“My life coach says I should get a new voicemail message,” said my friend Larry as I spewed a mouthful of robust Brazilian coffee on to the chest area of Larry’s freshly laundered shirt. V

I had no idea Larry had a coach. Larry is trying to sell real estate, not trying to make the Olympics team. I further had no idea that a coach would tell you the secrets of voicemail messages and you would willingly pay for this advice. A coach would say that I need a coach to keep up on such things.

Coaching is big business and getting bigger. The International Coaching Federation has 70,000 ‘personal and business’ coaches in 70 countries. Coaching has evolved from angry guys in sweatshirts with whistles to coaches in suits with ‘comprehensive individual behaviour assessments’.

Relinquishing control

The concept is simple: delegate some of the responsibility for your life to someone who will gladly accept that responsibility for $150 an hour. Then graft their head to the body of army drill sergeant to create someone who is incessant in telling you what to do. Of course, this is not needed if you still live with your mother.

All coaching – athletic, personal, business, Lamaze – traces its roots to mothers. Mothers were the first coaches and covered the spectrum of life’s needs from telling children not to suck their thumbs to telling them not to be suckers in marriage. Mothers often were involved with their clients 24/7 and used powerful behaviour-modification tools including guilt, need for acceptance and fear of spanking to help their children-clients to achieve her – I mean ‘their’ – goals. But there was one thing – a big thing – that mothers lacked that today’s personal coaches don’t: a reliable fee structure and billing system.

Route to the top

This has been important to two coaches I know. One came to coaching after a career of selling never-need-sharpening steak knives to consumers door-to-door. He took a short diversion to consulting with companies to train their employees about the value of positive thinking, particularly having the unshakeable belief that people can afford steak. The second coach I know is a former ‘domestic organiser’ whose organising included vacuuming, knowing how and when to apply furniture polish as well as being skilled in the arts of flora hydration.

On her way to becoming a ‘life coach’ she took a temporary detour to be a sculptress and specialised in lifelike clay renderings of tree bark. I would be more confident in her ability to tell me what to do with my life were she not continually asking, “where did I put my sunglasses” and my having to answer, “you’re wearing them.”

None of this is to say that people can’t benefit from people who can help them improve their personal and professional lives. I certainly don’t want to create the impression that any Tom, Dick or Mary can become a life coach without having gone through rigorous training, particularly if this Tom, Dick or Mary has knives and goes door-to-door.

Vetting procedures

I just wonder what kind of person would take on the responsibility of telling someone else how to live or work and what kind of person would hire the kind of person who would do that. I’d hope that coaches would have to be screened so that you’d never admit someone who was anything like me into the coaching fraternity.

I would always be tempted to tell someone like new-voicemail-needing Larry that he use the word ‘floutist’ in every phone greeting, just because Coach Mom taught me that having a really good laugh was good for digestion. And on the client side, be sure to ask yourself, before hiring a coach, “am I willing to let someone else take responsibility for my life?” If you say “yes” to the right person, I think you get a free set of steak knives.

I would be more confident in her ability to tell me what to do with my life were she not continually asking, “where did I put my sunglasses” and my having to answer, “you’re wearing them”.