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How I Became A Full-Time Coach Less Than Two Years After Starting My Training

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How I Became A Full-Time Coach Less Than Two Years After Starting My Training

Robbie Swale

I did my first paid coaching session in July 2015, having started my coach training a month earlier. By April 2017, less than two years later, I was a full-time coach. I handed in my notice to my office job almost a year to the day after I finished that training, the amazing Coaching School Foundation Course. And this year, I expect to make more money doing this new career than I have in any of my previous ones.

Now I am not a man who does very well at celebrating his success – although I’m getting better – but even my success-Gremlins can’t deny that this is an awesome achievement, something I am really proud of. And with a grin on my face, I can’t help but think it’s too good an opportunity to write a clickbait-y titled article for me not to – I might never have the chance again! – so here it is. Of course I am standing on the shoulders of many giants to do this, in particular Phil Bolton of the Coaching School, and Rich Litvin and Steve Chandler via The Prosperous Coach, but including many more friends, colleagues, loved ones and coaches. And of course it hasn’t been easy. But it has happened. And I hope that there will be something in here that will help you make your mark on the world, whether you are a coach or not. Let me know.

I am a full-time coach less than two years after starting my training. Here are the SEVEN ways I made that happen(!).

1)     Get Really Good

Firstly, it was important to me from the start to get really good at what I do. That was why I found coaching: I was looking for the work where my natural talents and the things that I enjoy came together, to enable me to do truly great work. So the quality of that work was always important to me. But it became more important as I gradually realised how to make this coaching thing work as a business: you probably can do it by tricks and strategies and Google Adwords, but it’s a hell of a lot easier if you’re just really good at what you do. If you transform people’s lives, they will tell people about your work.

So I chose my training well. I can’t tell you that much about other trainings, but I can tell you that the Coaching School is amazing. I saw it first hand as a student and I’ve recently seen it as an observer on their latest cohort, as the first step towards joining their faculty. I wanted training where I would get exposure to great trainers, learn great content and be supported to grow into myself and be the best coach I could be, and the Coaching School did that and more. The small group learning and focus on people finding their own authentic style was fantastic, and the support outside the modules – coaching, supervision and a wonderful and growing community – has made so much difference. They also provide more support than any other foundation training I’m aware of on how to build your practice, but the most important thing here is that the depth and quality of the training meant that when I started coaching people, I was already doing great work. With the Coaching School’s support, I got better and better. As I say, I don’t know all there is to know about other trainings, but I do know that the more I speak to people about their coaching training, the more glad I am that I chose such a comprehensive, deep and brilliant course.

And once I’d finished the course, I kept learning. Learning can be expensive, but what you are selling is you, and the more learning you have, the more you can offer your clients. And you can find affordable ways to learn, too. I joined free online courses, listened to podcasts, watched videos and read books. I also paid for training, with EvoluteSix and twice with Coaches Rising, whose annual summit I highly recommend.

I also kept coaching – I found ways to do this, to keep my hand in, to keep my skills fresh. Some of them are below. But it’s so important to remember that one of the fundamental ways to get better at coaching is to do more coaching. And one of the few ways you can get worse at coaching is to do no coaching. So, as below, don’t let anything stop you.

Supervision has been important, too, to focus and continue my learning and give me the support I need (in a group this only costs us about £20/session each with a great supervisor, Katie Harvey). And last, but so important that it warrants its own heading…

2)     Get A Coach

In fact, I didn’t just get one coach. I took advantage of all the opportunities to get coaching I could find. I said yes when free coaching was offered by different people whose mailing lists I was on. I got coaching as part of my training at the Coaching School, and plenty of my fellow students practised on me as part of that course. I did some swaps with other coaches I knew. But none of that made as much of a difference as the engagements I have done with two professional coaches, Mike Toller and Joel Monk. Two coaching sessions with a coach are so much more than twice as useful as one session, and four sessions or six months of coaching can have real power and massive impact. The free coaching and co-coaching will help, but committing to a long-term coaching engagement is what will make the difference. The power is so much greater over time: when you are investing in yourself financially, when you are committing to change yourself over a period of months. The more you pay, the better the coach is and the more you will wring every last bit of value from it. I used it to improve my coaching: both by including that in my objectives, and learning by observing the coaches I worked with. I used it to stretch myself, to become the person I wanted to be, to release myself from the chains and habits that were holding me back. I used it to break my money issues open, allowing me to sell more coaching for more money. And I used it to drive my business development, way beyond where it could have gone without that.

And look, if you’re worried about paying for coaching, then set one of your objectives with your coach as being increasing your income by more than the fee she or he charges. If that doesn’t happen, get a new coach! But if you choose wisely, it will. There is almost nothing in my life that I have paid for that has had more benefits for me personally and professionally than my coaching. And certainly nothing in my work life.

