Business Coaching

An article by David Cornfield


The magazine had been lying on her coffee table for a week. She kicked off her shoes, curled up in her favourite chair and riffled the pages, looking for something to read. “Mmm.  An article about business coaches. Now why on earth would I want to read that? I have a job, and absolutely no interest in business.” She had almost finished turning the page, when she hesitated and went back. A line in the article had caught her attention.

Be self-employed or you may be unemployed. 

That was a bit ominous. Maybe this was something she should know about after all. She settled in to read. 

There’s a new kid on the block. Actually, there’s a whole bunch of new kids on the block. They call themselves business coaches, or life coaches, or success coaches. They started showing up in the mid eighties. Coaching services were probably available before then, but coaches only emerged as an identifiable group in response to the radical restructuring of the workplace known as downsizing. Downsizing shattered the dreams of millions of people who mistakenly believed that their jobs were secure and who desperately needed help to pick up and reassemble the pieces of their lives when those jobs disappeared. Coaches stepped into the vacuum created by the needs of those people. 

While it was issues of work and career that initially brought clients to business coaches, coaches did not limit themselves to a narrow focus on work. They took the opportunity, if the client was willing, to look at work in the broader context of the client’s life, to the point where some of them began calling themselves life coaches rather than business coaches. 

As the trend to downsizing grew, so did the demand for coaching. According to the President of Coach University, the demand for coaching and coach training has tripled in the last twelve months alone. At this stage of the game, you probably wouldn’t have to go much past one degree of separation to arrive at someone who has actually worked with a coach. And who knows. After reading this article, you too may decide that you want to search out a business coach to help you in your pursuit of success and happiness. 

If you were downsized, it is probably obvious to you how a business coach could help you. If you hold a permanent job, you are probably wondering how business coaching could possibly be relevant to you. Which brings us back to downsizing. Downsizing was a tidal wave that wreaked profound changes in the face of the workplace, changes that effect those who were left holding jobs as well as those who were fired. Employers’ expectations have been altered. In the new millenium, employees want workers who conduct themselves as though they were in business for themselves. Employees who don’t learn how to be entrepreneurial run the risk of losing their jobs.

As a way of sketching in the contours of the new workplace, I offer this parable.

Walter and Olive both worked for Widgets Inc - Walter in the factory, Olive in the office. Every day, they met in the lunchroom, ate their sandwiches and had a nice chat. Lunch was the high point of their working day.  

One day Walter staggered into the lunchroom clutching an envelope. He’d been fired. He felt devastated. He’d been working at Widgets Inc for longer than he could remember. It wasn’t the most exciting job, but it paid the rent and it kept food on the table. It was where he got to see Olive, and his friends on the assembly line. It was his reason for getting up in the morning. Now what was he going to do? 

Walter confronted his boss. His boss was apologetic. Yes, sales and profits were up, but the machinery at Widgets Inc was totally out of date. A supplier using computerized equipment was guaranteeing a one week turnaround on orders for widgets at a price Widgets Inc couldn’t even begin to match. So it no longer made any sense to maintain an assembly line and a warehouse and a staff of factory workers. All Widgets Inc needed was a sales force, a few office workers and a shipper. Sayonara Walter.  

Walter went to the new supplier. Sorry Walter. Our machinery is computerized, so your experience isn’t of much use to us. And besides, we don’t hire people on a permanent basis. We only run our production line when we have orders. We don’t want to be producing inventory that is just going to have to be stored in a warehouse and we don’t want to be paying workers to sit around on their butts. Best of luck in your job search. We’ll keep your resume on file. 

Walter went to the Employment Center. He found out that his was not an isolated experience. During the twenty years he had been slogging it out at Widgets Inc, the workplace had changed. Work was being allocated differently. Permanent jobs were no longer considered the best way to get work done. More and more people were being hired on a project basis, or were self-employed.  

