The Sky's the Limit


Family Therapy Networker
January, February 2001
by Ben Dean, Ph.D., Master Certified Coach
Founder & CEO, MentorCoach

When I first met psychologist Ellen Ostrow three years ago at a coaching workshop I was conducting, she was on the edge of burnout. Managed care hassles had worn her down and, after 17 years of doing therapy full time, it was "getting harder and harder to spend all of my time empathizing with pain," the 49-year-old Silver Spring, Maryland, clinician told me. When she showed up at my workshop on personal coaching as a new practice specialty for therapists, Ellen wasn't even sure what coaching was or whether she wanted to make it part of her work. She only knew that she had heard other clinicians talk about this new arena with real excitement in their voices — and she was intrigued.

Today, Ellen's own voice lifts in enthusiasm as she talks about her growing coaching practice, especially the rewards of "helping people open doors they never knew existed, then watching their lives really take off. It fills me with wonder." While continuing her therapy practice, she now devotes about a third of her time to coaching two specific groups of clients: women making midlife transitions and women lawyers. While the additional income has allowed her to cut loose from nearly all of her managed care panels, that's not at the heart of her exhilaration about her new work. "I see coaching as a different way of helping people grow," Ellen told me recently. "To me, it's about a process of blossoming — helping people become who they've always wanted to be."

She told me of her work with a woman who had abandoned a passion for making sculpture in order to earn a living as an executive assistant for the past 20 years. When Ellen first began coaching her to reconnect with her art, "she didn't really believe she could make sculpture the center of her life," recalled Ellen. But with Ellen's encouragement and problem-solving acumen, within two years, this woman was actually supporting herself as a sculptor, working with developers to make pieces for new buildings and landscapes. "You get a powerful sense of making a real difference," Ellen said of her new work. And an unexpected bonus: Ellen is enjoying her therapy practice again, in part because "coaching has taught me to look harder for my clients' strengths."

Around the country, clinicians are experiencing similar jolts of renewed energy and zest for their work as they immerse themselves in the evolving field of personal coaching, reinventing themselves as combination mentors, creativity consultants, strategic planners and sounding boards for clients with intensely felt, as-yet-unrealized dreams. Enthusiasm for this new arena of service is at a high pitch: The International Coach Federation (ICF) reports that the number of coaches has jumped from 5,000 to more than 15,000 over the last 3 years; ICF's own membership has shot up 50 percent in the last year alone. The media, not surprisingly, have caught on: Oprah and CNN have recently showcased coaching as a cutting edge human-potential profession, while publications as diverse as Time, New Age Journal, The New York Times and USA Today have prominently featured articles on the coaching boom. U.S. News and World Report has christened coaching the "second-hottest consulting field in the country," just behind management consulting.

So what exactly is coaching? How does it differ from psychotherapy? In my 18 years as a therapist, coach and, most recently, a trainer of clinicians who want to become coaches, I have found it challenging to rigidly separate these two disciplines. Both use numerous skills in common, such as active listening, reframing and empathy, which is precisely why I believe therapists are so well-suited to coaching.

To me, the key difference between coaching and therapy has more to do with mindset than method. While both coaching and therapy can help people make major life changes, coaching liberates therapy from its medical, pathology-based underpinnings and focuses wholly on human strengths, positive passions and the nurturance of untapped possibilities. Given the severe time constraints of managed care, often the best therapists can do is get a client to neutral from a place of great pain to a place of feeling "okay." The goal of a coaching relationship, by contrast, is to help people tap into, and actualize, their deepest vision of who they are. Rather than serving as healer, a coach acts as a facilitator for a client's full flowering as a person — a kind of gardener of the spirit.

Because coaching is so squarely aimed at self-empowerment, some culture watchers predict that coaching is poised to become a pivotal human services profession of the 21st century. According to William Rowley, M.D., of the Institute for Alternative Futures in Alexandria, Virginia, today's consumers are increasingly concerned with maximizing health in the most encompassing sense — yet, they often falter in the follow through. "We've committed ourselves to staying well in our emotional, physical, spiritual, family and community lives, but the choices and resources out there are proliferating at a bewildering, even overwhelming rate," says Rowley. "To help guide us toward our new vision of health, our first line of defense may become the 'life coach.' "

Moreover, the coach of the future is likely to appeal to people at all stages of life development, Rowley predicts. "Baby boomers, who suddenly come to realize they are mortal, will hire coaches to help them create lives with more depth, meaning and personal time," he says. "For younger folks — Generations X and Y and the Millennium Generation — there's likely to be a natural comfort with coaching as a more egalitarian and holistic route to a healthier life than can be found in more traditional, hierarchical, helping relationships."