For my work, it is absolutely vital. Because having a coach will affect your business in so many ways. It will remind you of the magic of coaching, giving you personal stories to tell to potential clients, or at parties, or when your suspicious school friend asks you what the hell coaching really is. It’ll give you confidence in your work, and confidence that coaching is as magical as you think it is. It’ll show you that people can charge a lot more than you do and it’s absolutely bloody worth every penny. In fact, it’s a bargain. And it’ll give you credibility with clients. To borrow from the Prosperous Coach, imagine if a doctor didn’t trust her own medicine to save herself. Would you trust the medicine? Would you take it? Maybe, if you were desperate. But if she tells you how it’s saved her, and how it’s saved her brother and her friends; how she values every time she takes it. Then you’d take it too, and happily.

3)     Invitation and Referral

First things first, this comes with a big hat tip to the Prosperous Coach, which I thoroughly recommend. But even before I read that book, I’d seen the evidence that this is the truth from every full-time coach I had spoken to: a coaching business isn’t built through marketing. It isn’t built through tricks. It’s built through doing great work, and astounding people so that they tell their friends, colleagues, family members and pets about you. That’s when your business grows. Then in the end you have a critical mass of clients referring people to you, and your business drives itself. One of my aims was to build towards that number as quickly as I could. Here is what I did.

  1. I invited two groups of people to do coaching with me. First, were people I know. These were people who had networks away from my own, networks that might be interested in coaching. I was really clear about this. I would say ‘This isn’t because you might become a client, it’s because you might know people who would, and the best way for you to be able to speak to them about coaching is to have experienced it.’
  2. The second group were people I’d love to work with. I just thought about the people I knew, the people I’d met, and thought ‘who would I absolutely love to spend some time coaching?’ Some of these were people who fitted the kind of coaching I thought I wanted to do, and some were just awesome people I knew. Some were awesome people I didn't know (now that was quite stressful). Again, I made it absolutely clear there was no pressure to become a client, but of course if they wanted to then we could talk about that. If they did, then great, there’s a prospective client. If not, then I had more experience of working with the people who I really want to do more work with, and someone extra had done some work with me, and I’d helped to change the world and make someone awesome’s life that little bit better.
  3. I invited anyone who was interested in coaching with me to start with a free, no-strings coaching session. This meant instead of starting with a sales conversation I wasn’t convinced I was very good at, I started with coaching, which I was good at and getting better. And it meant that I got to coach everyone who contacted me. Again, the pool of people I’d worked with got bigger, the diversity of people I’d worked with increased, and I got better at coaching.
  4. I systemised asking for referrals. After each of the above types of coaching session, whether they paid me or not, and whenever I worked with a client, I asked them for referrals. I was explicit: ‘These are the people I’d like to work with, these are the people I do my best work with. Who do you know?’

Of course, this didn’t always work. Not everyone gave me referrals, not everyone I invited for a coaching session took me up on the offer. And if you’re going to offer this to your friends, you have to be prepared for a bunch of them to never reply to your email, which feels slightly odd! But there’s learning in that, too. And overall, I worked with more people, got more coaching hours, and got more people talking about my work. And that’s how I got here.

People will tell you that giving away coaching devalues your work, but I disagree: with boundaries, it is incredibly useful. How can people who have never received coaching know about the value of it, know about the magic? How can they understand what it’s like to walk away from a session with things which have felt impossible for months or years now clearly laid out in their mind? With a greater understanding about themself and more confidence in what they are doing than ever before? How can you expect them to pay money (and particularly serious money) if they haven’t done that? But when they have…

The key, then, is those boundaries: I’m happy to do one free session with anyone, once, as long as they fit into a group of people I’ve already selected (in this case potential clients, friends with interesting networks or who I want to understand my work, and people I’d love to work with). I’m not happy to work with someone for six months for free. In offering these free sessions I am more experienced and more skilled, and the number of people I’ve coached is much higher. And the world is changed, too, one person at a time.

4)     At All Costs, Keep Coaching

Stay coaching. At all costs. Don’t stop. Don’t lose momentum. When I was starting out, this meant: try to do some coaching on every one of my ‘coaching’ days when I was part time, and at the very least coach one person every week. One of my hardest moments came when I hadn’t coached anyone for about six weeks. I’d just negotiated with my employer to go down to three days a week, giving me two days a week for coaching. I’d had about two weeks of this, my clients had all come to an end, and the fear was setting in. And then I did a coaching session with my sister, and the relief I felt was palpable. It opened so much up, answering so many of my Gremlins: why I’m doing this, that I’m good at it, that it helps people. You can’t control who says yes to working with you, but you can control whether you do any coaching at all.

