Onward & Upward

Project Me

Forget that your father was overbearing, your mother had money issues, and your college years were a bust.

By Nancy Rommelmann May 19, 2009 Published in the May 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

The Game of Life (Coaching)

BUOYED BY THE POWER of personal testimonials such as those above, life coaching—or executive coaching, or personal coaching, or wellness coaching, et al.—has become one of the country’s fastest-growing professions. Its numbers have doubled since 2004, according to the International Coach Federation (ICF), a professional organization made up of 15,000 coaches. Conceived by a Seattle-based financial planner in the 1980s as a way to help his successful young clients define, meet, and then surpass their career and life goals, coaching now claims at least 30,000 practitioners globally, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, though other sources put the number at 75,000. (By way of comparison, the American Psychiatric Association has just upward of 38,000 members.)

Instead of requiring the patient to mine his memory bank and past relationships in order to understand his current emotional state—the crucial requisite of psychotherapy—life coaching embraces a positive, can-do spirit that some might characterize as thoroughly American. In its most extreme form, a life coach is a taskmaster, a consummate motivator hired not to hold your hand, but to kick your ass and help you achieve your goals—whether it’s to make more money, get a new job, or lose weight. Likewise, the language that defines the experience of being coached eschews the touchy-feely tone of psychotherapy: Those seeing coaches are “clients,” not “patients,” and when coached as a group, they are “team members.” In coaching, life is not something to get weepy over; it’s a game to be met head-on, ideally with someone not merely cheering you from the sidelines, but showing you the strategies you need to win.

However, while life coaching started out as a fashionable vehicle of self-empowerment for fast-track entrepreneurs, it may be on the verge of becoming a victim of its own success, or at least of its lack of therapeutic self-examination. Talk to life coaching’s detractors, and they’ll tell you that the very definition of a life coach is far from established; that there are no mandatory regulations governing the profession; that you need more education and licensing to be a bikini waxer, for example, than you do to be a life coach. In fact, if you want to be a life coach, all you have to do is call yourself one.

Show Me the Money

STEVE SALERNO, an investigative reporter and author of SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, a scathing chronicle of self-help in all its forms, has coined a term for life coaches: “New Age therapists-sans-portfolio.”

The implications of this moniker aren’t lost on Stephanie Smith, who has been an executive coach in Portland for 11 years. “At this point, I don’t know that there’s anybody who couldn’t just say, ‘I’m a coach,’ which I think is a bit disturbing,” says Smith, who, unlike most coaches, has a master’s degree in applied behavioral science with a focus in coaching and consulting from Seattle’s Bastyr University, a school whose focus is natural medicine.

Livorno can vouch for the fly-by-night aspect of coaching, too. “This one coach would stop our sessions and say, ‘Hold that thought for a minute,’ and pull out his training pamphlet,” she says of the few sessions she had with a coach other than Smith. “I’m paying him $125 an hour to learn on the job? I don’t think so.”

Some academic institutions, like Bastyr, have begun to offer coach training as part of a psychology or behavioral science degree, and a handful of private coaching institutions in Portland and elsewhere offer intensive in-person training programs. But of those life coaches who bother to seek training, the majority receive their credentials from websites like CoachVille.com, based in Hopatcong, New Jersey, and CoachU.com, with representatives in Kansas, Australia, the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, Italy, Poland, and Brazil.

Fees for the online training courses and teleclasses that these websites offer vary wildly: CoachU’s 77-hour Core Essentials Program, which includes courses in “Listening, Language, and Strategizing,” will cost a would-be coach $2,195, plus $248 for books. CoachVille’s Center for Coaching Mastery training program, “1,000 hours of specialty coach training and personal development eCourses,” will set you back $5,576. CoachU says it has trained 30,000 coaches in 61 countries; CoachVille claims a global community for coaches with over 30,000 members and a school that has trained 4,000 students since 2001.

