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Entrepreneurial Alumni Create Coaching Niche

5/14/2009 --

Former classmates transform their own futures -- and help clients do the same.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Like all good coaches, Amy Bailey, MBA '96, and Megan (Barry) Thomas, MBA '96, see opportunity where others perceive crisis. They are career coaches. And in the midst of the current economic downturn, they are finding ways to transform their own futures, even as they help clients do the same.

Bailey and Thomas met and discovered they had Ross in common post-graduation. Bailey had been working in brand management at Kraft Foods and Applebee's before she created Bailey Coaching and Consulting in Kansas City. Thomas was a VP heading an account service group inside an independent ad agency before she founded Firsthand Coaching in Birmingham, Mich.

"We met by sheer coincidence while getting our training through the same institute," Bailey (pictured at right) says. "Michigan connected us, but our future careers got us back together." Today they trade professional advice and guidance; Thomas even sits on Bailey's advisory board.

Both firms specialize in career and leadership coaching. Both cater to corporate and individual clients. And both have identified similar trends in the marketplace.

"In the past year, we've both noted two key trends in the marketplace," Thomas says. "We see a greater need for people to be flexible and open to changes in the marketplace, as well as intense pressure to achieve goals quickly, especially financial ones. These two trends can often be in direct conflict, and can create a sense of imbalance or even panic."

"There's been a shift," Bailey adds. "It used to be that people were focused on career and life fulfillment, and the next step was, 'do I want a transition in my future?' That has reversed, given the economic times. People are now facing the transition piece -- often not by their own choice -- due to layoffs, the stock market, whatever. And they are thinking, 'If I have to face a transition, I want it to be something that fulfills me.'"

Bailey finds executives often tend to overlook their transferable skills when faced with job hunting. And surprisingly, many of her clients forget they are capable of networking -- which can be a fatal flaw since 80 percent of all jobs are landed through such targeted connections.

"People just seize up," Bailey says, "especially in a terrible economy. But a bad economy doesn't take away your network or your skills."

In addition, the barrage of bad news about jobs lost, particularly in the Detroit area, often feeds into a growing sense of desperation for job seekers, Thomas notes.

"It is easy to feel overwhelmed," she says of her local clients. "But you really only need one job. I have to encourage clients not to focus on the thousands that are gone."

A career coach can represent a safe haven for stressed executives seeking to reinvent themselves, Thomas points out. Business leaders often lack the time for quality self-assessment. They may not want to own up to shortcomings or admit to things they never learned. Hiring a coach can clarify and systematize the activities surrounding an effective job search. "The coach is someone who can help sort it out in your head," says Thomas (pictured at left). "Many executives and business leaders don't have places where they can speak freely without repercussions."

Objective, confidential feedback is the most valuable asset a coach can provide, Bailey adds. "Friends and family may have advice, but they often have their own agendas," she says. "I don't know your family and friends. I am just focused on you."

Both coaches require a three-month minimum time commitment for individual and corporate clients. Generally a relationship lasts about six months, as the coach and client work together to identify goals, strategies, tips, and techniques. "Then it's time for them to move forward and coach themselves," Thomas says.

Both Bailey and Thomas say they trade on their shared experience as entrepreneurs to coach and motivate clients. "As we talk to people about their own awakening, their own desire to make a difference with their careers, we can say we've done it ourselves," Thomas says.

But the message is a little different for clients who currently are employed. Fulfillment is a luxury for most; survival strategies are the current order of the day. And as the economy creates new and unexpected scenarios for working clients, Bailey and Thomas are customizing their own "products" to meet evolving needs and generate new business.

"Corporations have to do more with less today," Thomas says. "A successful accountant or engineer may have to motivate teams now, give presentations, be persuasive. The functional, quantitative skills are the cost to entry. It's the intangibles they need to work on."

Thomas actually offers coaching and branding services to other coaches, and provides a blog about finding fulfillment on her website. Bailey increasingly targets emerging leaders at mid-sized to large companies looking to spend training dollars on changes in day-to-day behavior. Her firm also offers corporate clients consulting expertise regarding long-term strategic planning, marketing, and positioning.

"As an entrepreneur myself, I have to be savvy enough to change my message and focus my targets," Bailey says. "I look at companies that are pro-active, that are already forward-leaning. And I have found it's more effective today to talk to people in corporations about retaining the skills you have, holding the job you have. Times are tough right now. And you want to be solid."

—Deborah Holdship



For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847, bernied@umich.edu