The term “life coach” was among the 100 new additions to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary this year.
The phrase started in the mid-1980s and is commonly used to describe those who help others achieve their personal best.
Many social workers — who are skilled in helping clients cope with challenges — say coaching comes naturally, and they report having success in launching their own personal- and executive-coaching businesses.
Los Angeles social worker Jacqueline Ashley said coaching is a good fit for her and her clients.
“I was inspired to get involved because I was excited about the idea of helping people to be their personal best,” Ashley explained, “whether it is to help them make a career decision, manage their time better, acquire skills, manage stress, improve a relationship or find work/life balance.”
Coaching is a great avenue for social workers, because it is a means to facilitate human development, she added.
“Who better than social workers to be able to help clients tap into great potential, move us beyond our perceived limitations, and keep us motivated at the same time?” she said.
Ashley began coaching at the beginning of this year and believes the area is growing in acceptance among consumers, particularly professionals and those in management. Her typical clients are executives and career-oriented professionals.
“They are generally interested in leadership development, learning how to acquire new skills, and/or in fine-tuning existing skills,” Ashley said. “They want to develop both professionally and personally in order to improve job performance, advance in their careers and find fulfillment.”
She said her MSW training laid the foundation for her coaching know-how.
“I complemented and polished these skills with my graduate training in evidence-based coaching at Fielding Graduate University (in California),” she said.
Ashley said that while coaching and social work share similarities, there is a crucial difference.
“Clinical social work is about helping people to be able to cope with problems that interfere with healthy biopsychosocial functioning for which the purpose is to achieve healing and promote an adequate quality of life,” she said. “Coaching, on the other hand, is generally different in that it emphasizes improvement not based upon deficits in psychological functioning and/or the social environment, but rather improvement towards personal and professional development for the purpose of achieving ultimate potential and fulfillment.”
While Ashley has begun coaching only recently, social worker Gail Fisher has been in the business for more than 25 years. She runs Resources for Change, in Bethesda, Md., which helps organizations and businesses overcome productivity problems caused by external demands, internal conflicts, morale issues or changing goals.
Fisher earned her MSW with an emphasis on group dynamics at Yeshiva University in New York. She completed a fellowship in the Change Management Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Administrative Science in Maryland.
She noted that her experience in the employee assistance program field served her well when she transitioned into the world of coaching. She said she admires the field for several reasons.
“I love the diversity and the challenge of the variety of circumstances that I encounter,” she said.
Because of her experience, Fisher has become known as the go-to executive coach for many nongovernment agencies and for-profit companies that are global in scope.
“I go to various countries where there can be a whole different set of issues that need to be addressed,” she said.
Fisher primarily helps executives in companies and NGOs actualize their goals and strategies.
“I help them become more comfortable in the various realms of their position — realms that may be rather new to them and their usual way of operating,” she said.
“I enjoy working with high-functioning employees who have been chosen as stars, and (who) the organization would like to add additional shine and polish to,” she said.
Fisher said it is vital to maintain boundaries between social work and coaching.
“I find that I work very hard to be sure that someone is not coming to me for coaching when it is therapy that they really need,” she said. “As clinicians, we need to hold ourselves to a higher dynamic and more stringent standard — one where we are clear both with ourselves and our clients about boundaries.”
Her suggestion to social workers thinking of coaching is to study up on the field and become proficient in a certain specialty.
“Become an expert in something,” she said.
Coaching in today’s world
Like Fisher, social worker Marilyn Edelson knows the coaching business well, with 15 years of experience. She continues to maintain her therapy practice as well.
“Coaching is now in its adolescence,” said Edelson, who is a certified master coach from the Coaches Training Institute in California.
She is the founder of On Track Coaching and Consulting, based in Newton, Mass., which offers personal and business coaching. She said her clients have ranged from a homeless woman to a government executive responsible for all the desktop computers and BlackBerrys in his branch of government.
She avoids a therapeutic approach to solving problems with her coaching clients, she said, focusing instead on maintaining a positive momentum to reach a desired outcome.
Edelson, who also lectures on coaching and mentors other coaches, said the business can offer an exciting career option for social workers suffering from burnout.
“That’s what got me into it,” she said.
However, she cautions social workers to be mindful of their motives before making a change. Coaching is not about raking in loads of money, she said.
“Only a small percentage of coaches are making a good income,” Edelson said. “It was different in the late 1990s when people would happily pay out of their pocket for these services. Now you want to have a distinctive niche and, most importantly, be committed to making a difference in forward-looking ways.”
While social workers often cite relief from burnout as a reason they sought out a coaching career, Melanie Yost said it also turned out to be a great way to free up more personal time for her after being a clinical social worker for 20 years.
Her coaching business started two years ago in Fredericksburg, Va., and Yost said she is pleased she made the move. Her typical clients are business owners seeking guidance on setting and meeting goals.
“With coaching, I can work over the phone,” Yost said. “It offers me freedom and flexibility.”
She agreed that social work is an ideal starting point for a coaching business, because “so much of our training is solution-focused.”
However, Yost agreed that it’s important to separate the two fields.
“I have seen other coaches get in the psychosocial aspects with a client when they should not have,” she said.
In her opinion, coaches should not “process feelings” with clients. Social work is “geared toward the mental health profession,” she said. “You have to understand that line.”
If a client needs mental health treatment, she insists the person seek treatment from a therapist.
Yost’s advice for social workers thinking of coaching as a career alternative is to gain the proper training and to draft a realistic business model.
“I wanted the freedom and flexibility,” she said of her motivation to be a coach. “I got the training and skills to do that.”
Social work vs. coaching
Social workers interviewed for this story pointed out that coaching differs from running a clinical social work practice in other ways. While insurance reimbursement for social work services is common, coaching services may not be covered by insurance, they said.
According to a 2008 NASW Legal Issue of the Month article on coaching, professional liability insurance may only provide coverage for services that fall within the definition of social work. The article outlines a list of areas for social workers to be mindful of when launching a coaching business.
Coaching also means having the confidence to promote a business. Yost and Edelson insisted that marketing is an essential tool for survival.
“Coaches have to learn to market themselves to gain clients, something not all people are comfortable with,” Edelson said.
Another difference between social work and coaching is that unlike social work in most states, coaching typically has no government oversight or licensing guidelines.
“Literally anyone can jump on the bandwagon and claim to be a professional coach,” Ashley said. “I think clients are more vulnerable to being taken advantage of if they are not already savvy to understanding the coaching process and what it can do for them in collaborating with a coach.”
Ashley noted that there are independent organizations, like the International Coach Federation, that work to promote high professional standards by accrediting training programs and setting requirements to obtain various levels of credentials.
ICF started in 1995 and says it is the leading organization dedicated to coaching, with more than 18,500 members worldwide. Lindsay Bodkin, communications coordinator for ICF, said the organization offers educational standards, a code of ethics, core competencies, networking opportunities and the latest research trends.
Jeffrey Auerbach, vice president of ICF global board of directors, said social workers tend to be successful in the personal or executive coaching fields because they have transferred their social work education and experience to coaching.
“However, social workers still benefit from retraining in the particular competences of coaching, which is best obtained through an ICF-accredited program,” he said. “And they should also have the experience of being coached themselves.”
Fisher, of Resources for Change, pointed out that educational opportunities for coaching “are all over the map.” Her advice is to test different coaching education programs and to gain insight from people already in the field.
A good starting point is the online community of New Coach Connection, she said. It features a Listserv of new and experienced coaches who are seeking ways to collaborate, connect and create experiences in the coaching profession.
For more, download NASW’s Leadership Ladder document Career Coaching: A Valuable Resource for Social Workers.