Despite the debt a person can rack up attending such courses, budding coaches are enticed by the possibility of becoming better equipped to find and keep clients. And if they do, they stand to make back what they spent and more. The average life-coaching session runs $125—about the same price as a session with a psychotherapist who has had at least 10 years of college training before he sees his first patient. Executive coaches can charge $400 an hour, and those in the truly top tiers—motivational speakers who play to packed rooms—move well into five figures for a one-hour speaking engagement. A study commissioned by the ICF asserts that full-time coaches earn an average of $82,671 a year.

Power Players

OF THE 15,000 coaches who currently pay $195 per year to be ICF members, 62 percent are based in North America. Close to 500 are located in Washington and Oregon, with 48 of them in Portland.

“But there are many more coaches who are not members,” says Feroshia Knight, a 43-year-old coach and former marketing executive who is also the president-elect of Northwest Coaches Association, a network of coaches that serves as the Oregon branch of the ICF.

“It would be safe to say there are about 200 coaches in the Portland area, ranging from life, executive, business development, spirituality, lifestyle, and all sorts of focal areas in between,” Knight says. “It’s becoming huge in Portland. Coaching is really in alignment with what people are coming [to Portland] seeking. It’s a very healing-oriented, nurturing community, and there are so many different modalities.”

That’s something of an understatement. Search the web for a life coach in Portland and you’ll find a “neurolinguistic programming coach,” who claims to be able to help you explore “the art and science of excellence”; or a “transformational life coach,” who has the ability to “see into the other world”; or a self-titled “inked shrink” life coach who offers “rockstar treatment for couples.” One even claims to be able to stop “self-sabotage” via the “vibrational patterns of specific flowers.”

If this free-for-all is not precisely what Thomas Leonard, the founding father of life coaching, had in mind, it nonetheless proves the efficacy and power of his idea. As a financial planner in Seattle in the 1980s, Leonard began to notice that his clients—fast-track entrepreneurs and tech kids flush with cash—often were seeking more than simply investment advice. They were people who appeared to have it all, but who nonetheless felt their lives should be even better.

“They had no emotional problems; they didn’t need to see a therapist,” Leonard told Fortune in 2000. “They wanted to brainstorm.”

And so around 1990, Leonard, who died in 2003, moved into the brainstorming business, which he called “life planning.” In the same Fortune article, Leonard explained that life planning meant helping clients “figure out how to make more money, how to launch a great new concept or project, how to reduce stress.” In 1992, realizing there was a market hungry to be coached, Leonard expanded his business by creating the coach-training website CoachU.com, which he sold to his protégé Sandy Vilas in 1996. Leonard also launched ICF in 1994 and, in 2001, CoachVille.com. With almost as many people clamoring to become coaches as there were coaching clients, the coaching bubble began to expand exponentially.

Micki McGee, a sociologist and cultural critic at Fordham University and author of Self Help, Inc: Makeover Culture in American Life, says it’s no coincidence that life coaching’s rise in popularity occurred in the 1990s. “The emergence of personal coaching coincides with the downsizing of middle management in corporate America, around 1992 and 1993,” says McGee. “You had people that had to retool themselves to stay in the workforce, and they started hanging out their own shingles as life coaches.”

In a climate of such financial insecurity, it makes sense that the business world would have become so enamored of coaching—which, as Leonard said, promised to help clients figure out how to make more money. But in today’s coaching atmosphere, it isn’t always clear how the methods will deliver on that promise. In SHAM, Salerno writes that life coaching, in its many guises, has become “surreally popular among the Fortune 500.” He tells the story of a group of real estate execs sent by their company to a coaching “seminar” at $4,000 a head, at which they each rode a zip line down a rocky cliff in New Mexico in order to “reconcile self-reliance and consensus building.” While reporting for his book, Salerno greeted the “shrieking, hyperventilating outdoor adventurers as they reached terra firma” and recalled his conversation with a real estate executive he called “Eric”:

“You look pretty stoked,” I told him.

“Oh man,” Eric replied. “That was something.”

“Pretty exhilarating stuff?”


“You think it’s gonna help sell more homes?”

