There’s a group of smart entrepreneurs and businessmen in town that I respect quite a lot. They recently had a big discussion about the value of coaching. Not professional sports coaching, but career coaching.
Most of the guys responded in a predictable fashion: they were snide and dismissive about the concept of life coaching. The most outspoken in the group were quick to cite several reasons why they would never hire a professional coach. They used words like “charlatans” and “phony.” Although their comments were provocative and some were even funny, mostly they represented the opinions of men who lacked firsthand experience with coaching. So it was basically a bunch of guys farting through the keyhole about a topic they knew nothing about. This reaction is not uncommon, especially among Type A businessmen.
The whole incident caused me to think carefully about the image of professional “life coaching”. It is a relatively new field, and most people are unfamiliar with it. The idea of asking a stranger for advice is risky and unusual. So it comes as no surprise that most people consider professional life coaching a little weird. Most people are pretty skeptical about coaching… until they try it.
People who have worked successfully with a career coach swear by it. Me, too.
I happen to have a substantial amount of firsthand experience with professional coaching. I thought it might be helpful to share some personal perspective on the topic. For those who are interested in learning more about coaching, I share the following information gleaned from my own personal experience. (And if you’d like to learn more about my own personal experience with coaching, please scroll to the bottom of this post at the asterisk*).
What follows is somewhat long for a blog.
There are two parts:
1) Professional Coaching the Context of American Society
2) Criticism of Professional Coaching: separating useful criteria from misleading arguments.
1. Professional Coaching in the Context of American Society
The Market for Self-Improvement Goods and Services
Coaching is a subset of the market referred to as Self Improvement or Personal Growth. The US market for Personal Improvement products is robust and growing at a rate of ~11% annually. According to MarketData Enterprises (a market research firm that has published research on this market for the past ten years), the total market for Self Improvement products and services is on track to exceed $13 billion this year. This includes the full range of products and services: books, programs, media, services, seminars etc.
Self-Improvement and the American Ideal of Personal Liberty
Coaching can be viewed as a modern expression of a longstanding tradition of personal improvement in the US. Many Americans believe in personal liberty combined with the concept of self sufficiency and personal responsibility: these concepts are central principles in self improvement. But life in today’s society is pretty complicated, with lots of change occurring at once, so a market has emerged for professional advisors who can help us master the skills necessary to navigate this complex environment. These people are coaches.
Some would say that the impulse towards self-improvement is a central theme in the narrative of the nation. That’s because the concept of exercising personal liberty to make decisions about one’s fate is core to the founding premise of the nation. Most of the nation’s founders were outspoken proponents of education and self-betterment.
Historically, as an alternative to 18th Century European society, American society permitted the prospect of greater social mobility and upward progress, which raised the expectation of bettering one’s station that was shared by many immigrants. Perhaps as a result, to this day, Americans tend to be more avid consumers of self improvement products than other cultures. We live in a self-help nation.
There is a vast amount of written material in the the self improvement genre. The earliest roots of this movement in literature are found in the writing of Benjamin Franklin and his famous words of advice in Poor Richard’s Almanac (1733-58).
In the 20th century, the mass migration to cities, the rise of industrialism and subsequently the corporation, and the growing need for specialization and individual credentials spurred the growth in consumption of lifelong learning beyond the classroom.
In the early part of the 20th century, the tales of Horatio Alger inspired readers with simple parables. Notable titles from the early part of the century include optimistic fare like Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” (1936) and Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich” (1937).
Today, self-improvement books appear frequently in the bestseller list, and many authors have created successful franchises. Notable titles from recent decades include: “Seven Habits of Highly Successful People” by Stephen Covey, “The Automatic Millionaire” series by David Bach, “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” series by Robert Kiyosaki, “1 Minute Manager” series by Ken Blanchard. Other prominent authors in the genre include Tony Robbins, Suze Orman, David Allen, Deepak Chopra.
This content is also available in other media formats, such as audio and multimedia. Beginning in the late 1950s, radio broadcaster Earl Nightengale introduced audiotapes for professional salesmen and businessmen, and his company Nightengale-Conant pioneered the audiottape business with a series of speakers including Zig Ziglar, Brian Tracey and others
One big problem with the self-improvement books is that they are frequently purchased but not always read. Tony Robbins pointed out to me that most self-improvement books are unread beyond the first chapter. And even if they are read, the lessons are not applied. It takes effort to apply these lessons. As Suze Orman once said to me: “The problem with self-help books is that people feel like they made the effort by reading the book, but that’s just the beginning of the effort.”
