Terri Levine still recalls the conversation she had back in 1998, with a woman she'd just met at a conference in Boston. As the two women chatted, Ms. Levine asked her new acquaintance the standard conversational query: "What do you do?"
When the woman replied that she was a coach, Ms. Levine, then president of a national healthcare company, asked, "Oh, what sport?"
The woman then told her all about a job that had nothing to do with athletics. Her line of a work, as a personal coach, involved helping individuals define and reach their goals through conversations built on careful listening and questioning.
"I thought, 'Well, I've been doing that all my life,' " recalls Levine, who says she'd spent 20 years helping friends and colleagues in their search for personal and business solutions. "I knew right then it was the profession for me."
Within two days, Levine had signed up for a 200-hour coach-training program through Coach U, which was founded just as the coaching profession began taking off in the early 1990s. Levine took just over a year to complete the course, which now costs $4,295 and is conducted over the telephone.
Although she thought she'd done a pretty good job of coaching all her life, she says, she found there was a lot to learn.
"I learned that I interrupted too much, I said too much, I didn't listen enough," says Levine, who now trains other people to be coaches through her own business, called Comprehensive Coaching U. "I learned to listen in a deeper way, in a much more connected way."
An increasing number of people are doing what Levine did answering the call to coach. The International Coach Federation (ICF), a professional association, counts more than 4,500 members more than triple its membership in 1998. It estimates there are some 15,000 to 20,000 coaches worldwide.
"It's really growing," says Susan Cantwell, a coach and marketing director for Coach, Inc., which operates Coach U and its sister program, Corporate Coach U. Since 1991, she says, some 6,000 students from 36 countries have gone through the company's coach training.
Laura Berman Fortgang, who became a coach in 1991 and was one of Coach U's first students, says these days she's more likely to be approached by people who want to be coaches, rather than be coached. "It happens ... five times a day," she says. "[The career] speaks to something in people."
Economic conditions may be another factor in coaching's rise, with more highly trained professionals finding themselves in an involuntary state of free agency.
Levine, for example, says that since last October she's had some 60 people who had been laid off come to her for coach training.
More than half of those people, she says, were chief executive officers with valuable business experience.
Experts say coaching generally appeals to people who have a passion for helping others, a readiness for listening carefully to someone else, and a willingness to help someone else find their own answers, rather than tell them what to do.
It also doesn't hurt that coaching has a reputation for being a lucrative profession: Most coaches work from home, talking with clients over the telephone, and charging on average anywhere from $200 to $500 for three 30-minute conversations a month. ICF certification is, at the moment, widely considered to be an essential credential for practicing coaches, though it is not required by law.
Because word of mouth is so critical to a coach's success, the profession is likely to shake out the underqualified in fairly short order.
Experts are quick to warn would-be coaches that there's more to the work than chatting. Good coaching, they say, requires careful training in listening and questioning skills.
Unlike therapy, they say, which generally looks at a person's past and tries to help him or her change behaviors, coaching helps people look at where they are in their personal or workplace lives, where they want to go, and then helps determine how to get there.
"The job of a coach is always to increase the range of possibilities for the client," says Chris Wahl, a coach and director of the leadership-coaching certificate program at Georgetown University, the first program of its kind in the academic world.
"When you coach, you have to learn how to get at [issues] from the other person's point of view," she says. "You have to have enough objectivity and clarity to be there in service to the other person. There is a discipline to it, there is a rigor to being a coach."
Coaches say that men and women are equally suited for the profession. And they say that in general, older individuals tend to make better coaches than 20-somethings, because they have had enough personal experiences to draw on in helping somebody else identify what obstacles they may face and how to surmount them.
"I often tell people who are interested in coaching that it's no one's first job," says Judy Feld, president-elect of the International Coach Federation, whose last job before becoming a coach in 1995 was as vice-president of a subsidiary of American Airlines.
"The vast majority of coaches are over 40," she says. "It's important for a coach to be the kind of person who knows the world you live in, who's done some walking in your shoes, and can really identify with what you're going through."
Training programs vary widely from several days to several months and can cost several thousand dollars. Courses generally involve intensive training in listening skills, as well as sessions in how to set up your own coaching practice.
Many programs teach strictly by telephone, although some, such as the Georgetown program, include a few days of classroom teaching each month over the course of several months.
Often, coaches-in-training are encouraged to start practicing on real clients early in their course work, generally for reduced rates or for free.
Because coaching is an unlicensed profession, it is possible for just about anyone to call himself a coach or to set up a coach-training business.
Professionals say that for those on the hiring end, it's important to question someone's credentials and background. They note that the ICF has set standards for certifying coaches, and also has certified 10 coach-training programs. Those are described at the website www.coachfederation.org.