Walter considered his options. Sure, he could probably find another so-called permanent job, but there were good reasons not to. For one thing, it seemed pretty clear that there really was no such thing as a permanent job any more. Employers didn’t like having employees on a permanent payroll and would get rid of them just as soon as the opportunity arose. For another, he really didn’t want to keep on doing what someone else wanted him to do. Being in business for himself offered the prospect of choosing work he loved. 

Walter called Olive. She’d missed him terribly. To make matters worse, a lot of her work mates had been fired. All Olive could see when she looked around the office was a sea of empty desks and a few survivors wandering around in a funk, trying to look busier than the next guy and bracing for a pink slip. She found it hard to be there. 

They met at a restaurant. Walter told Olive what he had been learning about the new workplace. Olive lit up. Would he be interested in doing something with her? They decided it was an ideal time to be thinking about creating a business of their own, but neither one of them had the first clue about how to go about making the transition from being employees to running their own business. 

There are millions of Walters and Olives out there, millions of people who have lost jobs, or who anticipate losing jobs, or who never got a job at all because they graduated from school at a time when employers were downsizing, not hiring. Keep in mind that a downsized worker is not someone who is waiting to be called back when there is more work. Downsizing is not about a shortage of work. When an employer downsizes, the work formerly done by permanent employees is reassigned to someone who is on a contract or self-employed. The work hasn’t disappeared. It has been reallocated. The old position is not waiting to be refilled. It no longer exists.  

Don’t be fooled by headlines trumpeting job creation. For the most part, the new jobs aren’t permanent jobs. Fully three quarters of the new jobs created in Canada between 1989 and 1996 came from self-employment. The self-employed now account for about 17% of all workers in this country, up from 14% in 1989. And those numbers are expected to climb. Frank Ogden, a Canadian futurist writing in 1993 in The Last Book You’ll Ever Read, had it right when he said: be self-employed or you may be unemployed. 

You may have assumed that you were safe because downsizing had run its course. Not true. According to statistics gathered by Challenger, Gray and Christmas, one of the largest outplacement firms in North America, last year, 1998, was the heaviest downsizing year since 1989. In January of 1999 alone Canadian companies announced almost 18,000 job cuts. Think about it. That’s 18,000 people in one month forced to re-invent their lives. And that figure of 18,000 does not include the survivors, people like Olive who are left demoralized, scared and overworked when their co-workers are fired. 

Downsizing disrupts lives. At the same time, downsizing creates new opportunities for people who are self-employed, or who act as though they are self-employed. To participate in these new opportunities, you need to be entrepreneurial. If you don’t know how to be entrepreneurial, you need to get help. Read a book. Take a course. Find a coach. 

Is entrepreneurship a learnable skill? When I was growing up, the indisputable mark of success was landing a good job, and schools were structured so as to inculcate the virtues that would make us good employees. The medium was the message. Quite apart from the content of the courses, we were being taught to follow the rules, to play it safe, and to think of ourselves as employees in training. At that time, the only ones who became entrepreneurs were people who couldn’t get a job. This is why so many businesses were headed up by immigrants, or women, or high school dropouts, or rebel outsiders who refused to be bound into the restraints and structures of a job. These people were not born entrepreneurs. They were people who were forced to figure out how to be entrepreneurial in order to survive without jobs. And they did figure it out. Sure, some of them had a flair for business, and those people did extremely well. But most of the others were able to learn enough to become at least moderately successful.  

Educational institutions now offer courses designed to teach the elements of entrepreneurship. Business coaches are for people who need more than a course, people who want ongoing individualized help from someone who knows the ropes as they take risks out there in the real world. Some of these people are looking to start new businesses. Others need help marketing their services in industries that hire on a project basis. Still others have permanent jobs and want to know how to be entrepreneurial in the context of their employment.

