Seven years ago today, on August 2, 2016, I was laid off from my last corporate job at Fidelity Investments. I was let go along with 155 of my colleagues, at it was almost a total surprise.
I had been laid off once before, in 2003, and had found another job at the same company. (I worked there 8 more years.) So my first thought was that I would do that again. Even a few months of that would make a big difference in the long-term payouts that I would vest it.
But I quickly figured out that was not going to happen.
That’s when the panic set in.
I realized later that I was operating under the assumption that there was no way I could replace my generous corporate income by coaching. I knew I didn’t want to take another “jobby job” as one of my corporate friends liked to call it, but I thought that given my health care expertise would qualify me to go out on my own as a consultant.
That resulted in some offers for job interviews, but no consulting gigs.
Another of my corporate friends effectively slapped me across the face and said, “What are you doing? You say you want to coach. Coach!”
And at that point I started thinking about building a coaching business.
Learning Number One—No One Knows What Coaching Is
When I started reaching out to people in my network to tell them I was now a coach, the most common reaction was, “What sport?”
And when I tried to tell them about coaching, and specifically MY coaching, I fumbled a lot. I hired a well-known coach, Rich Litvin, to help me build my business before I had any paying clients, and the work that we did together was all about that part of it—determining who I wanted to help and how I was going to help them. And talking about it in a way that they would see the wisdom of paying me handsomely to work together.
It was a struggle. It challenged everything in me. Just to say what I did in a compelling way was an ongoing battle.
Learning Number Two—I Had to Figure Out How to Spend My Time
For years I had worked in companies in roles where I had some degree of freedom (certainly compared with most people), but there was still a lot of structure. In a given day I had meetings and calls and there was weekly travel and I generally knew what I was doing and what I was supposed to be doing.
Now, the goal was “get people to hire me as a coach.”
But there was little in the way of project plans to help someone do that. The closest thing was a book called, “The Prosperous Coach,” written by Rich Litvin and Steve Chandler, and while it is an incredibly helpful book, advice like “coach people powerfully” didn’t quite give me the structure that I, a corporate refugee, needed.
I had to create my own routine, my own structure, and keep myself from getting distracted from all of the things that looked productive but really were not helpful in building a business. Things like additional trainings and programs and certifications, setting up sales funnels, using Facebook Ads, and so on and so on and so on.
Learning Number Three—Building A Business Is Slower Than I Thought It Would Be
While I didn’t really decide to focus on coaching exclusively until October of 2016, I didn’t get my first paying client until May of 2017. (May 27, to be exact. I still have the check.) My thoughts of getting one new client a month, it turns out, were way off, mainly because I still didn’t know how to explain what I did to people in a way that made them want to pay me money for it.
And there was only one way that I could tell to get better at it.
Conversations. Lots of conversations. Conversations with everyone in my network around what I was doing now, how I was helping people who I wanted to help, who specifically I was looking to work with. Conversations where I proposed that we have coaching conversations. Conversations where I was asking for introductions to people I might want to coach. Conversations where I offered to help people whether I wanted to coach them or not.
An exceedingly small number of these conversations turned into anything. But the ones that did involved two things.
Learning Number Four—The Most Important Skill Is Deep Listening
Most people listen for gaps so they can speak.
Most people have never truly been listened to in their entire lives. Even by their spouses.
When you truly listen, when you practice what my teacher Jack Pransky calls “Deep Listening,” you have nothing on your mind. Nothing that you feel compelled to say, no urge to interrupt.
Until you do. And then, when you do say something, you often are able to observe something about the person in front of you that they might not even realize. You might be able to identify a possibility that they have not even considered.
That is the beginning of coaching. At least the kind of transformational coaching that we can offer if we can create the space for it.
There is one more ingredient that has made a huge difference, especially in the last couple of years.
Learning Number Five—Referrals Are Incredibly Important
My business really didn’t become sustainable until I had a small group of people who regularly referred me work.
And I cultivate referrers just as strongly as I cultivate potential clients. Maybe more so.
I’m not talking about referrals in exchange for fees. I am talking about people who are happy to get someone the help that they need, and who know that I will take care of anyone they send my way, whether I end up working with them or not.
Learning Number Six—Social Media is Important, but Not For The Reason You Think
I started writing on LinkedIn a long time ago. But I rarely get a client because of a piece I wrote on LinkedIn.
I recently expanded my presence to YouTube, and now Facebook and Instagram. But again, I am not sure I have gotten more than an occasional client directly from social media.
But what I have heard is that I am easy to research. From my website, my writing, my video, it is really easy to get a sense of who I am and what I believe. If someone does hear about me from a friend, they can very quickly assess whether it makes sense to have a conversation.
It saves everyone time. And it gets me more committed clients.
And to go back some of the earlier learnings, writing helps me think about how I work with people and who I want to work with and how I can help them. Writing helps accelerate the conversation process.
I am learning about myself just like my clients are.
So let’s say you want to build a sustainable coaching business instead of continuing or going back to the corporate world. What’s the most important learning of all?
Learning Number Seven—All My Learnings Are Learnable. And Teachable.
When other coaches learn what I have been up to—how I have been able to build my business, how it is now both my only source of income and has exceeded the income from the job I was laid off from, they naturally have questions.
I have helped a lot of coaches in this way. I enjoy it. It was never my primary goal, but I do feel a strong desire to help more coaches create sustainable businesses.
And I find that each of the things that I am talking about here is both teachable and learnable.
But like anything, like learning a martial art or a musical instrument, for example, you have to be willing to do the same things, over and over, to learn the skills that you need.
Having a group of people around you who are committed to the same thing is incredibly helpful. Had I had a similar group I think it could have saved me years.
How to Start
If a sustainable business, on your own, outside the corporate world, is calling you, here are three steps you CAN take—
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