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.

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Are you Gucci?

I have a recent customer who’s hired me several times. This young lady calls me “Gucci.”

Did you know Gucci was back? Did you know that means I’m high class? (I had to ask. Wasn’t sure if I was being insulted or not.)

It’s funny because I associate it with knockoff handbags made in sweatshops sold by people (usually immigrants who can’t get other work) who lay them out on blankets at the beaches in foreign tourist destinations. Malaga, Spain, comes to mind. Not high class at all. Cheap imitations. I spend more time in those kinds of places than on Fifth Avenue.

Be the real deal. Be yourself, not an imitation of somebody else. Otherwise you give everybody a black eye: both yourself and the famous guy. Let other people compare your work to the big names, but only because you have unique class, not because you ripped off their brand.