So it’s no surprise, then, that a coaching service has emerged to provide structure and support to those who seek to make a change in life but lack the personal discipline to apply the lessons. Enter the professional coach.
The Rise of Professional Coaching Services
There has long been a demand for tutors and advisors, especially around academic studies and professional certification, but the business of hiring career coaches in the contemporary sense did not emerge until fairly recently (~1990).
In 2005 -06 I was a strategic advisor to Tony Robbins, the world’s leading proponent of self improvement. Tony claims credit for introducing the professional coaching concept, and today he has a roster of coaches on his staff to provide services to clients all over the world. He explained it this way to me: “If you want to get better at tennis, the solution is obvious. You hire a coach. If you want to help your child improve their French, Algebra or SAT test scores, you hire a tutor. Nowadays we apply this same idea to any other area of life where we seek improvement.”
Robbins has a point. Increasingly, people are open to the idea of hiring a coach to help them improve their skills. A lively market has emerged. Today, there are at least 40,000 people in the US who bill themselves as professional coaches, an increase of 100% since 2004. Coaching services are provided in a wide range of fields, from career management to relationship/marriage to sports, psychology public speaking, personal branding and more.
Coaching is an unlicensed profession, which means that *anyone* can claim to be a coach. This leaves the field open to a lot of (justifiable) criticism. The industry has taken steps to mitigate this issue. Beginning in the mid 1990s, professional associations like the International Coaching Federation arose to provide certification programs in an effort to raise the bar to a standard of professional uniformity.
Today it is easy to find certified coaches from recognized training programs in just about every city in the US.
The next section deals with criticism of coaching.
2. Criticism of Coaching: separating useful criteria from misleading arguments
In any profession, there is a wide spectrum of service quality. Coaching is no exception. Just as there are bad attorneys, chiropractors, tax planners, marriage counselors, ministers and teachers, there are also some bad coaches. And because the concept of coaching is new and not especially well understood, it comes in for extra scrutiny from critics.
The scrutiny is warranted. Because coaching is not licensed by an authorized certification body, there is a high degree of skepticism about the value and validity of the service. Skepticism is not a bad thing.
But there is also a line of critique that is misleading, in my opinion, because it is not based on fact nor on firsthand experience. This is called prejudice.
Here are some of the “lazy” critiques of coaching:
A) Coaching is nothing more than “warm and fuzzy handholding” devoid of substance
B) Coaches can be unscrupulous charlatans who lack professional credentials
C) Why would a total stranger be more committed to your success than you?
D) Coaching is not a science and it’s not even a proper methodology
E) If the coach is qualified to promote personal success, why is he / she coaching instead of enjoying wealth and fame?
F) If you need a coach, there must be something wrong with you.
These are the critiques echo what I heard from my peers in the entrepreneur’s club. They are familiar to me. When I was working with a panel of 200 coaches in 2007, I raised many of these questions myself, because I was very cautious and did not want to associate myself with a dubious offering. After due diligence, I arrived at answers that I found satisfactory but I recognize that not everyone would agree with my assessment.
What I learned is that the concerns listed above are typically raised by people who are unfamiliar with coaching. After working with coaches, I learned that these issues are not the most important questions about coaching. They reflect more about the person who is raising the concern, because they have more to do with the projection of fear and the anxiety of the unknown than with the reality of coaching. That said, there are some very serious questions about the business of coaching: to see what I consider to be the biggest issues around coaching, jump to the next section.
Here’s what I learned about the criticism listed above:
A) Good coaching is not “warm and fuzzy”.
People with no experience of working with a coach use their imagination to conjure up an image of a goofy handholding session where clients talk dreamily about New Age aphorisms and share warm and fuzzy thoughts. This is pure fantasy. I’ve dealt firsthand with coaching: done right, it is a serious business. It is rigorous and disciplined.
What can you expect in a coaching session? Exactly what you would expect from a personal trainer in a gym or a football coach. Tough love: encouraging but firm, focused and supportive guidance. Your coach is likely to push you far beyond your own beliefs about your limitations.
