Coaching biz: build a niche, or brand?


Notes from my webinar hosted by CCNI on June 7. Many thanks to CCNI, and to all the folks who joined in to hear what I have to say!

I want to share a bit about my personal journey as a coach at the outset so you know who I am, where I’m coming from and what I really have to offer here (and what I don’t).

It’s been brought to my attention by a peer that I struggle with coming across as either arrogant about what I have achieved or whiny about what’s not going well. That’s a major growth edge for me, and in fact it can sometimes mean that I create stumbling blocks for others even as I promote my own coaching business. This friend noted that when people do get to know me they find that these first impressions don’t hold up, which I of course knew; however, what I’m not always aware of in the moment is how others perceive how I present myself. In fact I feel I’m a much better writer than verbal communicator and that’s because I feel like I can massage things better when I have a chance to edit my thoughts.

So by way of introducing myself I want to be clear that any discussions of where I’ve done well or where I’ve been weak in my growth as a professional coach, those things I hope will edify you, not turn you off.


The next thing to say about myself by way of introduction is that yes I am a CPCC with CCNI and this call is the one place where I feel that doesn’t need further explanation, you know what it means and what it takes to get there. That’s a journey I’ve been on since 2007, when I was only 33 years old, a very young age to start a coaching career. However, I do not come from a background of church work, and often feel like an outsider; I don’t have megachurches banging down my door to lead coach training classes or coach their entire staff, but I don’t quite fit in the business world either. I’m in the art world, but that leaves me with a ton of cool contacts who can’t afford coaching! I identify strongly as an artist, poet, writer, prophet in the Ephesians 4 meaning of the term, and as such I’m a pretty nonlinear thinker. That has implications for what I write and how I write it, which we’ll come back to.

What I can tell you about the niche and branding discussion is borne of experience in being honest with myself, which is a major success. It is not born of a success in building a financially successful coaching practice. I suspect being honest with yourself is the first step to fruit, in fact I believe it enough to preach it to you without the fruit yet. Also, it makes common sense. Now that you know what to expect, let’s dig into that a bit deeper.

I was always told you need to pick a niche. I will tell you that my niche is at the crossroads of faith, the arts, and entrepreneurship. My favorite clients to work with are entrepreneurial Christian artists: people who are trying to make a living and be missional with their art. In the process of trying to build websites and manage blogs, I was gradually getting more and more blogs and websites, some of them trying to put me in front of artists, and others to attempt to attract business clientele, etc. Until one day, a friend of mine said, “just focus on your personal brand.” One website, one whole person. Let your personality show in one central location online, What I came to understand, and this is a key, is that putting yourself in a niche is actually making yourself generic. The problem with going to a networking event and saying, for example, “I am a health coach,” is that people will say “so what? I know fifteen other health and fitness gurus in this city.” And the same goes for business coaching… to a lesser extent creativity coaching. And you’re back at square one, trying to show people how you’re different…. Without coming across as arrogant or whiny. At least that’s my challenge, because I know I’m one of the best in Northern Indiana and I whine about how those other coaches aren’t really coaching!

It’s been helpful for me to think in terms of how Jesus met people. I’m going to give only one example and I’m sure you can come up with others.

Jesus had a definite niche, and he knew what it was. And that was okay. He focused there. In Matthew 15:24 he was on a vacation, but started getting pestered by a Syrophoenecian woman. So he told her what his niche was. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

She said, “lord help me.”

They argue a bit, and in her persistent faithfulness, which we could talk about in coaching speak as a high degree of buy in, he decided to give her his help.

It wasn’t Jesus’ niche that preceded him and gave him a reputation in Tyre.. it was in fact what modern marketers call a personal brand.

So the point is not that we should eschew niches. We need to know where we focus. But, if we’re dedicated to helping people who have a high degree of buy in, no matter what, when they ask for it, then we can answer that call a lot more often when we’ve focused on a personal brand.

