It was on a Saturday afternoon a little over two years ago that Greg Friedman laid into me. I had called Friedman, interrupting a Saturday with his family, because I was frantically preparing to speak at a conference about advisor technology.
I had to catch a flight leaving New York Sunday morning and then deliver my presentation in Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon. Just one problem: I had no presentation! I had gotten hung up on writing my column and, with less than 24 hours to go before my 90-minute presentation, I didn’t know what I was going to say. I was a mess.
My company was growing rapidly, this column every month relentlessly imposed a deadline, my wife was planning to rebuild our home, and my two kids, ages 10 and 12, were growing up without me because I routinely worked from 8 a.m. till 8 p.m. every day. My life runneth over.
So it was with unusual clarity about how out of control my life had become that I called Friedman with questions that absolutely, positively needed to be answered immediately. In addition to running a successful financial planning practice in San Francisco, Friedman is a co-founder of the software company that makes Junxure, a customer relationship management program. But before I could pump him about his software’s latest features, Friedman tore into me.
“Why are you working on a Saturday?” he asked, his voice rising. “You have got to get a life, Andy.”
Friedman eventually went on to graciously answer my questions, but his jabs were right on target. Here I was, succeeding by most measures–writing this column and running a thriving business–and yet I was totally stressed out. I was working too much, exercising too little, and not seeing enough of my kids. I hadn’t taken a vacation in over a year and I was moving from one deadline to the next like there was no way out. I couldn’t see any way to make my life better.
Friedman’s words stung. “Andy, you need help,” he said. Then, he told me about his coach. He credited her with helping him navigate his two businesses to success while still finding a way to have brunch on Saturdays with his family and not be under constant pressure while managing his businesses. Then Friedman did something very smart: Rather than depend on me calling her, Friedman, who I have know since 1996, took the liberty of giving my number to his coach.
A few days later, Sharon Hoover called. She sounded friendly enough. But could she help me? Could she teach a reporter, who suddenly had been thrust into the role of a CEO, how to manage people and run a business? I had written about advisor coaches a couple years earlier and was open to the concept. Still, I hesitated. I could easily find a well-known, high-powered coach. Whoever heard of Sharon Hoover? Could I trust this complete stranger with my greatest fears and aspirations about my business? On the other hand, she was friendly, and she was actively calling me because she wanted the job. Moreover, I had to do something. I had to make a change. “Let’s do it,” I said.
Hoover asked me to take a personality assessment test at www.enneagraminstitute.com and that was worthwhile. But what I would find most helpful was a visioning exercise. She asked me to draft a note telling her where my life would be in a year if I succeeded. What would my company’s revenues be? What new products would we have launched? How much was I exercising? My coaching experience would start with an ending, where I wanted to be in a year. She told me to envision a day in the life that I wanted. Here’s what I wrote:
“I wake up and work out for 75 minutes with my trainer. I go to work in my home office from 9:00 till noon, writing or editing. At noon, I have lunch with Mindy (my wife) on the deck, having just completed the renovation of our kitchen, den, and my new home office. I go into the office at 1:15. I have a few phone meetings, assign stories to a staff writer, and meet with a new client. At 5:30 I leave.”
The document goes on to set detailed financial targets for my company’s sales and profits and establish other goals aimed at reducing my workload and allowing me to delegate much of the work I was doing, including:
- Taking vacations three times a year or maybe four–a week each time
- Hiring a full time marketing director
- Hiring a personal finance writer with 10 years of experience
Over the next 12 months, Hoover (www.sharonhoover.com) and I speak weekly over the phone, and I forget about my goal-setting exercise, focusing on day-to-day work. But a year after our first session, Hoover pulls out my note and reads it to me. Amazingly, I had accomplished most of my idealized vision. I took two weeks off that year, and exercised three times a week almost every week. We hit just about all of our financial goals.
Now, a full two years later, I am a changed man. I’m still far from where I want to be, but my goals have changed and I have accomplished much of what I originally envisioned. I work about 25% fewer hours than I did two years ago. I delegate far more to staff writers and am shedding responsibilities to focus on activities that use my skills most wisely. No, things are not perfect–I need to take more time off and everything takes longer than I want it to–but I have hired two full-time marketing writers and an experienced financial writer, and I rarely work on weekends or at night anymore. My home renovation is complete and I am writing this while having a cup of coffee on our deck. My life is better, and I have to say that my business coach had a lot to do with it.
That’s why I am writing this story. I have lived through a coaching experience and can tell you how it works and what to look out for, where you might fail and where you can grow. To write the story, I’ve spoken with five coaches to advisors. I found the five by e-mailing about 200 advisors and asking for the names of their coaches. I called the coaches who advisors raved about. I asked them how they work, their qualifications, their styles, and what they charge. What follows is the summary of my research.