Coaching is already evolving in the direction of broadly defined health enhancement. Ten years ago, coaching was largely still a business perk for CEOs who wanted to boost their profit margins; today, perfectly ordinary people are seeking out coaches to help them pump up their creativity, lose weight, increase their emotional intelligence, learn to meditate, attract a life partner. It is little wonder that for many clinicians, the notion of adding coaching to their practice rosters seems enormously attractive. Why not jump into this exploding field, wherein managed-care headaches and difficult cases are replaced by highly motivated clients who offer us the exhilarating invitation to help them breathe life into their dreams? Why not embrace a specialty that uses many gifts and skills we already have in spades? In fact, coaching may seem like such a natural and effortless segue for clinicians that it's tempting to believe that we can simply give a marketing workshop or two, add "Personal Coach" to our business cards and hit the ground running.

In truth, making a go of coaching requires more new learning, humbling persistence, and repeated leaps out of our comfort zone than most of us realize. I know this firsthand: As I made my own transition from therapy to coaching, I made my share of wrong turns and blunders that caused me to wonder, at times, whether I was truly cut out for this work. In the process, I gained some hard-won wisdom that may help you negotiate this demanding new field. The following is my short list of personally tested, essential strategies for developing a thriving and deeply satisfying coaching practice — strategies that I wish, early on, someone had shared with me.

Get Yourself a Coach

For the first 12 years, my coaching practice was successful, quite rewarding, and entirely local, comprised of clients I saw in my office or on-site in the Washington, D.C. area. I got both coaching and clinical clients from local referrals and by leading workshops. But once I realized that coaching could be delivered nationally by telephone, I was really intrigued. I began to try to market myself nationally and learned that my local approaches did not translate. For example, I regularly approached national publications and organizations about doing articles and workshops to publicize my coaching practice. Since I was a total unknown outside my metropolitan area, these enterprises would often turn me down flat — whereupon I would drop them cold. For months, my national practice didn't grow much. It took a coach to help me see — and reverse — my inexperience.

I could have saved myself more than a year of stalled growth and unnecessary teeth gnashing had I hired a coach earlier in the process. But I was convinced that I was smart enough and motivated enough to go national myself. (Never mind that I had willingly laid out $30,000 for seven years of one-on-one therapy supervision.)

In denying myself a personal coach, I denied my own fear and ignorance. For me, making the leap from local to national marketing required activities that were anxiety producing, mainly because they were unfamiliar. The problem with walking into new territory without guidance is that when we start feeling scared and out of our depth, we tend to grind to a halt. We procrastinate. In my experience, a coach can play a critical role in helping us maintain momentum in the face of the inevitable bouts of fear and uncertainty that attend starting a new business — or taking on any new role — from scratch.

My own anxiety and naiveté centered on marketing my coaching practice nationally. Because my local practice had grown so easily, I didn't understand that repeated rejection was simply a fact of marketing. When I finally hired a coach (I held out until the mid-'90s), I told him about my drop-'em-cold response to unhelpful contacts. "Ben," he responded, "these people are your friends — potentially. It takes time to build trust. Keep in touch." Of course, he was right: Developing relationships is the very cornerstone of sound marketing. Now I faithfully maintain ties with every contact I make, regardless of their initial response. But I needed an objective coach to help me see the wisdom of nurturing business connections, injured feelings notwithstanding. While my coach knew I was apprehensive about marketing nationally, we never explored in depth why I was anxious, as we might have in therapy. Instead, he simply reminded me that 1) My feelings were perfectly normal and that 2) I needed to walk toward what scared me, not away from it. With his steadfast encouragement, I was able to do that.

After 18 years in the business, I continue to work with a personal coach. The reason is simple: Having a coach works. Since launching my clinician-coach training program four years ago, I've been juggling active coaching and clinical practices with building a fast-growing business. Recently, when I mentioned to my coach that I wanted to write a book, he helped me to see that the impulse was terrific, but the timing was off. That's a hallmark of a good coach: He or she has the perspective of a wise outsider who knows when to encourage action and when to advise you to do absolutely nothing — at least for the moment.

Think Big: The #1 Secret of Coaching Success

Many clinicians imagine themselves coaching from their customary chair in their consulting room or working on-site in a corporate client's office. Both face-to-face coaching formats are perfectly valid and used by many coaches. However, part of what makes coaching a truly 21st century profession is its unabashed embrace of technology in the service of amplifying the field's reach and influence. For maximum impact, I encourage my trainees to coach in a way that initially may feel hugely disorienting — via telephone with individual clients or, even more exciting and far-reaching, with groups.