As you know the coaching skill set gives us tools to work with anyone. But one thing I learned from attending networking groups such as BNI is that saying “I can help anyone” gives your listener nothing to focus on. And that’s a niche thing. It’s a lot more effective to say “ can you think of someone who wants to publish a book” than to say “ I can help anyone who wants to work at creative ways to promote themselves.” But while we’re asking for referrals in a niche or two, our personal brand will attract people from well beyond our niche, who will come say “please help me.” Isn’t that ultimately what we want?

Now I want to share about how this impacted my authorship and how I develop my values.

Last year I put a book proposal together for a publisher. I noted that there were lots of great books about how to coach. I have not yet seen one that came from a poetic nonlinear thinker, and I wanted to write one that way. I believe there’s power in artistic treatment of any subject matter. I got the book deal and wrote The Art of Motivational Listening: Creative Ideas for Effective Leaders. I don’t know if I ever would have conceived of, proposed or written this book if I had not come to understand that my personality was something worth celebrating. And that’s all branding really is. Think about branding commercials with no call to action. Huge companies do this. McDonald’s and Coke. They spend a lot more time celebrating a lifestyle than they do with specific calls to action within a niche. The illusion, in this case, is that their products will enhance anyone’s lifestyle! Really there’s only one person whose brand truly enhances anyone’s lifestyle. That’s Jesus. So whatever we do with our personal brand it needs to reflect what Jesus has placed within us as a calling and member of his body.

For me, a second question that rocked my world last fall was “if you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?” it’s a long story of loneliness and rejection, but my answer was simple and immediate: everyone in the world should have one good friend. I want my clients to experience friendship as I deploy my creativity in pursuit of their destiny. My brand is about friendship. That’s what Jesus is to me, and what I want to reflect of him. That’s why I’m not a counselor. It’s even to some extent why I’m not a pastor. I’m a Barnabas and I’m so glad that I found coaching as a channel for my life’s work. I’m discovering this prophetic and poetic element, and exploring that deeper this year, but it feels like I’m just beginning on a long journey with that, embracing the poetic/prophetic aspect of my call, and really an entertainer aspect to that, learning to speak and perform as well as I’ve learned to listen. Thanks for taking the time to come listen to me today, the best place to get my book The Art of Motivational Listening and other books I’ve written is on the bookstore. I’m happy to answer questions or comments.

ps: some great comments and questions came up. One of them was “what’s your creative definition of brand?” And my answer went back to the idea that branding is celebrating your unique personality. This might be the most important takeaway. Please do feel free to comment on the blog as well.

Coach training, Congo update

Monday I spoke with Jacques Luwaku, one of the trainees from a class I led in Kinshasa last September with Charles Buller and Jeannette Buller Slater. Jacques (pictured, in the middle of three men seated behind the table) works with Leonard Kiswangi (pictured, seated to my immediate left) at the Kinshasa office of African Enterprise, an international organization based in South Africa, and also pastors a congregation in Kinshasa.

Jacques said, “I’m going to give you a coaching testimony. Recently, I got a call from a young husband in my church (and he filled me in on their positions, the wife is in the women’s council, I missed what the husband’s position is, but these things are culturally important in Congo, everyone has some position or title) and the man said ‘No, pastor, my wife and I, it’s not working out, we are just going to get a divorce.’ (Jacques did not say what their dispute was about.) So I called the husband back, and I called the wife, too, and I said, ‘No, I don’t have any counsel to give you. But I have a question for you. If I asked you to give counsel to another young couple who was thinking about getting a divorce, what would it be? What should they do? Get divorced? Or stay together? Please reflect on that together, then you tell me.’ and they called me back later and said, ‘No, pastor, really, we’ve thought about what advice we would give; we’re going to stay together.’ They solved their own problem, they have walked away from the door of divorce. When I am coaching, I am second, and they are in charge.” Jacques went on to say that he hadn’t had to stress out about it and was glad to see the couple find their own solution.

I felt excited for him. I told him, “But Jacques, you didn’t even use the Panic Technique.”

“What? The Panic Technique? Oh, no,” he laughed, “I did not use the Panic Technique.”

