When I Say Work, I Mean Work! A good life coach can make many minutes of your day harder--and your entire existence easier.
By Betsy Streisand

(Business 2.0) – When the phone rang, she answered it. When e-mail arrived, she opened it. Anytime a client needed Karen Duester's attention, she gave it. For nearly 10 years, Duester spent her days in rapid-response mode and her nights and weekends doing the rest of her job--analyzing food and creating nutritional labels. Her business, Food Consulting Co., grew steadily, and over time she got just about everything she wanted. Except a life.

So in early 2002, Duester got herself a life coach. Now she has a life too, thanks to someone she's never met face-to-face but calls regularly, talking for 45 minutes at a stretch. "I'm running my business," says Duester, 43, "instead of it running me."

Once reserved for stressed-out C-level executives at Fortune 500 companies, life coaches are increasingly joining financial advisers, personal trainers, and psychotherapists as part of everyday business-people's private support staffs. The International Coach Federation in Washington, D.C., the industry's main credentialing organization, claims that more than 20,000 coaches currently practice worldwide, with about three-quarters of them in the United States. The ICF's membership is considerably smaller--6,000--but it has quadrupled since the beginning of the recession three years ago. In a precarious economy, apparently, more and more jobholders are willing to pay $500 to $1,000 a month for weekly sessions with someone who's equal parts nag, business strategist, and career counselor. "A life coach goes straight to the who, the what, and the how," says Sandy Vilas, CEO of Coach U, which has trained 10,000 coaches in 51 countries. "Who are you? What do you really want? How are you going to get it?"

Duester, for example, wanted to get her work done during normal business hours. But she couldn't escape the entrepreneur's trap of attempting to grow a business and service current customers at the same time. "I never concentrated long enough during the day to get anything finished," she says.

Duester's coach, Judy Feld, who also happens to be president of the ICF, challenged her client to eliminate the chief sources of distraction. "Judy asked me what would happen if I simply stopped picking up the phone and answering my e-mail during working hours," Duester recalls. "I thought, that's a great idea. Now how am I going to pull it off?"

At first, Duester could stomach the silence for only a day before falling back on old habits. After three months of experimentation and encouragement from Feld, however, she arrived at a system to manage communication--and clients--that has made her far more productive.

Now, when the phone rings, Duester doesn't answer it. Her assistant retrieves her phone messages and e-mail and submits a list to Duester twice daily. Her clients know they will, without fail, get a response by the next business day.

Revenues are up 60 percent since Feld started providing advice, and Duester is considerably less harried. "Karen needed to filter what gets in," says Feld, whose initial assessments of Duester revealed her to be a chronic overachiever. In the process of learning to set boundaries, Duester has also weeded out difficult clients who take more time than they're worth.

If you're interested in putting a coach in your corner, the easiest part of the process will be finding people willing to sell you their services. A recent Google search for "life coach" turned up 140,000 results, posted by people ranging from former herbalists to hobby-shop owners. It's safe to say that among them are many you wouldn't trust with your lawn care, let alone your career. The profession is both rapidly growing and utterly unregulated, a combination that inevitably attracts its share of quacks and poseurs. "There are so many 'coaches' now that I'm looking for something else to call myself," says Jack Barnard, who has been a life coach in Los Angeles for more than 20 years.

As when you search for any professional, the best way to start is by asking people you trust for referrals. If that doesn't net you a short list of candidates, try finding a good coach through the likes of the ICF or Coach U. Both offer online search engines to help you find a coach who matches up with your professional and personal goals. After boiling down your options to perhaps two dozen people, you can link to individual websites to see if your personalities might mesh.

Once you have your finalists, look for credentials. Many universities, including Georgetown and Harvard, offer courses in coaching. Under the guidelines of the ICF, for example, coaches need a minimum of 60 hours of study (on subjects like communication, ethics, and planning) and 250 hours of client experience to receive "associate" certification. "Master" coaches must complete 200 hours of education and have 2,500 hours of experience. You can also find a coach who doubles as a psychotherapist; that guarantees you a certain level of education and counseling experience. Make sure, though, that the therapist has specific training in coaching, which teaches him to focus on future goals instead of past events.

Since coaching is rarely done in person (only 15 percent, according to the ICF), you'll want to have phone conversations with several candidates. The right chemistry is crucial. "Your intuition is just as important as theirs," Barnard says.

The ideal coach is an expert listener and strategist who draws your goals out of you and then holds you to them. A worthy coach won't help you cope with an Oedipus complex or improve your relationship with a teenage daughter. Nor is a coach a management consultant. "We are concerned with questions, not answers," says Vijay Govindarajan, a professor of international business at Dartmouth's Tuck School and an executive coach who's worked with brass at IBM, Pitney Bowes, and Hewlett-Packard. "There are no white papers delivered at the end of the day."

Some clients check in with their coaches daily, if only via a three-word e-mail or a brief phone message. Duester, who speaks to Feld three times a month, likes knowing that someone is regularly analyzing her work habits without constantly looking over her shoulder. "I needed a sounding board, and someone to remind me that this was my business," she says. "I needed to be in control."

In the wake of her new policies, Duester hasn't lost a single account. Just as important, she's also consistently out of the office by dinnertime, takes most weekends off, and enjoys quarterly vacations with her husband--without her laptop and cell phone. She's even learned to respond to Feld's advice without getting whiplash. "Now, instead of being shocked at my suggestions, she's just as likely to be the one to say, hey, let's take a look at that," Feld says. "That's a big shift."