Change Agents: Seeking Direction with a Life Coach

Stuck in a rut? Done in by your to-do list? Consider the services of a life coach. (Skeptics need not apply.)

Illustration by Juliette Borda

Not long ago, I saw a cartoon in the New Yorker. A hapless-looking guy walks into a shrink’s office. “Just tell me what to do,” reads his T-shirt.

The joke is on anyone who has ever seen a mental-health professional and walked out feeling no less adrift than before. Therapists can deal with deep, emotional issues; they are less adept at offering advice about practical quandaries like work-related stress or squabbling kids.

So where does that leave you if you’re feeling stuck, directionless and ineffective at solving your own problems, but unwilling to take a pickax to the past?

With any luck, it leaves you in New Jersey.

There are no hard numbers to prove it, but New Jersey may have more life coaches per square mile than any other state. Life coaches are the professionals who are trained to help us face challenges in our personal or business lives.

New Jersey’s chapter of the International Coach Federation—a professional organization based in Kentucky—is among the largest in the United States, with about 270 members, says chapter president Andrea Harvey of Branchburg. (Not all 270 identify themselves as life coaches; some fill other niches, such as executive coach.)

Last winter, I endeavored to discover whether New Jersey’s would-be claim to the title Life Coaching Capital of the World is yet another stain on the state’s reputation or a distinction of which we should be proud. Is this a credible, even laudable, profession? Are life coaches effective?

Because I can always use advice—and it seemed sort of fun—I made myself a guinea pig, submitting to an immersive two-week coach-a-thon.

According to the five life coaches who gamely agreed to take part in my experiment, there are plenty of reasons New Jersey cultivates so many coaches. One is that the recent recession hit us especially hard, causing the displaced to seek new direction in a diminished job market. Another is that we’re a wealthy state. Life coaching isn’t cheap. The typical fee among the five coaches I talked with is about $150 an hour. And what several of my coaches referred to as “lasting change” can require years of coaching. That’s a lot of coin out of pocket—considering that such services are unlikely to be covered by insurance.

Jonathan Sibley, a Montclair-based life coach, says his average hourly fee is $180. But Sibley wraps his services in pricey packages. His website, jonathansibley.net, recently listed several specials, including a Lasting Change Breakthrough Package at $1,500 (at regular rates, $2,500), and a Two-Hour Immunity to Change Consultation for $425 (marked down from $500). Sibley, a Princeton graduate, has a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University and boasts training in psychotherapy and couples therapy, among other fields.

Those credentials can seem pretty attractive in a field that does not require accreditation. Life coach, like consultant, is a title anybody can try on—although the life coaches I met all take their training seriously.
“When people hear ‘life coach,’ they might think of crystals and new-age kind of stuff, which is why I tend to call myself a ‘personal coach,’” said Sibley, who has been coaching since 2004. Sibley’s practice extends far beyond New Jersey, since like most coaches, he often confers with clients via phone or Skype. His reputation, he said, speaks for itself.

I used my two hour-long phone sessions with Sibley to zero in on a problem I presented to each of my coaches: time management. As a full-time freelance writer with two school-age kids, a husband and a house under renovation in Madison, my average day is apt to be sucked down a rabbit hole of suburban responsibility. How, I asked Sibley, can I get more out of my packed existence?

And we were off.

In a voice as soothing as chamomile tea, Sibley traced the contours of my life, asking how I allocate my time and whether I might consider handing off some of my responsibilities. He was trying to help me envision the path to more poise, less stress.

“You might say to some of the people you interact with: ‘Can we have a restructuring conversation? Because I find I’m juggling a lot of things.’”

Here is what we decided at the end of my two sessions: I’m a good candidate for further coaching. Sibley noted that my resistance to change—an area he specializes in—was still burning strong.

My encounter with another, less buttoned-up coach only tossed fuel on that stubborn fire.

Laura Berman Fortgang may be New Jersey’s most high-profile life coach. The Verona woman is the author of five self-help books with titles like Take Yourself to the Top. She’s also an Oprah alumna, having doled out advice on the show in 1999.

This year, she began moonlighting as an entertainer. Her alter ego is Life Coach Lurlene, an outsize personality sporting leopard-print stretch pants and a Dolly Parton wig with va-va-voom cleavage to match. In a one-woman show she calls "Find Your Inner Glitter with Life Coach Lurlene," Fortgang poses as a deep-south trailer park guru who’ll dispense advice to anyone who’ll listen.

