Reality TV's Newest Sensation: Life Coaches

Staying up late to watch the end of the Red Sox-Yankees match-up last night I was bombarded in the wee hours by Fox ads touting their latest reality shows: My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss and Richard Branson's, The Rebel Billionaire. This, on top of The Apprentice and Mark Cuban's, ahem, show, even the BBC's mockumentary The Office, made me think that reality TV had gone all biz all the time.

Then I read a review in the NYT this morning of a two-year-old syndicated reality show that stars—you guessed it—life coaches. My god, these people are popping up everywhere. It got me to thinking, we here at Fast Company get inundated with life coaches telling us their success stories all the time. But rarely do we hear from people who actually worked with a life coach. Are they really that great? Surely there must be some horror stories out there.

Email some to me.

Add New Comment


  • Li Ning

    Well I guess I'm the only one who has had a bad experience. Or the only one that will admit it.

    I found her out of the phone book and called. I ask her if she could help me with anxiety and depression and she said yes and said "I help move people out of fear and into love". I asked how she does this and she replied, "it's hard to explain how I work. I give people the skills". Who knows who this person was. I didn't know at the time to ask if she had a certificate or not. I spent a lot of money and I recieved handouts on meditation/little prayers to my higher self/realy corny exercises on finding my inner child, she also gave lots of simple,almost condescending, advice. When I told her she wasn't telling me anything new and that I didn't think this was a match, she only blamed me. I do blame myslef though. I gave a stranger my money so easily without knowing what exactly she does or what qualifications she had (besides the 100% client satifaction she told me about). When a life coach never "does" anything, it's hard to blame them for anything.

    However, I did learn to be scared and wary of non traditional forms of therapy. I'll just stick with talking to my good friends about things or a real therapist.

    If it's not about the coach and only the other person, then why in the world would someone get one? What are life coaches suppose to do? I don't get it. I've been searching online to find out what they're suppose to do and I can't find anything. I'm baffled over this occupation. I paid someone for doing nothing and that is incredibly humiliating to the point of tears.

    This experience is sickening to my stomach.


  • Marshall Goldsmith

    Like any field, "life coaching" has its successes and failures. I don't do life coaching myself. I only help successful leaders achieve a positive change in behavior. But I have a great person who has helped me plan my life, Richard Leider. Working with him has been a wonderful experience for me.
    From my expereince, it is unlikely that you will find "horror stories".
    One of my Fast Company columns, "It's not about the Coach", points out that the key variable in the success of any coaching intervention is often not the coach - it is the person being coached.

  • Harry

    Here in Australia, life coaching has grown as an extension of the recruitment industry and has been touted as the "next big thing" in HR circles two years ago, when it first really took off as a working business model for ex-corporates that have grown tired of the long hours.

  • Rooney

    I agree that in the UK there is a growing number of organisations offering coaching training and it could be difficult to assess quality.

  • Lammy

    2. You continue to receive input much like
    you have already received. An interesting
    point here and there will be shared, and
    still little will have been answered.

  • Lenny Cooper

    I am not sure, too. Anyone is truly qualified to coach another person on life...


  • Stephanie

    Your blog has been posted to a coaching mailing list with a "call to arms" to contact you about your doing a balanced article. Of course, the implied message here is that all of us coaches need to smack you silly so that you get that we're all good and wonderful and amazing. But what's so balanced about that?

    The truth is much different from what many coaches want to tell you in their perennial rose colored glasses. Here's your balance - a few coaches are spectactular, most coaches are pretty good, quite a lot are downright mediocore, and many, many coaches just plain suck.

    However, you won't hear about "coaches who suck" too often, because frankly a coach who sucks would have to work very hard to become a full-on "horror story."

    I've coached a few people who had been turned off by coaching prior to working with me, because their previous coach-who-sucked wasn't that helpful to them. That's about the extent of the bad feedback you're likely to get. There's no horror story.

