Job, life coaches chart big plays

Mentoring in careers or work/life balance is a growth industry, but some of their services can be had for free

September 07, 2005|By Kelly Pate Dwyer | Kelly Pate Dwyer,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Traditionally, a coach is someone with a whistle and a clipboard yelling from the sidelines.

Now there are a myriad of other coaches, namely in business and the game of life.

Career coaches are teaching executives and other workers to communicate better and improve a company's bottom line. They're helping individuals who want to get organized, get ahead at work, switch jobs or better balance work with their personal life.

Job coaches are a little like business tutors who help individuals better understand their career goals. The business has grown, experts said, as corporate cutbacks have claimed many leadership and training programs. By some estimates, it's a $1 billion-a-year business.

But workers should consider several things before hiring a coach: the type of coach that's best for them, a coach's training and experience, and the costs, since hiring one can cost several hundred dollars a month. And, say career counselors, some of what coaches do can be had free at government-funded work force centers.

What's more, it's not hard to become a coach. And some people have little or no coaching training or business experience.

The Lexington, Ky.-based International Coach Federation - formed 10 years ago by coaches seeking to establish best practices and ethical guidelines for the profession - has 8,300 members in 131 chapters worldwide, said Steve Mitten, president of the group. That's more than double its 3,300 members in 2000.

Executives are helping drive recent growth, said Pat Galagan, a spokeswoman for the Alexandria, Va.-based American Society for Training & Development, a professional organization for trainers of all kinds.

"Coaches help you understand yourself and see how you might be shooting yourself in the foot," she said. "Having a coach used to be a sign that the executive was in trouble but now is seen as a badge of merit. Now it means the company wants to invest in your success."

The job coaching profession has blossomed in a climate of corporate cost-cutting and social change.

Companies have cut leadership and professional development programs, said Peter Cappelli, who studies employment trends and is director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

Traditionally, senior staff have shepherded new hires, but that's happening less as managers take on more responsibility, supervise more people and change jobs often.

Bosses "don't necessarily get to know you long enough to have a meaningful mentoring relationship with you," Cappelli said. As a result, more workers are looking for independent career help, he said.

While emotional - and some would say even spiritual - benefits may be driving the coaching trend, that's also where the coaching practice meets criticism.

A coach is not a therapist, and some coaches have come under fire for crossing a line between guidance and psychological counseling. Under the profession's code of ethics, a coach should send a client to a licensed therapist if the person has an emotional problem and seems unstable.

But when does an upsetting situation at work become an emotional problem?

Wharton's Cappelli suggests people be suspicious of a coach who provides a lot of direction, as opposed to "allowing you to arrive at your own conclusions."

"We're working with healthy, fully functioning individuals," said Mitten, a business and career coach in Vancouver, British Columbia, who works with organization leaders and entrepreneurs.

Coaching relationships vary, but typically clients speak with their coach three to four times a month for an average of six months. An experienced coach can cost $300 to $500 a month, Mitten said.

Some coaching happens in person. More often, it happens over the telephone. That was the case with Christopher Bergland, of Manhattan, who recently hired Cheryl Walker of Ellicott City, who calls herself a personal and business coach.

Bergland is a three-time Triple Ironman Triathlon champion and marathon runner. He is making a transition from full-time competition.

He's writing a book about the mental side of athletics and he wants to help adolescents stay out of trouble through training. At the same time, he's nearing his 40th birthday and wants to start a family.

Coaching has helped Bergland get organized and stick to a plan with his new ventures, he said. But he acknowledged it has been harder work than he expected.

"Some days I would rather be doing other stuff," than a coaching session, Bergland said. But afterward, he said, "I think I'm so glad I had that call, that's just what I needed to hear."

Julia Ashley hired a coach a few years ago to help her navigate a difficult work environment and position herself to find a better job - the job she holds now as a senior manager at a Washington software company.

At the time, Ashley worked for a company with financial problems, where co-workers didn't support the position she had been hired to fill, she said.

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