You’re a what?
If you made a New Year’s resolution to improve your life, Catherine Wood understands. “A national holiday geared toward goal setting is empowering,” she says. “It’s possible to create goals anytime, of course, but it definitely helps to have a push to set your intentions for the new year.”
Catherine is a professional life coach. Life coaches assist clients in establishing goals, such as changing careers or losing weight, but their work centers around the process: offering targeted guidance and motivation to meet those goals. “I partner with clients to help them realize their potential,” she says. “We compare where they are with where they want to be, and we focus on bridging that gap.”
What they do
Life coaches may go by a variety of titles, including executive coach or enrichment specialist. Regardless of their title, these workers tailor their coaching to the needs of each client.
Process. Life coaches may offer a prospective client an in-depth sample session to discuss his or her life vision. This initial conversation lets both parties gauge whether they’re a good fit for each other, too. “Coaching is a partnership,” Catherine says. “I want it to work for the client, not just for me.”
When a coach and client decide to work together, they create a plan with customized objectives and activities for achieving the client’s goal. For example, a client whose goal is to increase profits by 20 percent might commit to changing some business practices, such as giving up the need for control and empowering his team; the coach may encourage accountability by having the client document efforts toward meeting his commitment.
Clients summarize their progress and celebrate achievements with their coach, who motivates them in regularly scheduled sessions until they reach their goal. “Someone could be struggling with fears that get in the way of, say, being in a meaningful relationship,” says Catherine. “If we shift those obstacles, we shift the results.”
Logistics. Life coaches may have an active slate of about a dozen clients with whom they work for months or even years, depending on each client’s needs. Coaching sessions typically last 30 to 90 minutes, with occasional brief check-ins between sessions. Catherine usually talks with clients by phone, but some prefer to meet in person or over video chats. “Thanks to technology, I’ve worked with clients all over the world,” she says.
For example, one of Catherine’s clients lives in Thailand, which requires accommodating the 12-hour time difference. She usually schedules coaching sessions for Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, leaving Mondays and Fridays for business planning and administrative tasks.
How to become one
People who are drawn to coaching often have common traits. They may be patient and empathic; enjoy helping others; and have strong leadership, organizational, and communication skills. Also important are decisionmaking and problem-solving abilities, both of which may benefit from ingenuity. “Creativity is hugely valuable in coaching,” says Catherine.
Credentials and training. Although there are no formal requirements for becoming a life coach, training and certification may make you stand out to future clients—especially as the occupation gains popularity among career options. Some colleges and universities offer courses in subjects related to life coaching. But the field is unregulated, so there are dozens of life coach training and certification programs in the United States.
Legitimate credentialing organizations, such as the International Coach Federation, evaluate programs based on specific standards of ethics and competency. The federation also offers three levels of individual credentialing; Catherine holds the designation of Professional Certified Coach.
Life coaches who choose to become self-employed, as Catherine did, also must be prepared to run a business. Classes for small-business owners are available on topics such as accounting, entrepreneurship, and marketing.
Networking and experience. Attending seminars and working with a mentor coach are other ways to further develop effective coaching techniques. And both activities offer opportunities for networking with other coaches, who can provide support and referrals—which are especially important for self-employed coaches trying to get established. For example, most of Catherine’s clients come to her by word of mouth from other coaches and colleagues in her networking group.
It may be helpful to have knowledge of a field related to coaching, such as psychology. Similarly, some types of experience may be useful for carving a niche, such as management experience for leadership coaching. But having an extensive portfolio may not be as important as having a passion for the work. “You don’t necessarily need life experience in order to pursue a career in coaching,” Catherine says. “You just need to go and do it.”
What to expect
It’s professionally fulfilling to coach clients who achieve their goals. But it can also be isolating, especially for self-employed coaches. “If I don’t inject fun into other areas of my life,” says Catherine, “my routine can get a little stagnant.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not collect data specifically on life coaches. Instead, BLS counts these workers among rehabilitation counselors; educational, guidance, school, and vocational counselors; and personal care and service workers, all other. Life coaches may work for organizations such as residential care or treatment facilities, aiding clients who want to overcome challenges. Self-employed coaches sometimes work as consultants or contractors for businesses that offer life coaching as a wellness perk to employees.
According to an International Coach Federation report, the 2016 ICF Global Coaching Study, there were about 17,500 coach practitioners in North America in 2015. Coach practitioners, a designation that excludes athletic or sports coaches, reported an average annual income from coaching of about $61,900. (The median annual wage for all workers was $36,200 in May 2015, according to BLS.)
But the federation also reports that few coach practitioners work exclusively as coaches. Life coaches may prefer the flexibility of working part time. Or they may work full time in another occupation and pursue life coaching as a sideline. Some of these dual jobholders eventually decide to make life coaching their primary job.
For Catherine, who previously was a full-time economist, job satisfaction has confirmed her decision to change careers. “I get to see the impact of my work on people’s lives, on their dreams,” she says. “It’s profoundly gratifying and rewarding on so many levels.”
Kathleen Green, "Life coach," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 2017.