Put Me In, Coach

It may sound touchy-feely, but a business coach can help you succeed in business-and as a person

Life and business rarely maintain their proper distance from each other. Work and family concerns compete for attention; there never seems to be enough time to do everything we want. And, often, our passions lurk just behind the office door--or, in my case, in the top desk drawer of my cubicle. Sometimes when I forage there for a paper clip, a sparkly necklace or a stray earring spills out--the jewelry creations of a hobby gone wild.

Why the confession? To explain why I spent part of my summer vacation with "success" coach Barbara McCrae, owner of EnhancedLife Coaching in Colorado Springs, Colo. I've contacted her to learn why a growing number of entrepreneurs are hiring business coaches to help achieve their personal and business goals. And, I admit, I've been secretly wondering if coaching could help me turn my hobby into a bona fide business.

"It's not just helping the entrepreneur with hard-core business issues but also helping them with their personal issues," explains McCrae, a former corporate human resources executive and one of about 10,000 coaches working worldwide, according to the International Coach Federation, a professional group. In practice, this holistic approach means McCrae will help you write your business plan, but she'll also help you figure out how to take a day off.

When we meet, I note McCrae is cheerily clad in shocking pink--and has a perky personality to match. But most of her clients never meet her face to face. Instead, they get "telecoached." Explains McCrae: "We don't get distracted by the visual cues. We're totally focused on the content." Clients pay her $400 a month for weekly half-hour phone sessions, plus unlimited faxes and e-mail.

Many of McCrae's clients are launching new ventures. Barbara F. Campbell, a successful but unfulfilled art gallery owner in Cleveland, sought McCrae's help to start a new business, Basia Jewelry Designs. Over an eight-month period, McCrae and Campbell talked weekly. McCrae gave her exercises to define her goals and values; she helped Campbell overcome a creative block. Campbell, who calls coaching a "turning point," now sells to Cleveland galleries and boutiques and hopes to hire her first employees shortly. She still gets coached by McCrae occasionally. "Even though my business is going well, I sometimes run into a little problem. She doesn't solve it. She sort of guides you and shows you that you have it within you to solve it," says Campbell.

Men tend to bring McCrae more concrete business dilemmas. Jeffrey Hughes, CEO of Internet startup RezLogic Inc. in Colorado Springs, which sells a Web-based database program to manage prospective hires, got coached by McCrae to improve his sales skills. In a helpful role-playing exercise, McCrae had him imagine the customer as a "real person with a family and a life," he says.

Now, I'll concede, coaching sounds awfully touchy-feely, and it's clearly not for everybody. During my sample coaching session with McCrae, we talk about how I'm daunted at the prospect of making my jewelry business official. She tells me about setting up a Web site and registering a business--pretty standard stuff. But then she zeroes in on what's really bothering me: "Let's look at your recipe for dealing with fear. How do you do that?"

Okay, so this may sound hokey, but I actually do find it's a useful question. I tell McCrae how I recently overcame jitters about appearing on TV by getting some on-camera training. Aha! I realize I don't yet feel competent in this unfamiliar industry and will need to educate myself. Profound insight? Perhaps not, but McCrae's questions lead me to think more deeply about what's holding me back.

What next? She'd have me complete a mini-business plan, name and register my business--in other words, just do it. "Many times, the fear about whether this is going to be a viable business is because we haven't fully committed to the next step," she says.

And that's true. I have no plans to quit my day job, but I'm still thinking about that name. As for coaching, having someone listen to you and encourage you, and break everything down into easy, concrete steps, is rather nice. It sure beats talking to the mirror.

Schatz, a small-business editor, can be reached at Robin_Schatz@businessweek.com

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