It’s gratifying, and that’s an understatement, to see that the training we did in Congo last fall is bearing fruit in very real ways. Coaching saves marriages.

This story is shared with Pastor Jacques’s permission.

I continue to coach Jacques occasionally, pro bono, with your support. It seems like a good time to remind my readers that if you’d like to support our work in developing nations, training leaders like Jacques Luwaku to use coaching techniques, you can do so at Evergreen Leaders. All contributions are tax-deductible.


Five Options Coaching Technique

My client has been trying to get a meeting with his own boss to discuss the business’ mission so he can better understand it and his work can build into it. His tactic has been to just try to catch the boss in person, since they have offices next door to each other. But the boss is never there.

“Give me five more options for how you can get this message to your boss,” I say. “It’s okay if they are crazy, we’re not judging whether or not they’re good ideas yet.”

“Ok,” he says, and proceeds to rattle this off, “One, call his cell phone; two, text him; three, email; four, leave a note on his desk; five, carrier pigeon.”

[Ideal client!]

“Great,” I say, “that was quick. Can you give me five more?”

“Sure. Send him a letter in the mail. Put a poster on his door. Hook up a sensor so that when he walks in a recording plays ‘call M.B. for a meeting’, put a whoopee cushion on his chair with a note, put a decal on his car.”

I get the idea he could do this all day long. I ask if he minds if I write a blog about it.

People ask all the time if I give great advice. No, I don’t. I get them generating their own ideas. It’s far more effective. Last night someone asked if I just tell people to follow their hearts. I said, no, I don’t tell them anything. So the same girl asked, what is your best advice? “Follow your heart,” I said, using her words. That’s what coaching is about.

Also, if you vote for Pedro, all your wildest dreams will come true.









Foundational Coaching Skills Training

Interested in getting trained in Foundational Coaching Skills? I work together with CMI to provide this training every year. I don’t own the training, I just help lead it, but I can confidently say that as someone inside the industry this class is the absolute best value you can get anywhere. That’s because the training is top notch, and if you apply yourself for the entire course you’ll have a great grasp of coaching, and you’ll get it at a fraction of the price you’d get anywhere else. The deadline for this year’s FOCOS Indiana course is looming, so read more about it today if you think you might want in!

Want more info? Here you go.

Brainstorming for Coaches

Ooh, I love brainstorming. It’s most fun when I’m part of the project, because I get to throw my ideas in the hopper right away.

If you’re a coach, though, your role is a little different. Your job is to get out of the way. One of the most important things you have to do is help the group (assuming you’re coaching in a group setting) to keep from judging ideas too quickly, by saying


The brainstorming time is not a time for thinking of all the reasons it won’t work. I found it rewarding to hear from some guys I trained in Kinshasa that they still remember this when they are discussing options for how to proceed. In a land full of poverty, they don’t allow themselves to have a poverty of options. They look at each other and say “Remember Adam: NO BUTS.”

They say it in French. But it’s the same in any language. The coach’s job is to stay out of the way, so while you may have brilliant ideas all day long, this isn’t the time to share them.

There’s nothing wrong with throwing a few ideas in (with your clients’ permission) towards the end of the session.

Tonight I worked with a guy who suggested doing a raffle for a seminar he’s preparing to host in the Philippines. After an hour of brainstorming and planning, I finally asked permission to share something, and made a suggestion that gave him a slightly different twist on his idea. And he liked it!

The discipline to keep your ideas to yourself is challenging, especially when you’re as creative as I am. But it’s worth it to practice this, because the most important thing is to play your part.

Coaching and Politics on Super Tuesday

Back in 2009 as I was working my way through a professional life coaching course, I had a peer / colleague who sent me an email that was political in nature.

I realized right then that what we were learning about being life coaches was in conflict with the nature of making one’s political opinion known. Your opinion is exactly what you’re trained to keep out of the conversation. You don’t betray your opinion because it doesn’t matter. Your client’s agenda is king, and your agenda not only should remain hidden, but in fact, should not even exist.