“Oh yeah.”


… Minutes seemed to pass before Eric finally stammered, “I don’t know, but I’m sure it will.”

But the numbers don’t add up, writes Salerno: After questioning heads of corporations who had required their employees to go through similar group coaching programs, he learned that productivity did not appear to have risen dramatically, or to have risen at all.

Perhaps such specific monetary outcomes aren’t what inspire these companies to hire coaches, says McGee. “In coaching, there’s a great concern with presentation of self; your whole life is a job interview,” says McGee. “No crabbing at the other employees; no bad days. You’re supposed to be a perfect little automaton of happiness. Which is one reason why business loves coaching.”

But employees of companies like Nike and Burgerville aren’t the only people in Portland who love coaching. So do the unemployed, the vision seekers, the midlife career-changers, the line cooks and retirees. Their reasons are different, however: They want to be life coaches.

Get With the Program

IT’S A WINDY SATURDAY in mid-March, and I’m one of 16 people between the ages of about 25 and 70 who have gathered at the Baraka Institute: Leadership Development and Coach Training Center in Northeast Portland, founded five years ago by Feroshia Knight. Baraka is one of two large, well-established coach-training institutes in Portland. (The other, The Centre: A School for Professional and Personal Development, which was founded in 2001, is licensed through the Oregon Department of Education, and teaches coaching classes through Portland State University’s continuing education program.)

After we remove our street shoes, Knight, who wears her flame-colored hair in an asymmetrical wedge, leads us in some morning stretches. The students are all here to become life coaches, and they’ve each paid $3,795 for the Whole Person Design Life Coach Certification Program, which runs one weekend per month for six months. This is only their second meeting, but already, the students compliment Knight on the previous evening’s classes. One woman says, “I already feel more perceptive.”

Should the students complete the training, which involves working through a 350-page course book put together by Knight, they will be eligible, after 100 hours of work as a life coach, to take an oral coaching exam administered over the phone by the ICF. If successful, they will be credentialed as ICF-sanctioned coaches who can then place acronyms after their names (ACC for Associate Certified Coach, PCC for Professional Certified Coach, and MCC for Master Certified Coach). While Knight acknowledges that such credentials aren’t necessary to become a coach, she believes an ICF designation signals credibility in a profession that is largely unregulated.

For the day’s first exercise, called “Body Mapping Potential Questions,” Knight divides the class into pairs. My partner, Marie Daniels, a 40-year-old teacher at a local alternative high school, outlines my body with a marker on a giant piece of paper; I do the same for her. We’re instructed to write or draw the thoughts that come to mind regarding our physical well-being, our spiritual well-being, and our financial well-being onto these “body maps.” Some participants draw teardrops falling from their eyes; several depict angels dancing around their heads.

We move on to “mind-mapping graphs,” which are more blank pieces of paper onto which we draw blobs—blobs in which we write our goals, the steps we’ll take to achieve them, any negatives holding us back, and what the positive outcomes will be. We are each given 40 minutes to complete the exercise, with our partner asking questions to help us figure out what we need to do in order to get where we want to go.

Though we met only an hour before, already Daniels is sharing with me intimate details of her life—the dreams that have not yet worked out, the failed marriage. I do the same, revealing my desire to finish a book I’ve been working on for what feels like a century. Although I am suspect of self-empowerment tools in the form of games, I wind up finding the graph helpful in determining what’s deterring me from getting my book done. “You’re really almost there,” Daniels says. “I think you should fold this up and stick it under your computer.” I wind up doing just that.

We are less successful with Daniels’s graph, unable to distinguish her goals from the steps she might take to achieve them, due in part, no doubt, to my poor coaching skills. We do at least suss out that she’s interested in coaching so she can “deepen her commitment to working with kids and people,” and that if she makes a million dollars, it will be in order to “bring peace to the world and help people develop themselves.”

