Ten years ago, life coaching was seen as a fringe, New Age fad with just a few thousand practitioners. Today life coaches are represented by a trade group, the International Coach Federation, that claims more than 15,000 members. Search Google for "life coach New York," and you'll get millions of results, including links to coaches offering to help with just about any problem or anxiety. Work issues? A coach can help. Marriage difficulties? Let them reduce the conflict. Writer's block? They'll tap your inner poet. Even as the field grows, critics point out that there is no licensing system, standardized credentialing, or academic discipline behind this. "To me, it's like going to a psychic," says Dr. Marilyn Puder-York, a clinical psychologist who has coached executives for more than 30 years and who managed Citigroup's in-house Employee Assistance Program. "If you're lucky, you might find someone really good."
Life coaching has become the Wild West of the career-development and therapeutic world. Part psychotherapy, part Oprah, and part common sense, coaches often bill themselves as listeners and cheerleaders who help clients figure out how to move their lives in a particular direction. They are typically not trained social workers or doctors. Usually, they charge by the hour with sessions in major cities costing from $75 to $300 per hour. The industry is not regulated or governed by a code of ethics, like the legal or medical professions. At its best, life coaching can help clients change behavior or reinvent themselves. At its worst, life coaching can prey on Americans' growing anxiety about the future and their jobs. "People are looking for what is next," says Dianne Brennan, past president of the International Coach Federation. "We don't know, for sure, why we're seeing continued growth in coaching. It may be because of what is happening in the economy."
During the last recession, in 2001, 48-year-old Karen Underhill turned to a life coach for advice. Underhill disliked her job as a computer-network administrator, but she was unsure how to switch careers without a college degree. Her coach helped her map out a plan to return to school, secure financial aid, and find internships in communications and education. All of this helped her land her current job as an outreach and training specialist for a Minnesota state-jobs program, a position she says she enjoys. "The coaching helped me get motivated," Underhill says. "My coach made me think forward and visualize what I want."
More trained professionals are finding their way into the coaching industry as a means to tap into a growing sector, make extra cash, or work with people who may normally look down on the idea of therapy. A Harvard Medical School affiliate, the McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., opened its own Institute of Coaching, run by a psychologist who doubles as a coach and professor at Harvard Medical School. The American Psychological Association anecdotally reports an increase in the number of social workers and therapists turning to coaching because the pay-out-of-pocket model lets them circumvent the insurance industry. And, for people who attach a social stigma to more conventional forms of therapy, life coaching may offer some type of relief. "It's opened doors for people who may not have otherwise sought services," says Dr. David Ballard of the American Psychological Association.
There are dangers, however. Among them: life coaches are not trained to recognize mental or emotional distress—or worse, that their unregulated methods could cause problems in their clients' lives. Dr. Puder-York remembers a client who'd had a particularly bad experience with a former schoolteacher who transformed herself into a life coach. The client, a 41-year-old female finance executive, needed help coping with the politics of her predominantly male workplace. Instead, the schoolteacher turned coach harped on the client's personal life, including asking why she'd never married or given birth to any children. "That coach was not credentialed to go there," Puder-York says. "It could have set up a really bad emotional episode had that coach done that with someone more vulnerable."
It isn't just the desire to help others that motivates people to become life coaches. With unemployment hovering around 10 percent, many out-of-work consultants, middle managers, and human-resources executives are turning to the potentially lucrative field of life coaching. The going rate for life coaches is $189 per hour, with an average annual salary of $52,478, according to the International Coach Federation.
For people who can afford this type of help, trained life coaches warn that buyers should beware. Though the International Coach Federation offers training and certification programs, those who call themselves life coaches are not required to go through any standardized training or supervision. It's best to look for coaches with backgrounds in psychology or psychotherapy, or for professionals with experience in human resources or management who now work as career coaches. In terms of the actual sessions, life coaches say their colleagues should ask questions rather than dole out advice or probe into clients' pasts, and they should stick to the topic clients hire them to tackle: be it résumé writing, career development, or relationships. "Coaching is still in its infancy," says Nancy Snell, a coach who specializes in advising business executives. "There are a lot of coaches out there who could be Joe Blow."
That's the concern among professional psychotherapists and even trained coaches: the boom in the life-coaching industry is inversely proportional to Americans' growing fears. They worry that as the economy remains weak and as people worry about their livelihoods, social class, and job security, they'll turn to just about anyone for support and spend money they don't have—even if that adviser or coach is no better equipped to help than a colleague, neighbor, or friend.