    No-one's life was seriously harmed by a bad coach, unless that coach was working very very hard to be extraordinarily bad. No-one is going to have their head screwed on the wrong way by a coach - we're too "surface level" for that. (Now, before the other coaches scream at me for suggesting that coaching is "shallow" - what I mean by that is that we don't delve into deep psychological issues in coaching.)

    The biggest problem in coaching today is that there are far too well-meaning people in the industry simply because they are nice and want to help people. In many respects, you can be a good coach simply by being caring. However, the level of intelligence, insight, and listening skills required to be a truly *effective* coach is really hard to teach.

    One of the most surprising things I find constantly about this industry is that many of the coaching trainers out there aren't necessarily on the ball about it either. They are coach trainers because they are good business people and know how to make good money as a coach. Imagine how surprising it is, then, to hear them doing feedback on a training call and it's clear after listening to the recording that this esteemed "coach trainer" totally missed the point of what the client was saying.

    But I think that just illustrates that being a damn good coach is hard. Unfortunately, reality TV doesn't show us much better, with the coaches on TV often offering pat feel good mantras or showy exercises but not necessarily getting to the heart of an issue.

    Is the solution more rigorous training for coaches? Perhaps. But really, I think coaching is one of those things you either have a knack for or you don't. You can certainly improve on your skills but a person with really rotten interpersonal skills may never get it.

    On the positive side, however, people are different. What's a good coach to me is a bad coach to someone else and vice versa. My advice for anyone seeking a coach is to look past the fancy credentials and find someone you have a strong rapport with. More than anything, a good coach simply listens to you in a more objective way than a friend might, and focuses you on the future instead of the past (like traditional therapy does). That may sound like a simple thing to pay $100/hour for, but that in and of itself is worth a lot.

  • James Smith

    They are every where, you can run but you cannot hide...imagine the secrets that haven't been told.

    Ryan, how could you suggest such a thing about such a noble profession...;-)

    I see the path of this blog having the following possibilities;
    1. You find your ultimate "horror story," and
    send coaches around the world into a panic.
    It's possible, it happens with doctors, it
    happens with attorneys, and it even happens
    with leaders of faith.

    2. You continue to receive input much like
    you have already received. An interesting
    point here and there will be shared, and
    still little will have been answered.

    3. You put your cynical curiosity and your
    words to the test...;-) Experience your
    question first hand and blog your heart
    away...if you dare!

    Yep, this is a challenge, an opportunity, a call to action.

    As Tarzan might say; "Me coach, you client!"

    Let me get to the point. We each experience life with our own set of circumstances. Those circumstances are either viewed as an opportunity or a disaster. Thus the phrase "rose colored glasses."

    Can you take the same circumstance and present it to a hundred different people and end up with a hundred different perspectives, absolutely!

    We all have the same, 24/7/365, amount of time, why do some end-up as the boss, the worker, the entrepreneur, or on the street? Why do some find love, and other don't?

    If you where given the opportunity to change lives with another living person would you?

    How much would you be willing to pay someone to have the opportunity to live your life, as it is? No warranty provided...;-)

    How many people are really living the life they want to live?

    Life is short, NOW is all we have. Do it with passion and have fun while your doing it.

    I'm ready, are you?


  • Una Doyle - The Confidence Coa

    I know there might be 'horror stories' out there. However my personal experience has been very, very different.

    Being coached helped me to transform my life from being stressed, overweight, drinking too much, being overworked and underpaid and just generally miserable to the happy, fit and healthy person that I am now! {grin}

    I agree that in the UK there is a growing number of organisations offering coaching training and it could be difficult to assess quality.

    That is why after a lot of research (and having built up my own confidence!), I chose to train with the UK College of Life Coaching. As well as being externally accredited it is very strong in both theory and practical tuition and assessment. I know for a fact that the college has failed students for not being good enough - let's face it, training can only work with natural talent... {grin}

    Two of the ways that you can assess whether a coach is for you is to a) talk with them and experience their coaching for yourself and b) look at their testimonials and perhaps call some of their clients. I always offer that to the curious... (you can see some of my testimonials at

    Ryan, perhaps one reason that you "rarely hear from people who actually worked with a life coach" is that they discussed quite personal things and they don't want to talk about them in public. I have many clients who send me wonderful letters and emails, yet don't want the content of them on my website - they nearly always are happy to speak to prospective clients though.

    Perhaps it's less about horror stories and more about maintaining their privacy?

    Love light and laughter

    Una Doyle
    The Confidence Coach - Synchronicity4U

  • Phil

    (Also in Australia, Sydney to be exact) I was curious about getting a life coach so I opened up the yellow pages and picked about a dozen of the bigger adverts.

    About half of them advertised web sites that didn't respond or didn't actually have life-coaches. And the rest didn't answer their phones. I phoned and left messages for about five contacts. I heard NOTHING for two days. Three eventually contacted me later on in the week.

    I don't want anybody with such bad customer service levels guiding me in my business career.

  • David McQueen

    The truth is there has been a proliferation of life coaches especially here in the UK over the last few years. I for one am forever getting mail through the post to go on a certificate/diploma course and "join this growing industry".

    Life coaching in and of itself is not so much an issue, but there is a growing concern amongst many about the dependency on the GROW Models and the NLP techniques as an answer to everything by some coaches. For people like myself who have studied career counselling and coaching it is amusing sometimes to hear that someone who has taken a weekend module on career coaching is now positioning themself as an authority.

    Personally I would not take on a life coach unless they had complimentary training in counselling or a psych field. The industry like the BACP needs to have a more formal body with more accountability before it becomes more credible in the UK.

  • Zanthi Avila

    Here in Australia, life coaching has grown as an extension of the recruitment industry and has been touted as the "next big thing" in HR circles two years ago, when it first really took off as a working business model for ex-corporates that have grown tired of the long hours.

    Life coaching works reasonably well in a DIY culture such as one you find here in Oz. There isn't really a mentor-mentallity prevalent in business and paying a life coach to double-up as a time management/motivational/counselling tool is not uncommon for 20-&-30-somethings who work the long corporate hours and are encouraged to read all the self-help books to be at their peak-performing best.

  • Jennifer Warwick

    I have to say that your inquiry does not come across as neutral curiosity, but instead as a bit mean-spirited...

    In my experience, yes, they really can be that great. My time spent working with trained coaches has been positive -- much more positive, in terms of my own leadership development, than my hair-raising experiences with any number of self-titled management consultants. My experiences were so positive, in fact, that I began training as a coach myself, to become a better manager.

    As for that reality might be surprised at the variety of (strong) opinions among coaches about it. Naturally, the coaches in that series are not any more representative of all coaching professionals than is the nutso life coach in the fictional "Nip/Tuck"...just as Donald Trump does not represent every CEO.

  • David Lau

    I follow your line of thinking, and I wish I had a horror story to tell. The life coaches (or personal development coaches) I know of are great confidence builders. But I am not sure anyone is truly qualified to coach another person on life!

    David Lau

  • Christopher Bailey

    I could be considered one of "these people" as you so bluntly put it. And yes, there are many wonderful life coaches out there who do very good work. But, I'm curious and more than a little insulted by your notion that there just has to be "some horror stories out there." What exactly would you like to discover? Would it make you feel better to find out that there are bad life coaches just as much as there are excellent life coaches?

    I find the tenor of your questioning interesting, particularly since Marshall Goldsmith writes some truly powerful articles on executive coaching for your magazine. Is his brand of coaching somehow better than life coaching? The very essence of coaching is helping individuals be the very best they can be in their lives whether they are in the boardroom or the living room.

    The best of us understand that coaching is a profession with great potential to serve others. We believe in training and learning more about ourselves and others. So, instead of fishing for the worst of coaching, perhaps there ought to be a celebration of what good coaching can bring out of people. That is, unless its more interesting and rewarding to only focus on "horror stories."