To a large extent the services provided by business coaches are exactly what you would expect them to be. Coaches help clients set realistic goals, create practical action plans to reach those goals, and revise both goals and plans in the light of experience. They monitor and supervise a client’s progress, so that the client is accountable for his or her commitments. When objectives are not being met, they help the client look at what might be in the way. They ask questions designed to ensure the client is fulfilling all the legal and practical requirements of doing business. They advise clients in areas such as marketing, time management, negotiating, and conflict resolution. They strategize with clients to help them maneuver their way through the maze of office politics, or handle an important meeting, or deal with a client who is refusing to pay a bill.  

What you might not expect is that good business coaches are interested in more than the bottom line. They concern themselves with all levels of the client’s needs whether they be needs of the body, mind, spirit or emotions. They encourage their clients to look at what success means to them in the context of their whole life. They talk to their clients about self-care, about balance, about the need for work that feels meaningful and that makes a contribution, about honesty, integrity and courage. Why? Because that is what clients are asking from them. 

The shift away from permanent jobs and towards entrepreneurship has meant that, for the first time since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, people are thinking in terms of work they love instead of work they have to do in order to earn money. The search for work you love leads almost inevitably to thoughts about work that has meaning, and once you start raising issues of meaning you find yourself looking at your relationship to something bigger than yourself, which in its turn leads to issues of spirituality. Clients are asking for somebody who can help them look at these broader questions, not just the nitty gritty details of setting up and running a business.  

Business coaching is not a regulated profession. There are no legal requirements that have to be met in order to call oneself a business coach. If you decide to use a business coach, it is up to you make a judgment about this person’s ability to help you reach your goals. How are you going to know if he or she is the right candidate for the job? Well, references can help. A referral from a trusted friend would be ideal, but lacking that, ask for names of previous or existing clients who would be willing to talk to you about their experience, or who have given written testimonials. Ask what qualifies this person to be a business coach. Are they conversant with areas of business such as law, tax, financing, accounting, marketing, negotiating, computers? Is their expertise restricted to the nuts and bolts of business, or can they help you with the personal and interpersonal side of doing business - coping with fear, working on your relationship to money and success, lack of confidence, conflict resolution? Does the coach stay on top of current trends in the world of business and information technology? Has the coach been successfully entrepreneurial in his or her own right? Does he or she have an air of success about them? Are their ideas about success similar to yours, or different? Are they holistic in their approach? Have they done any writing that would set out his or her philosophy of coaching and could you have a look at it? Can he or she give some examples of how they have helped their clients? 

Most importantly, ask yourself if you feel comfortable with this person. It is not good enough for a coach to be competent and well trained. Working with a coach calls on you to disclose your uncertainty, your mistakes, your ignorance, and your struggles. You are not going to reveal any of this if you can’t trust your coach to treat your vulnerability with sensitivity and respect. If you hide your problems, those problems aren’t going to be addressed. Trust your intuition. If it feels like this might be the wrong person, check out someone else.

She let the magazine fall to the floor, musing about what she had just read. She was intrigued, but noticed that the article didn’t tell her how to find a coach. She pulled out the Yellow Pages but there was no listing for business coaches. Nothing in the main listings. Nothing in the index. Under the heading ‘consultants’ there was a ‘see’ reference to a long list of specific kinds of consultants, including business consultants, management consultants and marketing consultants, but it was not clear if any of these people would fit the description of a business coach. She logged on to the web and entered “business coach” into a search engine. She came up with a number of web sites for individual coaches, as well as Coaching University and ICF, the International Coach Federation, both of which have referral lists. She went back to the magazine and found several ads offering coaching services. She filed it all away for future reference.  

Back in her easy chair, she found herself pondering the fate of Walter and Olive. Did they find a coach who could help them? Were they successful? She let herself imagine a Hollywood ending: Walter and Olive, arm in arm, heading off into the sunset, in love with each other, in love with their work, their trusty coach just as handy and accessible as their trusty cell phone. Sayonara Walter. Sayonara Olive. We’ll keep your resumes on file.

David Cornfield

Business Coaching was first published in Eye for the Future, Self Development for the Mind, Body and Spirit, May 1999

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