So find the way to keep coaching: do half an hour each way of coaching with someone you trained with; offer to coach your sister, or your dad, for 20 minutes on the phone; find a local co-coaching group. Find a charity who would appreciate your services for free. Do something, anything, to keep coaching.

And don’t let any little thing stop you. I’ve written elsewhere about how dancing with Resistance was the most important lesson I learnt in my first year as a coach. And that is fundamentally true: if you’re getting pulled in all directions by Resistance – with its doubts, fears, and procrastinations – then you’re in trouble. In that article, I talked about some of the ways this gets in the way for people, and some ways to dance with it. Here, in particular, I’m talking about marketing. Marketing - building a website, having a mailing list, creating videos, blogging - can so often be Resistance. It’s insidiousResistance, because it sounds like that stuff will help you run a coaching business. And here’s the thing… it will! But only a tiny bit. And that tiny bit isn’t worth it when it stops you from doing the work you’re here to do. That work is coaching. Don’t stop coaching ‘until your website is ready’. Don’t stop coaching ‘until you have written your About You page’. Don’t stop coaching ‘until you’ve found the right way to post about coaching on LinkedIn or Facebook’. That’s all Resistance. If you click through some of the links in this article, to really successful coaches who have helped me, half of them don’t even have websites, or their websites are pretty rubbish! If you build your business by coaching often and coaching well, then that can’t be Resistance. It can only be you changing the world for the better, one person at a time. 

5)     Everything starts with a conversation

If you got far enough to want to be a coach – even more so, to train to be a coach – you already know you are good with people. You know you can have great conversations. And the better you get at coaching, the better your conversations will become. And here’s the key thing, learnt from friends, colleagues and books I’ve read: pretty much everything starts with a conversation. As a coach, unless you’ve written a best-selling book or been coaching for years, almost no one is going to contact you out of the blue or find you on Google. You need to have conversations. It will help you get better at talking about your work, and more importantly than that: in every conversation there is possibility. I once had a conversation at an event with a woman who, it turned out, had once sold a sofa to Phil from the Coaching School. She introduced me to her boss at the event, who invited me for a coffee when he found out I was a coach. And then his company offered me £2,500 of work in the next eight months. Because she once sold Phil a sofa!

You never know when someone will recommend you for a job, or to a friend as a coach. But you do know that if you have no conversations, and particularly no conversations about coaching, then no one will.

Have coffees and beers with former colleagues to catch up. Meet other coaches you know and speak to them – you never know when they’ll need to refer a client to someone, and maybe they’ll think of you. Be generous, though, don’t be needy. Start from a sense of possibility: that something wonderful will come from this conversation if you let it emerge, and that it doesn’t matter what.

Let’s get it clear: this is networking. This is growing your network. And many people have a serious allergy to networking. But you are a coach. You are great with people. And you can use that skill to grow your network in a way that suits you: through one-on-one conversations. One suggestion is this: contact someone with ‘Here’s where I am at with my work…. I’d love to meet for a coffee to pick your brains/discuss your work/understand more about you/whatever.’ At the conversation, once you’ve had the opportunity to explain more about your work, where you are and why you’re doing it, the question you want to ask is… ‘Who do you know?’ Who do you know who I should speak to? Who do you know that is doing what I’m doing? Who do you know who sounds like these people, who I love working with and changing the lives of? People are generous, just like you. They love to help. By the end of the conversation usually they’ve already mentioned two or three names of people. But if not, ask. And then ask them for an introduction. And have another conversation.

And don’t be shy about adding people on LinkedIn/giving them a card/emailing them if they give you one – at first, my Fear Demon said, ‘What if they think it’s ridiculous that I’m getting in touch with them/adding them/emailing them?’. But then I realised, what’s the worst that can happen? They think I’m ridiculous, delete it and don’t think about me anymore. And in 99% of situations, what I get is an increased network, which takes me one step closer to the critical mass of clients to drive my business by referrals. On which note…

6)     Look For Shortcuts to the Client Critical Mass

Quite soon after I became a part-time coach, coaching two days a week plus evenings, I began to get in touch with coaches I knew or was introduced to, to ask them to sit down for a coffee. Everything starts with a conversation, and these conversations were great – they were very affirming and very educational. There many things I learned from them, but there were two significant areas these coaches had in common. The first was that their business, as described above, was kept going by referrals. There comes a point where when you have worked with enough people, even if they only refer you one client every two years each, that’s enough to make your practice grow. The Client Critical Mass. The second thing is that - to get to that point - each of these people who had become a full-time coach had had something that tipped the balance for them, and took them to that critical mass: something which referred them clients. Phil Bolton, who founded the Coaching School, worked with Escape the City and a couple of other similar organisations (plus spent a couple of years coaching In House honing his craft). Catriona Horley’s work running coach training for emerging leaders made a big difference. Isabel Mortimer had a great link with an incredibly successful coach in her early days, someone who sent clients her way as a show of faith in how brilliant she was (and is).