It seemed to me that broadcasting one’s political opinion, even outside the confines of a professional relationship, was antithetical to the process of becoming a coach at heart. On a practical level, since our nation is so divided along party lines, making your personal opinions known will essentially alienate 48-52% of your prospective clients. On a deeper, almost spiritual level, becoming an “ear” means learning to silence your voice. Your job is to support the growth of others, but not to tell them which direction to grow in.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve recently been to Thailand where I began to rediscover my voice as a poet, and I recognize that the point of being a writer at all is to share opinions (in my case, that comes in a variety of forms from poetry to fiction to creative essay). Furthermore, my desire to exhort my friends to growth includes a general appeal to be well-read, to be erudite, to seek to understand the world about you via a variety of travel experiences whether they be through books or on a bicycle or airplane. Getting to a different time and place is crucial for gaining perspective, which is, in turn, crucial for growth. When I write, I hope that I invite people to find different perspectives, and when that happens, I invite them to use their own ears.

I am writing this on “Super Tuesday” and by the time I’ve saved this overnight I expect to find that Donald Trump is most likely going to be the Republican candidate for the Presidency. I would prefer not to say which of the other four major candidates remaining (alphabetically, Clinton, Cruz, Rubio, and Sanders) I am promoting, but I do say this:

We need to start looking past Donald Trump. He’s so good at holding the spotlight we think that if and when he goes away, it will be over. But Donald Trump represents a natural disaster which has already struck our shores and ripped its way from atop the purple mountains’ majesty and across the fruited plain. His demagogy is detrimental not only to how we will see ourselves in the future, but how the world will see us too– even if he isn’t ultimately elected! Demagogy means that he stirs people up by playing on their emotions and prejudices to win them over quickly and gain power. He is the living definition of this word! Another word that reflects the behavior we’ve seen at his rallies is mob-fascism. We should be very concerned that fascism in some form is on the rise. It will not end with Trump, whether he is elected or not. There are people who are hungry for the controlled environment that comes with fascism, and there are apparently a lot of them. Donald Trump doesn’t seem smart enough to create this wave; but he sure knows how to surf it. He will mock anyone and everyone for a laugh, and that is how it starts. Incidentally I have seen many conservatives point out that programs like SNL, which were very edgy in the 1970s as they poked fun at homosexuality, also paved the way for gay marriage. Making fun of things is the first step to making them okay.

Trump is making it okay to beat people up and throw them in the street without their coats, and that is what the fascist mob is hungry for.

Now, I’m not saying Trump is a Nazi, because he’s not. But I would like to point out that the World War II Axis Powers included Mussolini’s fascist Italy and Hitler’s Nazi Germany working together. Trump working with Putin, for example, would be a pretty bad deal for the world. And we know they are mutual admirers.

The fires of fascism were already in Smaug’s belly here in the United States, rumbling about inside a sleeping beast, hibernating during the winter of anti-intellectualism. Trump, in his craving for popularity, perhaps silly as a dwarf whose eyes are only on the gold, has aroused that dragon. Sooner or later, we’re going to get burned. Trump may lose to Clinton or Sanders (I daresay he will, though he’s defied every pundit who says surely he can’t continue to rise). But for the people, this desire for the fascism-sponsored cotton candy sugar rush of self-righteousness multiplied by fear that he offers as flippantly as he tosses the coif on his head, no, this is not going to go away. Within another four to eight years, another demagogue may rise on Trump’s shoulders and take this country into some truly dangerous places, and growth, as sponsored by erudition, will have to hide behind multiple levels of false identities on the internet as though it were the worst kind of explicit and graphic images.

Mockers ultimately do not like to be mocked, nor do demagogues, no more than terrorists do. We saw what happened at Charlie Hebdo. Can we imagine that a party here might eventually be serious and dangerous enough to go after a Late Show host? You’d better believe it can happen.