A good coach will require you to make a commitment to achieving a goal (or set of goals) within a specified timeframe, and will hold you accountable to your progress. There is nothing “fuzzy” about it. It’s black and white: you either took action or you did not.
It can be frankly painful to deal with your coach when you have not done what you set out to accomplish because a good coach will require you to examine carefully why you failed to take the action steps you had outlined. But this experience is very valuable: there is nothing more illuminating that arriving at an understanding of why you procrastinate or avoid making progress or fail in some other way.
It’s just like watching videos of your form when you play a sport: for example, when I played football in high school and college, every Monday after the game, the whole team would gather to watch the film from the game. My football coach would make us all to watch each player’s mistakes on film in slow motion so that we could all see precisely how the play failed. It’s not much fun to be turned into an object lesson, but you sure do learn fast this way.
Examining your performance is instructive, either as a lesson in how to do it right, or as a warning of what happens when you do it wrong. And it is impossible to do this by yourself.
This methodology is proven to accelerate learning because it helps humans visualize and model the specific improvement in performance.
Why it helps: everyone can benefit from a 3rd party perspective. Our view of our own personal behavior is limited because it is entirely subjective. We cannot see our own technique from an objective standpoint. Learning goes faster when another person demonstrates to us where we misstep, whether it is tennis, ballroom dancing, financial planning or career management.
B) Coaches can be unscrupulous charlatans
Sure, in some cases. And some might be incompetent, lazy, uninformed, dishonest, sloppy and stupid. Just like practitioners from a variety of fields, including psychologists, career counselors, human resources experts, doctors, lawyers, financial planners, investment advisors, real estate brokers, yoga instructors, landscape architects, interior designers, wardrobe consultants, IT experts, software engineers, search marketing gurus, social media marketing whizkids, cinematographers, web designers, accountants, etc. Every deck of cards has a couple of jokers.
There is no shortage of phonies in any service profession. As noted above, there is a spectrum ranging from excellent to execrable in every field of human endeavor.
That said, the foregoing critique obviously does not apply to all coaches as a blanket condemnation, just as it should not apply to 100% of the individuals practicing in any of the fields listed above.
I’ve met superb coaches. The coaches I’ve worked with are impeccable, professional, high-integrity and generally terrific people to be around
Do you suspect that your coach might be a fraud? You must exercise your own judgement when you hire any professional, and if you are not getting the results you desire, you have to make the decision to fire them. This is common sense. Caveat emptor.
But think twice before you jump to a conclusion. If your reason for doubting your coach is that you have not yet attained the results you were seeking, it might be worthwhile to consider your own responsibility. Have you done your part? 99% of the work in a coaching relationship is done by the client. In today’s tabloid culture, there is a tendency to blame others first before we accept responsibility for our own action (or inaction).
But if you are working hard towards clearly-defined goals, and your coach is not offering much beyond pleasant blandishments, encouragement or information that you already know, then it’s probably time to move on.
C) Why would a total stranger be more committed to your success than you?
This is a common reaction from people who have never considered hiring a coach. This question reveals a subtle bias in person who poses it: there is an implicit answer (or verdict) embedded in the question. This type of question is not about coaching per se.
So the rebuttal is simple. If you are hiring a stranger to provide any sort of professional service, then you’d be ill-advised to begin with the expectation that they care more about your affairs than you do. The reality is that they probably don’t. If you put this expectation upon them, you are setting yourself up for disappointment because you are shirking your fundamental responsibility to manage your own affairs. That is self-defeating.
What coaches do well is foster your own commitment to your success.
That said, it’s pretty easy to determine whether or not the coach cares enough about you & your success to provide a useful service. Good coaches have excellent recall of the specifics of your situation, so they can provide continuity between meetings. In particular, the coach should demonstrate that they are tracking the specific actions that you are taking towards measurable results. There should be no ambiguity about this. It is the essence of their service. If your coach is forgetful, inattentive, or is fuzzy about the detail of your situation or your goal, fire him or her immediately.