It’s possible to build just by invitation and referral, but seeing this pattern got me thinking: how can I shortcut to that point? A dozen extra clients over a year from one source would not only make a lot of difference to my income now, but also to the pool of people I had worked with. So I started looking for these opportunities. I contacted several small organisations that I knew, some out of the blue and some by being linked to them, and I kept my eyes peeled. When a fellow Coaching School graduate, James Bianco, mentioned a possible opportunity with Careershifters, an organisation I really admire, I got in touch right away. When I had a conversation with Mike from the Coaching School after I completed their course, I asked to be more involved. When my then Supervisor Vegard mentioned an opportunity to work with his organisation, Coachingpartner, I said yes. When I saw that Isabel, mentioned above, was involved with Graydin, a company who do awesome work training teachers in coaching skills, I asked for an introduction. And there were others, too. Now the truth is, none of the above examples led me to that one shortcut I was after. But they did two things. First, some of them led to some work. A couple of clients here, a couple there. And that, of course, built my client base, and improved my coaching. And second, I became more practised at having conversations with the kind of people who might give me the opportunity that would make all the difference.

All this meant that when the two opportunities came along which have – in the end – been a big part of me moving to full-time coaching, I noticed them. And I was practised at having these conversations. And – after all the coaching I had done, all the learning I had done, all the Resistance I had battled through – I knew that I could do great work for them. And now I am.

7)     Create the Space for Your Work to Grow

I coached while working full-time during my coaching training – for roughly the first six months of my coaching business. During some co-coaching with a brilliant woman called Holly Aston, I realised that I needed to create more space for it, so I found a way to work part-time, giving myself two days a week, plus evenings and weekends, to work on coaching. Without this space and time I couldn’t have done all the things above, and I couldn’t have got where I am this quickly.

I’m a big fan of ‘day jobs’, for coaches, for artists, for career changers, for anyone who needs to experiment. As Liz Gilbert says in her book Big Magic, it’s not fair to put the pressure of all your earning on your art, on your calling. Now ideally this other work is something you enjoy (and I was very lucky to be working with a wonderful team doing great work at the Clore Leadership Programme). But even if it isn’t, don’t beat yourself up if you’re not full-time straight away, and if you have to do some other work some of the time. That’s natural, and it’s important. For most of us, we put enough pressure on ourselves when we’re selling our own time as a coach – with all the doubts that come with that – without adding in a massive pressure to sell in order to pay your rent. Especially when you’re just starting out. But if you’re working full-time, there just isn’t the space to do the work you need to do to grow your business. And here’s another thing: as soon as you are a part-time coach, your credibility with others and your confidence in yourself will rise too.

If you aren’t full-time, and you aren’t trying to find the way to increase the time you have for coaching, then either you’re not that serious about coaching, or you are so wrapped up in Resistance, Gremlins and other Fear Demons that you can’t find your way through. If it’s the former – and you actually don’t want to grow your coaching business – then that is absolutely fine, and what you are doing is wonderful. Keep changing people in whatever way you are, and perhaps at some point you’ll come back to this article, or read something else, and you’ll think ‘now is the time’. If it’s the latter – if you want nothing more than to work as a coach, use those skills that you were put on this planet to use, and change lives every day – then my advice is to get some help. It’s very hard to beat the Resistance and the Gremlins. And it’s almost impossible on your own.

I was never sure I would want to be full-time, I just knew coaching was something I needed more time for. And then, after a year of being part-time, I realised when answering a question from my coach that I wanted to take it to the next level. The tipping point – the point when I realised I could do that, came from two things. It was when – having busted my money issues and raised my prices – I realised I was making more money from my two days of coaching than from my three days in the office. And it was when those two bigger projects appeared on the horizon, that would take me towards the Client Critical Mass and give me more regular income. I knew the only way to have the space to take them would be to stop all other coaching work, or to leave my other job. And then – despite the Gremlins and Fear Demons being very much present – it was time. 

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So there you have it. There are the Seven Ways I Became A Full-Time Coach Less Than Two Years After Starting My Training (ha ha!). I hope it inspires you. I hope you feel a sense of optimism and energy having read it: this is possible. And not just for coaches: it is possible for so many freelancers and entrepreneurs and creators. I am, all of a sudden (and, of course, after a lifetime of graft and searching), a case study in changing careers. But for coaches, in particular, I hope you use even one of these ways and ideas to grow your coaching practice. Everything starts with a step. It starts with you saying, ‘I want to do this’. It starts from doing great work, work that uses your unique blend of skills to their maximum. And then you’re changing the world, one person at a time. Coaching is growing, and the world needs people like you.