Growth promoters will not be able to call themselves things like “Adam G. Fleming.” Am I speaking doomsday? Not entirely. Will all be well if Trump loses the presidency? No, it will not. Smaug is awake, and he is not happy. He will feed. The danger is not Trump, it is the wave he’s surfing, a wave that’s getting bigger, not fading. The real danger is in thinking that Trump is the wave (just because we think the hair he sports is the biggest wave we’ve ever seen). With or without Trump the wave is going to cascade across our beaches and suck some part of us out to sea, probably a very innocent and beautiful part of us, probably that part that makes people around the world say to each other “I’d move there in a heartbeat.”

“Oh, wait, Adam, are you saying we should be afraid? Then you’re a demagogue yourself.”

I am not saying we should be afraid. I am saying we should practice erudition. We should read, we should have our eyes and ears open, we should see what is coming, and we should even be willing, if we would love our enemies and lay down our lives for our friends, to get out of the way when the mob mentality comes rolling. We should stand up and call the dragon by name, because otherwise people might just think it’s a friendly little earthquake which will pass and not something with jaws that’s on a warpath. I’ve often been curious what made the difference between Jews who left Germany in the early 1930s and those who stayed until it was too late. I think there are a lot of factors and it’s probably impossible to narrow it down to one thing, and it’s not pleasant to say “they didn’t see this coming” because it sounds like blaming the victim. But if some really deep crap is coming down the pike, I don’t want to be the one who says “I’ve invested too much here to leave” and put my children in harm’s way. I won’t be a victim. When people say they “would move away” and we don’t take them seriously, we’ve forgotten that at almost all times, there is some place in the world where they are moving away. Usually those refugees are leaving well after the time when it might have been expedient. If I’m going to leave, I’d like to think I’ll do it before it becomes so difficult.

This is why I feel it’s worth standing up and making a political statement, even though I’m a coach who isn’t supposed to have an agenda: it’s because I do have an agenda, the coach really does always have an agenda, the coach always has had an agenda, and that agenda is authenticity and growth. I hope for an America unafraid of growth and the unpleasant changes that come with it, not for a mockery of what makes America great, the plastic masquerade of success and righteousness as a glossy film over the ugly head of control and fascism.

Smaller and Quieter in 2016

I got to do a lot of extra listening this month as I completed the Final Evaluations (they’re called “4C Evaluations” though I don’t know why) for a group of new coaches I’ve been helping train all year. I say even less than normal during an Eval because the trainees are coaching each other, and I just observe quietly for a full 40 minutes before I say a word.

One of my trainees did a very nice job coaching, helping the other person (the coachee) to slow down and take time to process something, and as I debriefed the session, I had a picture in my mind:

Have you ever watched the Kentucky Derby or another major thoroughbred horse race? At the end of the race a racehorse is all geared up for speed. Their heart is racing and they’re doing exactly what they were born to do: fly around a track in 2 minutes or so. But they have to cool off gradually so they don’t pull a muscle or whatever. The jockey is there, of course, reining them in, but they need more help.

Next time you watch a race, notice the horse that comes alongside this thoroughbred. The Alongside Horse comes up and communicates with the racer, helping them ease out of their wild-minded, chomping at the bit excitement, so that they can cool off gradually. In other words, the trainer makes sure the horse has a friend who can help him settle down and refocus on what’s next. The Alongside Horse isn’t a great racer — they’re a calming influence. That’s a totally different kind of horse. If these horses were on the DiSC scale, the thoroughbred would be a HIGH D while the Alongside horse is probably anything else.

It’s not unusual to see coaching clients who are going from one thing to the next so fast they don’t have time to breathe.

So, rather than bigger and better in 2016, my mantra is smaller and quieter, calmer. Helping people ease out of their fast-paced life and stop for a moment to breathe.


Intentional Community 2

I was raised in Intentional Community (capitals on purpose). What some might consider a cult or commune was really a group of people considering carefully how to live together. In our case, the Intentional Community was called Plow Creek Fellowship. It was a Christian church (Plow Creek Church) and a communally owned, shared living environment of 150 acres or so, some farmland along the creek and some upon the bluffs, in the countryside of Bureau Co., Illinois (Plow Creek Farm) with six or seven houses (some of them housing multiple family units) on the farmland and several houses in the nearby village (Tiskilwa). Most of our communal life was lived on the farm property. We children attended public schools in Tiskilwa.