D) Coaching is not a science, but there is a solid and proven methodology
In these days of media saturation and marketing overkill, many vendors make a lot of noise to gain attention. Unsurprisingly, in the crowded field of self-help experts, some gurus make absurd claims that cannot be proven. Some practitioners have boasted about “the science of personal achievement” which I believe is hype. It isn’t science. In my opinion, this hype bubble is the biggest weakness in the marketing of personal improvement products, and that makes this market is ripe for a crowdsourced ratings solution (my startup venture PeopleJam considered providing such a directory in 2007).
There are lots of silly claims made for many products of dubious merit in various fields. But the fact that some providers hype their wares does not invalidate the entire sector. Consider, for instance, the absurd claims that were made for some productivity software products: many of these products were in fact cumbersome and time-consuming and unproductive. But the false claims of a few miscreants did not invalidate the entire category.
Good news: there is a coaching methodology that is proven to get results. It is quite simple: the hard work is in execution. Here’s a quick summary of the basics of coaching. These will vary depending upon the coach and their training.
The first step is goal definition. It turns out that most people are pretty inexperienced when it comes to goal-setting. We may think that we know how to set a goal, but most of us actually don’t do it right. Many people don’t set goals at all, or we don’t set goals that can be tracked and measured. Hardly anybody sets goals with sufficient precision.
Coaching begins by determining without ambiguity what you want to accomplish and in what timeframe. Coaches help you set “good goals”.
What’s a “good goal”? Good goals are: clear, concise, externally measurable, time-based, actionable and realistic. “Actionable” means that you can achieve the goal without some external event (so a goal like “winning the lottery” is not actionable, which means it’s not a “good goal”). “Realistic” means that a person in your circumstances with your resources can achieve the goal within the time frame (so, for instance, a goal like “be elected President of the USA in 2012” would not be realistic for a 25 year old since the Constitution does not permit it).
You can tell if you are working with a reliable coach when you begin to set your goals (BTW, goal-setting should be the outcome of the very first coaching session). During this process, a strong coach will push you to be more specific, more concrete, more committed in drafting your goals than you would be yourself. A strong coach is likely to push you past your comfort zone: it’s just like a personal trainer in the gym. That’s the whole point of hiring a coach. You are capable of more than you think. The coach will push you to that level.
Even if you feel like you are an expert at goalsetting, you might benefit from the subsequent steps in the coaching process.
The second step is setting an action plan. The action steps should arise naturally from the goal setting process. You work with your coach to break down the goals into a series of concrete steps that will lead you accomplishment. This sounds easy but again, it requires disciplined focused thinking that is not every person’s strong suit. The coach will guide you as you create a calendar for the action steps.
Yikes… now we’re getting to the part where we actually have to do something!
The third step is to commit to action. No surprise, this is where a lot of people hesitate. Many people dream about doing something big and grand in life, but then we falter when it comes to taking decisive action. We prefer the dream over the hard slog towards reality. A strong coach will require their client to make a very clear commitment to taking a step immediately. Big or small: what step can you take RIGHT NOW that will set you on the path towards achieving this goal?
You rarely leave a coaching session without making solid commitments to action. Some coaches will require you to take the first step right there, during the first session. Call that person! Schedule that meeting! Book the flight! You can’t leave the room until you’ve taken the first step.
The fourth step is accountability: time to review your progress and re-set the goals. This is where the coach earns his or her money. The preceding steps could be done solo, without a coach, but very few of us are capable of making an objective analysis of our progress. This is just like watching the film during Monday football practice after a game. What did we do? How effectively did we do it? Where could we improve it? What could we do differently next time? Where did we encounter resistance? How best to deal with resistance? Where did we fail? How might we do it better next time?
Notice that this process consists of a series of questions. Coaches tend to ask a lot of questions: the client supplies the answers. Good coaches do not tell you what to think or what goal to set: that’s the client’s responsibility. The coach helps you, via a series of questions, to uncover exactly what you believe and what you want, and how you plan to achieve it. They always push you to be more specific than you normally would: the specificity is the essence of their service. No wiggle room. Either you achieved the goal or you didn’t.
The coach’s role is to hold us accountable to ourselves. Coaches do this by obtaining our agreement to commit to a course of action. They extract a commitment from you. And this really works. Nobody wants to tell their coach “I broke my promise.” Especially when you made the promise to yourself.
Just knowing that you have an appointment scheduled with your coach forces you to follow through on your action plan.