What Is Coaching, Anyway?
When I sent out my request to advisors using coaches, one advisor put me in touch with someone he thought was a coach but who really was not. He was a sales trainer. I spent about five minutes on the phone with him before explaining that I was not interested in him for this story. The episode highlighted an important distinction between coaches and consultants. A consultant is someone who has expert knowledge about a field you need help with and the consultant provides his opinion or training. A consultant has an agenda of his own. With a coach, you set the agenda. Coaching is a collaborative process. Unlike a consultant, the coach doesn’t give you the answers. She helps you find your own answers.
A coach might have expertise in a particular field–such as sales, marketing, or investment advice–and that’s desirable; a coach with expertise in the particular field in which you are interested in getting advice can add value. But even this kind of coach is still primarily operating in a way that helps you find answers that are right for you. Coaching is a one-to-one personal experience and your solutions must be personal and geared to your strengths. Coaching focuses on where you are now and what you are willing to do to get where you want to be in the future.
Advisors who want to hire a coach should be aware that this is a developing profession and it has only begun to set standards for education and credentials. It’s also good for advisors to understand the movement to make coaching a profession because advisors may themselves want to become coaches of their clients. In fact, one of the founding fathers of the coaching profession, the late Thomas Leonard, who died at age 47 in 2003, had spent 20 years as a financial advisor.
A fringe element of the planning profession has moved in the direction of coaching, receiving training or even certification as a coach in order to use coaching techniques on their clients to help them achieve their goals in life. This movement toward coaching has been around for several years as part of the “life planning” faction of financial planning, but it has not caught on widely, probably because getting trained as a coach represents a whole new direction for a financial planning business that requires an enormous commitment of an advisor. But helping clients marshal their financial resources to lead more fulfilling lives is a noble goal that arguably all financial planners should aspire to. In fact, this notion is the basis of the life planning movement, and it is where coaching and financial planning intersects.
There are signs that an element of the financial planning profession sees becoming a coach or learning coaching techniques as worthwhile. For instance, Andrea White, a coach in Phoenix, has established a firm, Financial Conversations, to teach coaching skills to financial advisors (www.financialconversations.com). White says the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, as part of its most recent job analysis that breaks down exactly what a financial planner does daily, added coaching clients as an addendum. While it is not one of the 89 core skills and knowledge areas that the CFP Board identified in the job analysis, White says coaching now is at least acknowledged as a skill some financial planners use.
Coaching and financial planning share another common thread: both fields have spawned movements to create a profession. Coaching trails the movement to make financial planning a profession by 10 or 15 years, but an avant-garde group of coach practitioners is leading the movement. Much the same way that the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards took years to become an independent body, develop professional standards, and gain a modicum of credibility with regulators and other professional bodies, the coaching profession has struggled to find a governing body. Following battles among the founders of the profession in the mid-1990s–the same kind of squabbling that occurred before the CFP Board transitioned from being owned by the College of Financial Planning to becoming a private, not-for-profit organization–the International Coach Federation (ICF) has begun the long process of establishing a dominant role as the governing body of the coaching profession.
A Struggle on Standards
An effort to create uniform and recognized credentials is under way, but the International Coach Federation, the governing body that most coaches have begun coalescing around in the last decade, is itself in its infancy. The ICF is fighting to root out sleazy tactics by coaches with little training who hold themselves out as experts. “Individuals with no intention of becoming properly trained are joining the ICF and calling themselves ICF coaches, thus adversely affecting the integrity of both our profession and our professional association,” says Steve Mitten, president of the ICF in a recent article for the ICF’s newsletter. In addition, the ICF credential movement is only beginning to gain momentum with experienced practitioners. “Many ICF coaches are themselves confused about the educational and credentialing standards for our industry, and do not understand the significant benefits of those standards for themselves or the profession as a whole,” says Mitten.
Just as CFP licensees assert that they are the advisors best equipped to dispense personal finance advice to individuals, a growing number of coaches are trying to establish standardized credentials in coaching and position themselves against coaches without any designations. Mitten says that there are 167 schools where you can receive training to become a coach. However, only 30 of them are accredited by ICF. Meanwhile, the schools are creating their own certificate programs, resulting in an alphabet soup of designations with no uniform standard. With coaching growing fast in popularity around the country, the schools are proliferating. “If you’re an entrepreneur and see the field growing, you can decide to whip together a coaching course and offer your own certification,” says Mitten. “How would the public know that it’s a useless certification?”