coach University, a popular school for this growing profession, which conducts 650 hours of training exclusively by phone to students all over the United States.
Rachelski's interest in coaching grew out of his volunteer work at a state penitentiary, where he helps inmates, including those struggling with addiction, to improve their lives.
"As a result of that work," he says, "I was strongly drawn to a career in coaching." After graduation, Rachelski plans to specialize in coaching people away from addiction, and guide them toward more fulfilling relationships and financial independence.
It's this "holistic" approach that appeals to Gail Liebhaber, a licensed social worker who specializes in career counseling but considers herself a life coach as well. "I try not to reduce my clients to job-seeking machines," she says. "I help them strike a work-life balance."
This is precisely what attracted her client, Michael Appell, to call on her when leaving his position as president of a large foundation after 20 years. "She looks at the whole person and understands the process people go through when making a major life change," he says. "And she nudges me to make choices that will bring me more balance."
Beware of 'self-help with skin on it'
It's key for a life coach to offer some sort of expertise, says Beverly Ryle, who has been coaching clients for more than 25 years, but has become increasingly reluctant to use the term. She prefers to call herself a business development and career professional. "Life coaching is a trend, and may not last," she explains. "It has had such proliferation that much of it is now just self-help with skin on it."
Ms. Ryle would caution those shopping for a coach to ask tough questions, seek out someone who has been rooted in a career for at least 10 years, and find out what qualifies them to hang their "life coach" shingle.
"Many people tell me they want to be a coach," she explains, "but when I ask them 'What is your product? Do you have an area of expertise?' They often don't have an answer. They're just going through a personal crisis and need a job. As I see it, people who go for a quick fix will often promote a quick fix."
She adds that even a degree from Coach University doesn't necessarily qualify a graduate for the lofty life-coach label. "It's really just a beginning," she says.
If even that, says Dick Bolles, author of the bestselling classic "What Color is Your Parachute: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers."
"Anyone can call himself a life coach in a New York minute!" he says when reached at his home in Northern California, where he is working on a "dramatic revision" of his job-hunting bible. "Sure, there are some qualified people out there, but this field is ripe for exploitation. It's intuitive, not scientific, so it's hard for clients to know if they've fallen into the hands of a charlatan."
Ryle's client, Eloise Klein, insists that Ryle (who happens to have taken many of Mr. Bolles's workshops for professional career counselors) is one of the good ones. "She is emotionally together and so knowledgeable about business," says Ms. Klein. "She is very specific when helping me to develop my own business in creative writing and teaching. She doesn't let me get away with anything. And she doesn't pretend to know how to coach me about writing."
Before Klein met Ryle at a musical concert on Cape Cod, Mass., Klein had a couple of discouraging coaching experiences. "The first coach was way too touchy-feely," she says, "He only told me to visualize how much money I want to make the following year." At the time, Klein was in her 50s and suddenly divorced with her five children to look after. "I needed someone to lead me out of the woods and into the working world," she recalls. "The second coach was sweet and had a coaching degree, but didn't have business experience to draw from."
Gail McMeekin, a painter and writer in the Boston area, has made counseling people like Klein her specialty. Her book "The 12 Secrets of Highly Creative Women: A Portable Mentor" has brought her clients from all over the United States.
"With women," she says, "their own creativity often ends up taking last priority after everyone else in the family has been looked after. I help them bring it up near the top."
Assessing priorities is what coaching is all about, says David Goldsmith, president of coach.inc.com, which owns Coach U. "With the Internet speeding things up," he explains, "everyone is being asked to do more with less time."
Also driving the trend is a lack of nurturing, says Ms. Liebhaber. "Companies are so fast-paced that they don't give employees individual attention anymore. As a result, people are seeking outside feedback."
Client Klein suspects demand for coaching has to do with the breakdown of traditional society. "There is a tremendous need for people who can help others on this journey because we are on totally new territory," she says.
All signs indicate this need is being filled - fast.
Part of the attraction to a career in coaching is that one can do it anywhere, anytime, says Thomas Leonard, who founded Coach U in 1992 and is widely considered "the guru of life coaching." He now runs coachville.com, an online coaching network, edits an e-zine on life coaching, and crisscrosses America in the 32-foot motor home he shares with his 6-pound Maltese.
If, as Mr. Goldsmith explains, "Life coaching is a tool to help people create a strategy for doing what they want instead of what they should do," then his friend Mr. Leonard is indeed the field's poster boy. Long ago, Leonard decided that if he was going to help others find their bliss, he'd better find his own first.
Or as he puts it: "I knew I had to walk the talk. And here I am, working by cellphone in the Arizona sunshine. It's a balmy 77 degrees, and 'Fringe' is lounging by my side. It just doesn't get any better."
Life coaching in cyberspace
www.coachfederation.org - Official site of the International Coach Federation, a nonprofit association based in Washington. It has created a formal accreditation program for the various coach-training agencies as well as a certification process for coaches.
www.coachu.com - Virtual college based in Steamboat Springs, Colo., which conducts teleconference-based training to 5,500 students in 37 countries.
www.comprehensivecoachingu.com - Training courses for professional coaches.
www.CoachVille.com - Networking site for life coaches around the world. Coaching scoop, a popular weekly e-zine on life coaching, can also be found here.
www.ihavegoals.com - Site for do-it-yourself types. It helps people coach themselves.
Contracts, fees, and other facts
Ten years ago, there were about 100 life coaches worldwide. Five years ago, 5,000, and last year, about 20,000.
Two-thirds of coaches practice in North America.
Among coaches practicing today, the female-to-male ratio is about 70 to 30.
Coaches charge about $300 to $500 a month per client for one half-hour call per week.
Most coaches conduct sessions by telephone.
The average coach works with 25 clients per month.
Most coaches ask for a three- to six-month commitment, but will let a client stop right away if he or she is dissatisfied.
Most clients stay with a coach for three months to five years.
Few coaches ask for a written contract.
A license is not required to practice, although certificates are awarded by the International Coach Federation to those people who have completed formal training.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor