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Leadership Now

A Look Inside The "Wild West" Of Life Coaching

Life Coaching is a $2 billion dollar industry with no standard required certification. So what the hell does a life coach really do?

[Image: Flickr user Kat Northern Lights Man]

"I was stuck," says BrandAxion president Jeff Danzer.

In September, the marketing strategy entrepreneur says he realized that something was amiss: the projects that used to be getting greenlights were forming a traffic jam at his desk.

"I started looking for an executive skills coach because I realized I needed some help," he says.

Devin Martin

So he made a post on local-services marketplace Thumbtack. He was looking for chemistry with an executive coach when he met Devin Martin.

"I was blown away by the ease with which I was able to speak with him and what he was able to draw out from me in just that first meeting," he says. "(The reason I came to him) was to help with my business, but Devin was quick to point out that things that were happening in business were rooted in things that were happening in my entire life."

Martin, a Brooklyn-based life coach, helped Danzer set goals for uncovering what was going on in his work and life—and gave him tools to make inquiries.

I did not realize until I started working with Devin that a couple of my personal issues were the reason things were happening." he says. "I never thought of myself as a judgmental person until Devin gave me an exercise: a 3-2-1 exercise where you take a situation that you're having with another person, whether you admire that person or its a negative situation, and you talk it through with yourself as if the other person is sitting there. First in first person, then second person, then third person.

All of a sudden, you realize, wow, if I'm doing these things, I'm doing them for a specific reason, and once I was able to see that [I then realized that] I've been pretty judgmental throughout my life. That's something that I'm learning right now to work with and change.

What does it take to be a life coach?

Devin Martin is a life coach, but he's not certified in any way. And he says that hasn't affected his practice. After dropping out of college, he spent years installing security systems while making music and running a philosophy discussion group in his free time.

"I felt a huge chasm in my life in how I was making my life and my values," he says.

So he got trained as a holistic health coach at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. In 2009, he started coaching part-time in while he was still doing security work, taking clients primarily in New York.

"It became clear to me that people are unhealthy in New York City, because they hate what they do with their life; they hate their jobs," he says, "so I've become more of a life and career coach."

His clients are the off-balance and overwhelmed entrepreneurs, the well-off and underwhelmed professional, and the mid-careerist trying to decide if they want to do the same thing for the next 30 years—or if they need to switch to a more meaningful vocation.

But by what right does Martin have to coach lives? It's not because he's an expert at life.

"Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player of all time—and he had a coach," Martin says, emphasizing that a coach need not be 'better' than a coachee. "A coach is someone outside of you giving you perspective you can't see. It's about having concrete goals and working toward the future and giving you insights and tough love, having someone to hold you accountable."

But while Martin isn't certified, there are several different accreditation organizations for the coaching industry. The International Coach Federation is the biggest one, with their membership at about 20,000 worldwide; they estimate that the coaching industry is at about $2 billion in revenue per year. But as Martin's case evidences, coaching lacks in rigorous standards—one psychologist-plus-coach, Kathryn Hahner, referred to coaching as the "Wild West," with "no formal certification" and credentials sold online. Then there's the word coach itself, sticky with sports and self-help connotations.

So what does a life coach do?

The word coach comes from athletics, though Coaching Manager co-author Joe Weintraub says that the parallels only go so far: while a basketball coach might scream you toward improving on your problems, a life, business, or career coach will only help you make your better qualities into the best.

Again and again, the coaches we talked to contrasted action-orientation coaching with that of more therapeutic, analysis-based helping professions. International Coach Federation president Janet Harvey says you can understand it among the other "human development modalities": training, mentoring, consulting, and therapy or counseling. Therapy, she says, is founded upon finding what's making a person dysfunctional; coaching is founded upon maximizing a person's potential.

As Harvey explains, the work of a coach is to help the client learn to listen for the potential:

"In coaching you are seen as a whole, capable, and creative person. When you pause long enough to listen to yourself and listen well to how you perceive and interpret situations and relationships, you can act—what you rely on internally is important to be conscious of. Through the coach-client interaction, there's an opportunity for you to get that awareness and clarity, so that you can choose consciously in a way that aligns with what's true about you, rather than what someone else thinks is true."

To Harvey, coaching fills a gap that's been made with the restructuring of work. Careers are more fluid than they were a generation ago, when a company man could be nurtured by long-term, mentoring-type relationships with senior colleagues.

"The relationships that allowed for growth no longer exist," she says, "though we'll always have that need."

Perhaps that's why business coaching has become a management discipline unto itself, at Babson management professor and Coaching Manager co-author James Hunt tells us. But where life coaches are working one-on-one with a client, business coaching is a three-pronged relationship: there's the coach, the employee, and the employer—who is looking for outcomes.

Weintraub, tells of how individual coaching can have organization-wide results. Consider an organization where departments don't talk to one another. In that case, he says, a little well-placed coaching can have major yields: task an emotionally intelligent person with the goal of developing inter-departmental relationships. That will knit together the organizations network in just the way that predicts success.

Those organization-wide results come through the one-to-one coaching, too: after Jeff Danzer realized that he acting judgmentally, he was able to work with it when it arised—instead of judging the value of the person, he judges the value of the idea, and thus making for a more collaborative work style. And with that emotional agility, the green lights have started coming in again.

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