Working life: Time for a new game plan

The Americans have bought into the idea of `career coaches' - and we're next. Sarah Litvinoff meets one of the best

What Delia Smith is to ingredients and cookware, Oprah is to gurus and authors. If Delia tells you coriander is the must-have ingredient, shops sell out; when Oprah features a career coach (as she did earlier this month), the United States responds. Laura Berman Fortgang has seen her book Take Yourself to the Top shoot up the US best-seller list in the days since she appeared on Oprah, with 25,000 extra copies printed. Coaching, which already had a limited chic, is now going mainstream.

If you don't know already, a coach is someone you hire to help you tone your professional, personal and spiritual life, just as you might hire a personal trainer to help you attain your physical best. What good fortune that Berman Fortgang had already committed to come to the UK today to promote her book and hold a workshop, before the Oprah effect made her unattainable.

Berman Fortgang's book is for people who are gearing up for the Career Revolution, which she defines as "being ready to redesign work to fit your life instead of trying to squeeze your life into the space left over".

In these uneasy times of threatened recession, many people are wary of any revolution that could rock the boat, and are resigned to trading a life for a job. The less timid are starting to hire coaches to help them to work the system. Berman Fortgang is used to approaches that start, "I want to have a coach as my secret weapon; I want to learn how to play the employer's game". That attitude, she says, "gives me heartache and stomach ache - it's underhand. I say, `I'm the wrong coach for that game, but if you want to play another game, here's the one I have in mind'".

The Career Revolutionary's game involves taking charge rather than merely fitting in. You are encouraged to look at everything at work that is dragging you down and sapping your energy, and plan to eliminate every single one. Communication is key, and that includes the concept of "managing up": not being afraid to tell your boss how to get the best out of you, without whining or complaining. "What do you need? Most people know what they don't like, but are not so clear on what they need to ask for without creating bad feeling. I help them work out how to express it. You might say: `If you tell me two things I've done right before you criticise me I'll work really hard'."

The other thing you are expected to do is become an intrapreneur - the employee who brings entrepreneurial thinking and skills to building a career path within the structure of an existing organisation. Shooting stars who seem to leapfrog effortlessly to the top have always done this instinctively; coaching passes on the necessary techniques to anyone willing to learn. It involves being a self-starter, resourceful, able to work without supervision, and - crucially - a team leader. The most successful intrapreneurs don't use the heads of colleagues as trampolines, but facilitate their rise by building strong and competent people below them.

If this makes it sound as if coaching is simply a euphemism for career consultancy, Berman Fortgang is keen to make the distinction. "A consultant will have you do whatever it takes to get you the result you say you want, and won't take heed to what effect that has on the rest of your life." Instead, coaching is a holistic process. "Coaching never allows your goals to compromise the rest of your life," says Berman Fortgang. "You come to me to change something about your work but we will do that in the context of your whole life. What's going on with your money, environment, relationships is just as important to your success as who you need to know in your company or what suit you should wear."

This can involve radical 180-degree shifts in thinking: "It's not the way things are; it's the way we are. People will say, `This is causing me frustration.' What I want to know is - what are you doing that is allowing this situation? Coaching is not only about changing the way things are, but aboutgrowing yourself until you can meet that situation."

Indeed, coaches won't necessarily play to your stated agenda if they suspect that you are treading a path pre-ordained by others: doing what you "should" rather than what is right for you. "One of my jobs is finding out what makes you happy, based on your core values. What are you naturally attracted to doing? Those are your organic success buttons - press them and you will be successful in terms of meaning and satisfaction, if not a millionaire. But you will make money."

Discovering your core values could show you that you're in the wrong job. It happened to Berman Fortgang herself. She was an actress when she hired her own coach and found out that what powered her acting ambitions was a desire to have an impact on people. With that came the realisation that acting was an inefficient vehicle for it: becoming a coach herself made much more sense. This doesn't mean that she expects people unhappy in their work to jump ship at once. "I work with people to improve their comfort level within their current employment and take them as far as they want to go there. Maybe we eventually discover that they're better suited to something or somewhere else."

Frustrations that seem centred on work can turn out to be a symptom of problems elsewhere. Sometimes trying to maintain too ostentatious a lifestyle is the cause, or demanding friends who drain you. Berman Fortgang expects ruthless downsizing and pruning if that's the case. In common with other coaches, she acts an example: unlike a therapist, counsellor, or consultant, who will usually work with any client for a fee, she works only with people she considers ideal. Now, having set up her own company that employs five other coaches, she has reduced her list of individual clients from 30 to five.

"My ideal clients are ready to look at things another way, even if they're not 100 per cent sure they can make the change now. They have enough reserves so they're not frightened and can afford to make radical changes. I bail out a lot. My expectation is that people take action. When they don't, and stop keeping promises to themselves, it feels like a waste of energy. I say, `I'm not the best coach for you anymore. Let's get someone who is.' The bottom line is: are they developing in measurable ways? The clients I'm working with now grow me as much as I grow them. They're doing something I'm interested in, or there's an energy about them that is delicious, or I'm learning about a new industry through them. It's two-way process."

Laura Berman Fortgang's workshop, `How to Coach Yourself and Others to a Great Life', is on 29 January, 6.30pm at Cecil Sharpe House, 2 Regent's Park Rd, London NW1; pounds 18, pounds 16 in advance (07000 782 949); free parking available.

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