The coach tracks our progress, helps us revise the plan where necessary, and then sets up a new series of goals once the first set has been accomplished.
Along the way, there are many other opportunities for good coaches to add a lot of value: some coaches are knowledgeable about interpersonal dynamics, and so they can suggest strategies for dealing with other people; other coaches are conversant with spirituality, belief and faith, so they can help the client discuss deeper motivation and uncover unconscious roadblocks or incongruous limiting beliefs; other coaches bring additional expertise to their practice, such as hypnotherapy, psychology, or neuro-linguistic programming.
One note of caution: if you are in the market to hire a coach, you should certainly ask about his or her training. What methodology did she learn? Where did she learn it? Is she certified? Check references and verify claims.
There are many fraudulent people masquerading as coaches, and many other well-intended people who have no particular training. Don’t make the mistake of being their experiment. Hire a coach from a reputable program with solid references from satisfied customers.
E) If the coach is truly qualified, why is he / she coaching instead of enjoying wealth and fame?
This is the same question that wiseguys ask about business school professors: “if this professor is so darned smart, how come he’s not making millions in business?”. Again, this is not really a question as much as it is an opinion thinly disguised as a question. It’s also based on an erroneous assumption. The most successful coaches I know personally are multi-millionaires who have achieved breathtaking results in their lives (career, relationships, health, wellbeing, all around). They are keenly aware that they serve as role models who must practice what they preach, and so therefore they hold themselves accountable to the highest standards.
Why do they coach? Same reason you do your job: they love it, they are good at it, and they have a roster of loyal customers who are eager to hire them.
There are of course other coaches who have not made millions of dollars, but they still provide a valuable service for their clientele. These coaches, like many in the service professions (such as teachers, therapists, bodyworkers, charity workers, etc,) derive satisfaction from the process of helping other people. Money just isn’t as big a factor for them.
(Side note: If you find it impossible to believe that some people don’t care about making piles of money, maybe that’s an opportunity for you to explore some of your own beliefs. A strongly held notion is sometimes hard for one to reconsider because one is overidentified with it. The belief has become a part of one’s identity. If this sounds like it could be true for you, then it may be a signal that you could benefit from considering why making money is so important to you. Many people have complex notions of self-worth wrapped around their ideas about money, and it can be very instructive to probe your own beliefs in that area. This is precisely the kind of thing a coach can help with, because making money is a goal).
One more thing. Regardless of their personal success level, all of the coaches I know continuously work on their own self-improvement goals. Every coach I’ve ever dealt with shares this trait. They experience their lives as work-in-progress. A good coach will be the first to tell you that they have areas of their lives to improve.
(I personally think this is a healthy attitude to take. Anyone who claims that their life is perfect with no room for improvement is probably deceitful, self-deluded or dangerous.)
F) If you need a coach, then there must be something wrong with you.
Projection. This line of reasoning is very revealing. Again, it has little to do with coaching per se. But it reveals a great deal about the person who is raises it.
This is not a question but rather a fantasy projection conjured up by people who fear that they are somehow deficient, and are afraid that they may be exposed / ostracized / rejected if they ask for help. Fear of social rejection is a very powerful and subtle force (see Iconoclast by Gregory Berns). People tend to project their anxiety onto others who boldly go where they fear to tread.
The impulse to seek outside help is honorable. It’s an indication of maturity, self-awareness, and a realistic understanding of individual limitations.
The desire to learn and grow is entirely positive. Increasingly our culture is evolving towards a mode of non-stop lifelong learning. Those who master the skill of lifelong learning will thrive in a world of ever-accelerating change.
But on the other hand, there are always some people who will mock those who seek to improve their station in life by setting and reaching a goal. It is a basic fact of human nature that some people resent it when others grow and evolve. Especially, those whose concept of self-worth is measured in comparison to others will find the impulse for personal growth highly threatening. Your growth comes at their expense. To such people, your progress shines a spotlight on their feelings of inadequacy, loss of face, failure. So it is not surprising at all to find people who seize upon the impulse towards personal growth as a sure sign of weakness, deficiency or failure. Again, this is pure ego-projection. Fantasy.
And now, the real issues.