These virtual groups, or "V-groups," are gatherings of clients who are separated geographically, but joined by a live conference call. For example, I recently ran a lively V-group for clinician-coach trainees that included a family therapist from Fort Lauderdale, a psychologist from Oakland, a psychiatrist from Houston, a social worker from Boston, and 16 other far-flung participants. We were connected by an inexpensive teleconferencing "bridge" that links up to several hundred people in a single call (though V-groups typically comprise anywhere from 8-25 people). We're just beginning to tap the power of technology in this field: Within 3 or 4 years, teleconference coaching will likely be supplanted by the even more compelling format of videoconferencing.

Coaching virtual groups catapults you from a purely local center of influence — at best, your metropolitan area — to an enormous national, even global, one. It's not only that you, the "expert," can touch more people, but also that you offer your clients the chance to belong to a highly supportive learning community that may not be available where they live. I never fail to be heartened by how quickly my V-group participants begin to trust me and each other, offer encouragement, trade valuable ideas and in every other way function as a connected and effective group — except for the hugs.

But the benefits of virtual coaching extend beyond facilitating long-distance support. If, like me, you have logged thousands of "chair miles" in your office, an undeniable perk of teleconference coaching is the freedom to work wherever you please. With the aid of a hands-free headset, you can coach while brewing tea in your kitchen, walking around the house or relaxing on your deck. You can coach on your favorite beach or mountaintop. You can coach in cut-offs or sweats or, as one of my colleagues prefers, a faded pair of Batman pajamas. And you similarly liberate your clients, who no longer have to slog through traffic to get to your office or make themselves sufficiently presentable for "face time" with you. Life becomes simpler and less stressful all around.

By the mid-90's, I had been coaching face-to-face for more than a decade. While my local practice was successful, I was blown away by the promise of going national with virtual groups. But still I resisted. The chief reason I avoided running teleconference groups was simply that I had never done it before and was afraid that I might not be instantly terrific at it. I worried, too, that I wouldn't be effective with people if I couldn't read their body language. What if my clients didn't get their money's worth?

As it turned out, my only legitimate concern was that I wouldn't be immediately wonderful. It took some time to feel comfortable "working blind" — no question. But over time, I've learned a variety of ways to work effectively in a virtual medium. To compensate for the lack of nonverbal cues, for example, I ask for lots of feedback. If there's a longer-than-comfortable silence, I'll say: "Hey, guys, is anybody there?" (Inevitably, I get laughter in response.) I encourage participation even more than I would in a face-to-face group, making sure everybody gets a chance to speak at least twice. I paraphrase people's responses to help them feel truly heard. I also offer a range of ways for group members to interact with me and/or with one another between sessions, including a buddy system, an e-mail discussion list and virtual peer support groups.

Several months ago, I wrapped up work with a virtual coaching group that had been meeting for more than a year. During our final call, we processed what it was like to say goodbye after so much time together. As we remembered the worries, triumphs and stubbed toes we had shared together, one woman began to cry. The others supported her with quiet words of comfort and validation. Enormously touched, I was reminded that, given a safe space, trust and intimacy simply flower. The connection was just as real as if we had been in the same room together.

Develop a Niche--the Smaller, the Better

In my own work, I chose not to coach psychotherapists generally, but rather therapists who specifically want to develop a virtual coaching practice. By probing one small niche thoroughly, you'll learn the challenges, strengths, history, language and longings of your particular population with more discernment and depth than you can possibly imagine. Your clients will also be your teachers, each adding something uniquely valuable to your store of wisdom. You, in turn, will encounter each new client with an ever-increasing depth of sympathy, resonance and understanding that no generalist can match.

The mistake that new coaches frequently make is a reluctance to go small enough with a niche. Instead of specializing in "boomers making life changes" for example, work with mid-life physicians making career transitions. Rather than coaching "chronic pain sufferers," focus down on athletes in chronic pain. I realize that narrowing your niche is a deeply counterintuitive notion. But remember, if you choose to develop a virtual coaching practice, your potential clientele is now staggeringly huge, encompassing much of the English-speaking world. So even a niche that at first blush may seem impossibly narrow — say, teachers with ADD — in fact comprises tens of thousands of people who may need your help. Plus, it's much easier to make yourself known to a well-defined group than to attract the attention of the universe.

Of course, you'll also want to choose a niche that you find genuinely intriguing, one that has an identifiable set of problems you think you can help solve and one that is relatively underserved. Also, since getting coached is a purely out-of-pocket expense, choose a client population that has some hope of paying you. I offer this piece of advice from painful experience. In my local practice, I'd always been a generalist, coaching everyone from IBM executives to writers to local politicians. But when I first started to market my coaching practice nationally, I intuitively knew I'd need to pick one niche to emphasize in my marketing and settled on Ph.D. candidates who were struggling to finish their dissertations. I chose this niche because I'd struggled with my own dissertation and knew they had a burning, underserved need. I never considered the fact that graduate students tend to be notoriously poor. This is not to suggest that you should choose a niche entirely, or even primarily, on the basis of your target clientele's tax bracket. Just don't ignore it entirely.

