My Transition from Therapist to Executive Coach

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Have you ever considered a career change? Have you wondered when is the right time to make the change? In the late ’90s, I was contemplating a change from clinical psychology and family therapy to executive coaching. Here’s my story about the change.

As I look back, my body knew it before my mind caught on. For a long time, I’d been growing antsy and having trouble sitting in the chair through a typical day, which included 6 to 8 hours of therapy. Too often, I watched the hands of the clock tick by in slow motion and thought about how many more clients I still had to see that day. I knew it was time to move on with a midlife career change, but what would I do?

As I considered the new world of executive coaching in the world of business – CEOs, CFOs, corporate policies – seemed off-limits to me. I’d grown up in Detroit, the home of the automobile industry and a place where conflict between labor and management was the norm. From my dad, I’d absorbed the unquestioned assumption that businesses were run by blustering bullies out to exploit their workers. When I entered the therapy world itself, I encountered much the same belief: that unenlightened materialism and cutthroat competition were the prime forces driving the business world.

I began to think about how I might work with corporations and business leaders to make work settings more humane and bring more balance to the lives of the decision-makers who shaped the work environments in which most people earned their livings. Eventually, I decided to switch my focus from doing individual and family therapy to consulting to business leaders on how to be more self-aware and compassionate. Although I was only dimly conscious of the emerging professional discipline of executive coaching when I started off, I became intrigued by the idea of applying my therapy skills to help business executives not only gain deeper insights about themselves, but learn methods for creating a more positive work environment for their employees.

Selling My Services (Hopefully, not My Soul)

One of the most useful things I did early on was to enroll in a six-month training program in sales. I was intrigued to discover how much of the model for understanding sales and marketing had been drawn from psychology.¬† Probably the most useful concept I learned was the idea of “pain points”: businesses understand that reducing pain is the most direct motivation for someone to buy a product or service. Instead of saying “I’m an executive coach who helps leaders grow and become better at running their company,” I discovered I got a much more enthusiastic reception when I said, “I’m an executive coach who helps business people face their toughest challenges and handle difficult situations.”

Career Changes and/or Transitions

A major part of my work as an executive coach is helping people confront the ambivalence and ambiguities of career transitions and changes. In this capacity, I work with a wide variety of people, from students trying to find their first job to mid-level executives who feel that it’s time to move on, within or outside the company, people who enjoy what they’re doing but wish to leave a toxic work environment, and older people who are considering cutting back or retiring.

With these clients, I like to draw four intersecting circles. In the first circle, I ask: Are you passionate about what you’re doing? In the second circle, I ask: Are you using your unique talents to the fullest of their potential? In the third circle, I ask: Does the community value what you’re doing, and are you working in a healthy work place? In the fourth circle, I ask: Are people willing to pay adequately for what you do? The intersection of these four circles is what I call someone’s “occupational sweet spot.” This is the kind of position and work environment I try to help them identify and achieve.

Recently, I’ve been working with a lot of executives in their sixties who are trying to figure out what to do about their careers. Most don’t want to retire, but also don’t want to continue in their current role. I’ve formed a group of six to eight business administrators that meets monthly to discuss how to transition from a key leadership role or business ownership to some other, less demanding role that still meets their needs.

After 20 years of experience as an executive coach, I feel more passionate about my work than ever. Among many satisfactions as an executive coach, I can draw on all my psychology skills. I use behavior therapy to help people set goals and achieve results, cognitive therapy to help clients recognize how their thought patterns might be getting in the way of their leadership, and family-of-origin training to help clients recognize how they’re playing out family scripts in work environments. Drawing on my community-psychology perspective, I help companies design large-scale culture change. With my background in cultural and gender studies, I help leaders recognize the importance of diversity in the workplace.

An unexpected dividend of my career shift is how valued I’ve found my work to be by the general public. This was reinforced to me the other day when some people at a party asked me what I do for a living. When I told them I was an executive coach who helps organizations overcome negative practices, one man said, “Boy, could my boss use your services!” A woman engineer told me, “I need to meet with you tomorrow to help me deal with a toxic ¬†coworker.” In contrast, I remember the days when I told people that I was a psychologist and they backed away as if I represented a direct threat to their well-being.

I suspect that even my dad, with his strongly held anti-business worldview, would wish me well. He’d be happy to know that I’m working to help companies, even large ones, become more sensitive to the needs and feelings of their employees. He’d probably say, “You mean you can make those bastards into nicer people? Good work!”

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