The impetus for this degree of intentionality at Plow Creek came from a study of the book The Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2, which talks about people sharing food and goods in common. People who joined Plow Creek did so with a great deal of deliberation on both the part of the existing community and the prospective members, because joining meant sharing money and property in a common purse. It meant, essentially, a commitment that felt lifelong, even though it turns out that was rarely the case. Many of the members, like my parents, came from the Jesus Freak movement of the 1960’s, they were hippies who didn’t smoke weed or wife-swap. Love was free, but there was no Free Love. Oh, and they were pacifists. Yeah… That was popular in rural Illinois. You bet.

I have seen people being intentional about what sort of community they engage in, and give their lives to, to an extreme degree. Once you joined, decisions were made by consensus (though I won’t say there wasn’t coercion from time to time).

Communes have fallen out of style– there are significant social problems within the system, not the last of which is the problem of slackers (once people have joined, you’ve got to feed them even if they don’t produce much, whether cash or crops, which is an economic drain on the system. You’ve voluntarily and permanently laid down the choice to give out of your own personal abundance and generosity, which is a good thing to do, until you don’t have any recourse not to do it). It’s hard to hold people accountable if you’ve got so much grace invested in the relationship that you can’t just, well, ex-communicate them. And if you’re not willing to end the relationship, you’re sort of stuck in an enabling vortex. Another problem is the relative isolation. It’s sort of what they wanted, but in rural Illinois, there weren’t many neighbors who could relate to the lifestyle and ideologies Plow Creekers espoused. Perhaps for another day: intentional communities: open or closed?

One thing I did learn is that if you want to be a leader who finishes well, you do need some sort of intentional community. You need commitment to a group of people who can hold you accountable, you need an out for extreme circumstances, and if you need to duck out for some reason then you need to get plugged back in right away somewhere else. The key is that you’re the one being intentional. Others will inevitably not be as committed to you as you are to the concept, if you’re truly embracing it.

We see this now in the coaching world. Those who want authentic community and are willing to be intentional about it will sign a coaching agreement, with regular check ins not only for their own growth but for the progress of the relationship with the coach as well. This can be done with a peer coach (taking turns) or a professional coach, a mentor or “Paul” and a downward mentor or “Timothy” and with a variety of other people you commit to sharing your life with.

People are sometimes surprised to find that I have a coach too. (This probably stems from the misunderstanding people have that ‘life coaches have it all figured out and will tell you what to do with your life’ which couldn’t be further from what coaches really do.)

I work every month with Mark. Mark’s a professionally trained coach and we exchange peer coaching. I also have another friend named Mark who isn’t a coach at all, but we’re best buddies and we’re intentional about talking about the temptations we face. I have another friend named Jonathan who meets with Megan and I monthly to check in with us on our growth as artists, as a couple, and as people who are serious about community. We pay Jonathan. I meet with Ralph for discipleship (I’m the “Timothy”). I meet with K. C. twice a year for coaching supervision through an organization that I contract with. In total that’s five people, two of whom get paid for working with me and three who don’t. Two of them live in my town, one in another part of the state, and two in Colorado. It’s not unusual for me to have a meeting almost every week with at least one of them. This isn’t anything like Plow Creek, yet everything about it reflects how I grew up: you don’t float through life on your own. Not because you’re trying to be a slacker: in fact, precisely the opposite.

By the way, Megan and I attend church regularly. None of the people I mentioned attend the same congregation we do. It’s sort of ironic but right now I have a lot less formal, intentional relationships within my congregation. I also run a nonprofit and none of these coaches or mentors are on the board. But I’m intentional about communicating with both of those groups too: my pastors know what’s going on, and so does my board. The key is that in every area of your life; from your marriage and sexuality to your career and spiritual life; from the addictions you’re kicking to the dreams you’re pursuing, you’ve got somebody you check in with. That’s how we do intentional community. That’s the whole point of this series. There’s value here.