Silver linings abound. Even though I started out with a national specialty that ultimately couldn't sustain me, I learned a tremendous amount about the processes of virtual coaching, running V-groups and practice-building with my wonderful "ABD" (All But Dissertation) clients. You'll do the same. Even if you can't initially decide on any particular niche at all, it's fine to start with a general coaching practice. As you work with a variety of people, you'll discover that certain clients' problems interest you more than others, or that you're especially good at helping people who face particular sorts of challenges. From this unhurried and organic process, your niche will materialize.

Market Through Trust

Once you've identified your niche, you can start marketing to it. The good news: Your potential clientele is nationwide — or larger. The more daunting news: You have to figure out how to actually reach some of these faraway folk. How do you begin?

The short answer: Build trust. To grasp the central practice-building challenge of virtual coaching, I find it helpful to envision a "funnel of trust." The large, top end of the funnel is jam-packed with the universe of potential clients in your chosen niche — people who are regularly besieged with thousands of advertising messages per week. It's a grim scene up there: The vast majority of them have never heard of you, have no reason to trust you and every reason to totally ignore you.

By contrast, the people at the narrow end of the funnel do know and believe in you. This smaller group includes current and former satisfied clients, as well as colleagues who respect your work and readily refer others to you. Your task is clear: You need to bring some of the suspicious strangers at the top of the funnel down to the friendly, trusting bottom. Because your potential clientele is so large, moving even a small percentage of individuals down the funnel will guarantee you a busy, thriving coaching practice.

One highly effective way to establish trust is to get the permission of members of your target niche to send them free, valuable information on a regular basis. The word "permission" is key. Market research indicates that when individuals choose to receive your message, they are less likely to screen it out and more likely to be influenced by it. In my experience, one of the most more powerful vehicles for building a national coaching practice is an email newsletter — a simple, brief document, published monthly, that speaks to the major concerns of your niche audience in a compelling, from-the-heart manner. If you consistently give potential clients free information that helps them solve their most pressing problems, — no fluff allowed — you will slowly but inexorably earn their trust. And trust is the raw material from which coaching relationships are formed.

I learned about the power of trust the hard way. Several years ago, when I was first moving into the virtual coaching arena, I decided to give an introductory teleconference session on overcoming writer's block. I produced a fabulous, professionally designed flyer advertising my virtual session, and then hired students at Duke, Michigan, Stanford and Berkeley to plaster their campuses with it. I anticipated a huge turnout. I got four people. I had spent $500 to $700 to get them.

By contrast, the following year, I offered another introductory virtual coaching session, this one on helping people complete their doctoral dissertations. Several months earlier, I had launched a simple email newsletter, "The All-But-Dissertation Survival Guide," and offered it to people via speaking engagements and other marketing efforts. I had also announced my newsletter on a website that publicized new email newsletters. In less than a year, I had attracted some 1,900 subscribers. I then used that newsletter to announce my teleconference workshop — and got 200 responses within 48 hours. Ultimately, nearly 100 people, from Maine to Hawaii to Toronto, signed on for an action-packed, one-hour virtual workshop. That session, in turn, led to several coaching contracts.

What made the difference in the outcome? Trust. Over time, I had developed a relationship of increasing trust with my newsletter subscribers by providing them — month after month — with helpful information on completing their dissertations. So when I eventually asked them to attend my virtual workshop, a good number of them were willing to take a chance on me. This is not to suggest that an email newsletter is the only way to build a virtual coaching practice, but it is unquestionably a powerful tool. You can also attract clients via all manner of workshops and presentations, as well as through a website, writing articles for your niche's favorite publications and other proven marketing approaches.

But perhaps the single most critical thing to keep in mind as you begin to develop your coaching practice is that you are running a marathon, not a sprint. Time — a healthy chunk of it — is required for people to begin to know and trust you sufficiently to invest their dreams, energies and financial resources in a coaching relationship. Furthermore, because you're learning a new business, you'll make your share of time-consuming mistakes. So keep your day job. While clients from local referrals can come soon, significant income from national marketing efforts may take at least 12 to 18 months from the time you start your practice-building efforts. If you want to hasten that timetable a bit (or if you tend toward technophobia), you can hire someone to take care of the arcane details of a virtual practice, such as formatting your email newsletter and setting up your subscription software. You don't have to do everything yourself.

But above all, cultivate patience. Your coaching clients are out there. They want your support; they need your wisdom. Build trust and they will come.

NOTE: Published in the Family Therapy Networker, which was rechristened in March, 2001 as the Psychotherapy Networker, perhaps the premiere journal in the world for psychotherapists.


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