“Lurlene’s mission is to save the souls of celebrities. She gets all her information from People magazine,” said Fortgang, who toggles skillfully between a New Jersey accent and a Southern drawl during a non-coaching phone interview. “She’ll say to her audience, ‘Look at how good you have it compared to Kim Kardashian.’”

Fortgang has already paraded the show from Manhattan to San Francisco in Lurlene’s sky-high heels. (She will appear at 8 pm on November 16 at Studio Playhouse in Montclair.) She would seem to be satirizing life coaches. Only she isn’t, she said.

“I’m sitting on 20 years of experience that coaching works,” she said, pointing out that coaching still pays her bills. “I’ve seen major transformations.” Far from Lurlene denting her credibility with colleagues, “I’m getting support from them,” she says. “When they see me doing something as wacky as this, it gives them permission not to be so stiff. I feel like, if we didn’t take ourselves so seriously, it would be better for our profession.”

The profession does have its problems, she acknowledges. “Listen, sometimes it seems like baloney to me, too.”

According to Fortgang, coaching is only as effective as the person being coached is receptive. “I’m willing to talk to a total skeptic,” she says, “but it’s not going to work if you go into it believing it’s not going to work.”

That may be why Sibley and the others were ultimately unable to start me down the road to clearing the clutter from my overstuffed life.

Maplewood-based Tony Calabrese and Saddle River-based David Mathew Prior, my next two coaches, asked searching questions and presented solid ideas; both recommended a tool called the Wheel of Life, a sort of personal inventory.

“It’s a simple wheel you basically fill out, where you rate your level of satisfaction in a variety of different areas on a scale of 1 to 10,” explained Calabrese, an amiable guy I met at a local Whole Foods café for an hour-long session. I was to take the graph home and assign a number to fields such as “career” and “fun and recreation.” Once graphed, I would be better able to figure out where I might be investing too much time. Priorities could be shifted, quality of life improved.

Prior, a results-driven MBA who specializes in executive coaching, e-mailed me detailed instructions on how to make the most of the Wheel of Life. He also sent a thorough recap of our two hour-long phone sessions with “actions to take”—like “being more present” at home.

Coaches four and five, Scotch Plains-based Donna Gerhauser, with whom I met in a conference room at the Madison Public Library, and ICF New Jersey president Andrea Harvey, who phone-coached me, were excellent listeners. Sympathetic, too. Both had left corporate jobs to become coaches. For both, wanting to spend more time with their own kids loomed large in the decision to coach; the flexible hours made it an attractive move.

Which got me thinking: If Gerhauser and Harvey had solved their own suburban working-mom juggling act only by becoming coaches, how were they going to coach me to a more manageable life, short of advising me to do what they had done? Tammy La Gorce, life coach? I don’t think so.

The experiment complete, I concluded that skepticism—the kind Fortgang warned about—renders me uncoachable. But why should I want to change? Isn’t juggling responsibilities, and sometimes feeling depleted by the effort involved, a perfectly normal byproduct of my station in life? Guiding me to something else would be like coaching a leopard to change its spots, to use a cliché Lurlene might appreciate.

But let’s not be too dismissive. All the life coaches I met have invested heavily in training and networking. Four of the five coaches belong to the ICF, which means they have graduated from an ICF-affiliated school and completed at least 40 hands-on hours of coaching. (Prior noted that he has notched more than 10,000 hours.) Each of the coaches is exceedingly professional, polite and pragmatic. Unruly types with money to burn might do well to get in touch. Transformation awaits.

But for those like me who can’t shed their doubts, Life Coach Lurlene may be a more viable model for enacting lasting change.

After my two-week coach-a-palooza, I conferred again with Fortgang. Could Lurlene coach me into being coachable?

“Sure she could,” said Fortgang, her accent thick as Lurlene’s eyeliner. “She’d sit you down in a lawn chair and hand you a Pabst Blue Ribbon. Then she’d say, ‘What’s really great in your life right now?’ If you couldn’t come up with much, she’d say, ‘Okay, so what makes you think there’s no room for improvement? If your car’s not running right, you’d take it to a mechanic. That’s what I am. A life mechanic.’”

Alas, I’ve never had great luck with auto mechanics either.

Tammy La Gorce is a regular contributor. She filed this story two weeks late.

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