To repeat an earlier point, I do not consider the foregoing issues especially useful criteria for decision-making if you are thinking seriously about hiring a professional coach. But the next section deals with three very real issues linked to professional coaching that you must consider carefully before you proceed.
A) Is Coaching like Psychotherapy?
B) Does Coaching actually work? Does it get results?
C) Is Self Improvement a cult?
A) Is Coaching like Psychotherapy?
No. There are two very important distinctions between psychotherapy and coaching. First, psychotherapy must be practiced by a licensed psychologist. Second, psychotherapy tends to focus on the underlying causes (psychological roots) for today’s behavior, which means that therapists frequently spend great amounts of time delving into your past.
Coaching is not therapy. A good coach does not attempt to sort out your psychological underpinnings, nor does he attempt to analyze you. Coaches do not delve deeply into your past. Coaches are much more focused on the future. If you raise an issue that is best suited for a therapist’s care, a good coach will immediately tell you to seek therapy. Coaches have been trained to recognize issues that are best suited to a therapist’s care, and they will not engage.
Personally, I prefer coaching to psychotherapy because I’d rather spend more time envisioning and building the future, rather than returning to the past. But that’s a personal preference. Your mileage may vary.
One more distinction: coaching works well by telephone, whereas I am not aware of therapists who work by telephone. Good coaches are trained to listen carefully to your voice, and they can provide remarkable insights gleaned simply by vocal intonation, inflection, pitch, timbre, and language. One side benefit of working with a coach is that you learn to think twice before you blurt out an answer.
Note: if you are considering hiring a coach but you also want to address issues of the past, my recommendation would be to seek out a licensed psychotherapist who is also certified as a coach, so that he or she can help you resolve the matters of the past while setting forth a plan of action for the future. Yes, they exist!
B) Does Coaching actually work? Does it get results?
Yes. Coaching always produces results if you follow through on your part of the process. A good coach will help you obtain desired results in the first week. Every coach I have worked with is prepared to guarantee results, if you commit to adhering rigorously to the program. But ultimately, the person doing the work is you.
I have never failed to obtain results when I work with a coach. Usually I am surprised by the speed and the magnitude of the results.
The coaching process is so simple, it’s hard to imagine how it could go wrong.
But I suppose it could. I have never heard of anyone who has worked seriously with a coach who has failed to obtain results, but it probably has happened. If so, I would expect to learn that there were personality conflicts or unrealistic expectations involved.
C) Is Self Improvement a cult?
This is a fair question. Even though it may seem lurid and a bit sensationalistic, the question about whether or not self improvement is a cult is valid because so many modern religious sects have co-opted the language of personal growth. Sometimes the distinction is blurred. Some observers have levied accusations of cult-like behavior on followers of the Lifespring program and the Landmark Forum, due to the aggressive recruiting practices employed by these organizations, but these accusations are strongly contested. And the roots of many contemporary programs extend back to the 1970s programs like EST, which used stress techniques to condition the behavior of their followers. So there is enough substance behind the question to merit a considered response.
Still, some of the accusations are a little wild. Even celebrity speakers like Tony Robbins and David Allen have been accused of inspiring a cultlike following. You will find them both cited on CultWatch.com
. In Allen’s case, his involvement with the fringe religion MSIA adds confusion.
My perspective on this question is simple: coaching is not a cult because it encourages independence. And that’s the opposite of a cult.
One characteristic of all cults is that they deprive their followers of the capacity for independent thought and critical thinking. Good coaching does the opposite: coaching encourages the client to develop the skills to structure clear goals and make sound decisions, and to be really clear about why one is choosing one course of action over another, and to use critical thinking to evaluate progress and make necessary course corrections. Any cult that encouraged this type of thinking would dissolve overnight!
Hope this was helpful to you. Contact me if you want more info or a recommendation on a professional coach.
* My own personal experience with professional coaching
If you’ve read this far, you might be wondering what experience the author of this piece has with the subject matter. I’ve been exposed to Self Improvement programs my entire life: as a child, I was introduced to motivational speakers by my father who enjoyed listening to Nightengale-Conant audiotapes; in high school, I attended Lifespring; in high school and college I benefitted from the advice of a series of trusted advisors and in turn served as a tutor and advisor to other students; after college, I assembled a group of mentors and advisors who have guided my career decisions to this day.