Lisa Brouwer talks about being a life coach in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Wednesday, Jan. 9. Coaches don’t tell their clients what to do. That’s something a consultant or mentor would do, said Brouwer, owner of Full Throttle Living. Rather, a coach is more like a guide.
In 2006, Megan Abbott seemed to have it all. She had just graduated from Villanova University, moved to a beach house with her best friend and landed a job at Golin Harris, a top public relations firm in Los Angeles.
“To the outside world, it looked like I was living the dream, but in reality, I was completely unfulfilled,” said Abbott, 28, a Jacksonville, Fla. native. “I hated working a nine-to-five job. I have a higher value for freedom and I knew I was meant to do something more with my life.”
When a distant aunt emailed her information about the Coaches Training Institute, Abbott stumbled onto a new career — one she had barely even heard of, let alone considered a possibility.
Once a little-known vocation, life coaching is gaining traction in the technology age, which has opened the profession up to Millennials. According to projections by the Bureau of Labor Studies, the consulting services industry is responsible for the majority of employment growth in professional and business services. The industry is increasing by 575,600 jobs annually, or 4.7% — one of the largest and fastest growth rates across industries.
Life coaches help their clients identify and pursue goals through a steady rotation of encouragement, brutal honesty and perspective. Coaches generally fall into two categories — personal and professional — but a growing number of niche coaches advise on anything from weight loss to empty-nest syndrome.
Life coaching is a largely unregulated industry, which draws criticism from skeptics. But organizations like the International Coach Federation (ICF) are establishing certification processes, and growing numbers of universities, including Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, New York University and Georgetown, are introducing training programs.
According to a 2012 study by ICF, there are 47,500 life coaches worldwide and 15,800 in North America. On average, they charge $214 per session, and make $47,900 per year. The industry brings in an annual revenue of $2 billion.
Another ICF study found that clients reported a median return on investment of 3.44 times what they invested.
Babson College graduate Lisa Chin, 28, had a string of jobs in consulting, strategy and marketing roles before launching her life-coaching firm, B-veloping. Chin uses online marketing and social media to advertise her services.
“This generation — our generation — is very ambitious, and we’ve been groomed to think that we can do whatever we want. There’s more to life than just sitting in a cubicle and working under somebody else’s name, and there’s a lot of potential in the life-coaching field,” said Chin.
For people like Abbott and Chin, it can be difficult to carve out a career in an industry dominated by professionals their parents’ age: 37% of American coaches are 46 to 55 years old, according to the ICF.
Margaret Moore, author and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, a Harvard Medical School affiliate, is skeptical of how effective young coaches can be without years of experience to draw on.
“A 25-year-old isn’t going to convince a 50-year-old to be his client,” Moore said. “It’s like convincing a parent to allow you to coach them. It’s hard when you don’t have enough life under your belt and you don’t know what it’s like to be 40.”
Abbott, who founded Denver-based Fruition Coaching, said that age shouldn’t be a factor.
“There are all sorts of problems I encounter that I have not personally experienced,” said Abbott, who coaches 47 clients in 13 countries who range from 21 to 69 years old. “The key is understanding the psychology of success. I’m not telling my clients what to do — I’m asking them questions to guide them to answers that are already within them.”
Thomas Edwards, 27, built his coaching business around a very specific niche: dating. Edwards is the Professional Wingman, a dating consultant who often elicits comparisons to Will Smith’s character in romantic comedy Hitch.
The Professional Wingman, founded in 2009, operates in both Boston and New York. Edwards goes out with clients (usually to bars), identifies their weaknesses while watching them interact with others and gives them feedback.
“I didn’t think this was a career — I just thought it was a really cool hobby,” said Edwards, who has personally taken on over 500 clients. “Even when people would say, ‘I would pay you for this advice,’ it took a long time for me to realize that I could make a living off of this.”
The average client pays between $1,000 and $2,000 over the course of his or her transformation, but the Elite package — a complete overhaul of a client’s personal style, social circle, fitness regime and even home design — can cost as much as $20,000.
Other young entrepreneurs have leveraged their coaching success into even more lucrative careers.
Gabrielle Bernstein, 32, is a New York Times Best-Selling author, lecturer at venues like Google, TEDxWomen and The Oprah Winfrey Show and life coach with seven and a half years of experience under her belt. She is also the creator of social media site herfuture.com and has over 46,000 Twitter followers.
“I think it’s amazing that a lot of people are showing up to be life coaches, as long are they’re well-trained and live what they teach,” Bernstein said. “It’s a wonderful trend, and I think it’s a sign of the times: More people need help, so more people are rising up to help.”
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