We join the others in the studio. Knight opens up the class for questions, and several people ask how soon they’ll be able to start making money as coaches—because, as it turns out, many of them really need to start soon. A large woman in a macramé skullcap mentions, twice, that she is not currently employed; another talks about health issues that preclude her working many hours. Regarding his graph, which indicates that he wants to take a three-week trip to India within two years, a young man wants to know how to break it to his clients that he won’t be around to coach them—meaning clients for a coaching business that doesn’t yet exist. Also, he is concerned about who will watch his dog while he’s away. These are practical questions, Knight and her students agree, and coaching is nothing if not practical.

During the break, I ask Knight how many Baraka graduates have made a successful go of coaching. “Maybe 25 to 30 percent have been successful,” she answers. “They can go into the profession and focus on coaching, and they can be the greatest coaches in the world, but if they don’t know how to market themselves, they can’t make it.”

Good Coach, Bad Coach

Even if a coach is great at marketing himself, he won’t succeed if his own life hasn’t been taken care of, says CoachU.com’s Sandy Vilas, who’s been a coach for 19 years and who says that, while coaching may be unregulated, it has a way of righting itself.

“If people view life coaching as an opportunity to make money, it rarely works for them,” he says. “If your life is not in great shape, how can you help someone else with their life? You don’t have to be a millionaire to coach a millionaire, but you need to be making progress in your own life, every day.”

A bad coach, Stephanie Smith says, is someone who does not realize he’s treading in water he’s not qualified to navigate. “As a coach, I think you have to be fairly sophisticated to make sure that, if you see signs of pathology [in a client], you know what to do about it,” says Smith, who used to work with schizophrenics and in a psychiatric unit, and who says she feels capable of recognizing when prospective clients need more than just coaching. When she sees signs of mental health issues in clients, she refers individuals to doctors who can get them the help they need—including medication, which coaches cannot prescribe.

Before Smith decided to go to graduate school to study mental pathology and other aspects of behavioral science, she tried taking a course with one of the more prominent coach-training organizations, but didn’t feel it would help her become a better coach.

“When I first looked into coaching about 10 or 12 years ago, I went to a coaching class in California and I thought, If this is what coaching is, I don’t want to do it,” she says. “It was like: How do you get people to tell you their deepest secrets? And I’m thinking: That’s not my job, to pry. I thought, I don’t want to go through any certificate program; I want a master’s in something that’s hardcore.”

For her part, Knight believes that the best hope the industry has of continuing to thrive is to set what could eventually become universal standards and a code of ethics for the practice—a goal, she says, that Baraka and the ICF are committed to achieving. “We’re really helping shape the ethics of the industry, helping people to understand what coaching is, and more so, what coaching isn’t,” she says. “Our [certification] is pretty intense; we’re not for everyone. Some schools are online; I have serious issues with that. I mean, how in the heck can you develop your interpersonal relationships over the Internet?”

But even if the ICF does succeed in setting universal standards, how are clients to know whether being coached actually makes their lives significantly better? Such questions prompted Margaret Moore, who calls herself a founder of the “wellness coaching” movement, to co-found the Coaching and Positive Psychology Initiative at Harvard’s McLean Hospital in Boston this year. Her goal is to begin studying coaching empirically in order to “create underpinnings, provide guidance, and set agendas for coaching research”—and, potentially, to find out if coaching has proven results.

“The coaching industry has a lot of artisans and not many scientists,” says Moore. “For the field of coaching to thrive, it must be founded on solid psychological theory and evidence-based practice.”

Since life coaching involves defining what people want, setting their goals, and getting them there, she says, gathering empirical data should, in theory, be relatively easy—perhaps most simply achieved by asking clients, “Did you meet your target this month?”

It’s hard to gauge whether such measurements and regulations eventually will force uncredentialed coaches out of the industry—like the life coach whose only “qualification” is the inspiration she gained during a pilgrimage to the Burning Man festival (a true story). Then again, if such charlatans are banished from the garden, the ever-expanding marketplace of self-help will be right there to remind them that recovery is simply a matter of picking themselves up, dusting themselves off, and charging right back into the game of life again.

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