Power Players

OF THE 15,000 coaches who currently pay $195 per year to be ICF members, 62 percent are based in North America. Close to 500 are located in Washington and Oregon, with 48 of them in Portland.

“But there are many more coaches who are not members,” says Feroshia Knight, a 43-year-old coach and former marketing executive who is also the president-elect of Northwest Coaches Association, a network of coaches that serves as the Oregon branch of the ICF.

“It would be safe to say there are about 200 coaches in the Portland area, ranging from life, executive, business development, spirituality, lifestyle, and all sorts of focal areas in between,” Knight says. “It’s becoming huge in Portland. Coaching is really in alignment with what people are coming [to Portland] seeking. It’s a very healing-oriented, nurturing community, and there are so many different modalities.”

That’s something of an understatement. Search the web for a life coach in Portland and you’ll find a “neurolinguistic programming coach,” who claims to be able to help you explore “the art and science of excellence”; or a “transformational life coach,” who has the ability to “see into the other world”; or a self-titled “inked shrink” life coach who offers “rockstar treatment for couples.” One even claims to be able to stop “self-sabotage” via the “vibrational patterns of specific flowers.”

If this free-for-all is not precisely what Thomas Leonard, the founding father of life coaching, had in mind, it nonetheless proves the efficacy and power of his idea. As a financial planner in Seattle in the 1980s, Leonard began to notice that his clients—fast-track entrepreneurs and tech kids flush with cash—often were seeking more than simply investment advice. They were people who appeared to have it all, but who nonetheless felt their lives should be even better.

“They had no emotional problems; they didn’t need to see a therapist,” Leonard told Fortune in 2000. “They wanted to brainstorm.”

And so around 1990, Leonard, who died in 2003, moved into the brainstorming business, which he called “life planning.” In the same Fortune article, Leonard explained that life planning meant helping clients “figure out how to make more money, how to launch a great new concept or project, how to reduce stress.” In 1992, realizing there was a market hungry to be coached, Leonard expanded his business by creating the coach-training website CoachU.com, which he sold to his protégé Sandy Vilas in 1996. Leonard also launched ICF in 1994 and, in 2001, CoachVille.com. With almost as many people clamoring to become coaches as there were coaching clients, the coaching bubble began to expand exponentially.

They’re all here to become life coaches, and they’ve each paid $3,795 for the Whole Person Design Certification Program.

Micki McGee, a sociologist and cultural critic at Fordham University and author of Self Help, Inc: Makeover Culture in American Life, says it’s no coincidence that life coaching’s rise in popularity occurred in the 1990s. “The emergence of personal coaching coincides with the downsizing of middle management in corporate America, around 1992 and 1993,” says McGee. “You had people that had to retool themselves to stay in the workforce, and they started hanging out their own shingles as life coaches.”

In a climate of such financial insecurity, it makes sense that the business world would have become so enamored of coaching—which, as Leonard said, promised to help clients figure out how to make more money. But in today’s coaching atmosphere, it isn’t always clear how the methods will deliver on that promise. In SHAM, Salerno writes that life coaching, in its many guises, has become “surreally popular among the Fortune 500.” He tells the story of a group of real estate execs sent by their company to a coaching “seminar” at $4,000 a head, at which they each rode a zip line down a rocky cliff in New Mexico in order to “reconcile self-reliance and consensus building.” While reporting for his book, Salerno greeted the “shrieking, hyperventilating outdoor adventurers as they reached terra firma” and recalled his conversation with a real estate executive he called “Eric”:

“You look pretty stoked,” I told him.

“Oh man,” Eric replied. “That was something.”

“Pretty exhilarating stuff?”

“Definitely.”

“You think it’s gonna help sell more homes?”

“Oh yeah.”

“How?”

… Minutes seemed to pass before Eric finally stammered, “I don’t know, but I’m sure it will.”

But the numbers don’t add up, writes Salerno: After questioning heads of corporations who had required their employees to go through similar group coaching programs, he learned that productivity did not appear to have risen dramatically, or to have risen at all.

Perhaps such specific monetary outcomes aren’t what inspire these companies to hire coaches, says McGee. “In coaching, there’s a great concern with presentation of self; your whole life is a job interview,” says McGee. “No crabbing at the other employees; no bad days. You’re supposed to be a perfect little automaton of happiness. Which is one reason why business loves coaching.”

But employees of companies like Nike and Burgerville aren’t the only people in Portland who love coaching. So do the unemployed, the vision seekers, the midlife career-changers, the line cooks and retirees. Their reasons are different, however: They want to be life coaches.