To be a successful coach, you don’t have to have all of the answers or know everything, but you need to give off solid vibes which usually comes from knowing who you are, what you offer, and believing in the value you bring. I’m not an expert in everything (or even most things) and I say that with confidence. When I don’t know something, I admit “I don’t know” and seek consultation from someone who does or conduct research to figure it out. I’m confident in my ability to do that.
The coaching industry is now tremendous. It is a 15 billion dollar industry. Many professionals have left their office jobs to become highly successful coaches. At the same time, not everyone who starts a coaching business sees success. What does someone starting a career as a life coach, wellness coach, or business coach need to know to turn it into a very successful and rewarding career?
In this interview series, called “Five Things You Need To Create a Highly Successful Career As a Life or Business Coach” we are interviewing experienced and successful life coaches, wellness coaches, fitness coaches, business and executive coaches and other forms of coaches who share the strategies you need to create a successful career as a life or business coach.
In this particular interview, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Katherine Kirkinis.
Katherine Kirkinis, Ed.M., M.A., is the co-founder of Wanderlust Careers, one of the top career coaching firms in New York City (a woman- and LGBTQ-owned business). She specializes in working with people who dissatisfied at work, looking to make a career change, and/or struggling with career indecision. She has successfully guided hundreds of clients and placed them at top companies like Google, Apollo, Palantir, etc. She is a published author and a Ph.D. candidate in psychology where her work focuses on diversity and inclusion, racism in the workplace, and race-based trauma.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and what brought you to this particular career path?
I started my career as a master-level psychotherapist in a private practice in Brooklyn, NY working with young adults around identity issues (racial and gender identity). As you can imagine, career and identity are intertwined for many people. My work naturally became more centered around themes of career identity and clients’ desires to feel more fulfillment and alignment at work.
My practice became popular — my psychotherapist friends dreaded working with clients’ career indecision and sent their clients with career issues to me for focused, short-term work. At first, I had no way other than the traditional route (10–12 sessions) to help. I was frustrated by the length of time it took to help clients find career direction and by how unfair it was that only people who could afford career coaching got the support they needed (career coaching is generally not covered by medical insurance). I was helping a lot of wealthy, White people become even more successful in their careers, and not helping the people who needed it most (i.e., those who are under-resourced and/or systematically oppressed). Furthermore, the typical career coaches in my community felt unrelatable — they tended to be straight, White, older, and with only corporate experience. My desire to make career coaching more accessible fueled me to go back to school to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology and to examine elements of career assessment and psychological testing.
It took a few years of experimentation to compile the right set of career assessments that would provide the quick relief and career direction my clients were seeking. I found that with the right combination of career assessments and using a data-driven approach, I could help my clients get much-needed direction in as little as a few weeks, at a much lower price point. I founded Wanderlust Careers and started doing Career Assessment and Testing exclusively. As my work evolved, so did my clients’ needs. We added supportive online Career Coaching and other services covering Resume, Cover Letter, LinkedIn, and Higher/Continuing Education services.
As the business grew, I teamed up the smartest, most talented person I know to help: Dr. Michael McCutcheon, our co-founder, who is the head of the Career Coaching arm of our business. Since then, we’ve been sharing our skills and expertise with the world, working with clients all over the U.S. and internationally, helping them to find and build happy, fulfilling lives that meet both their financial and emotional needs.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Creativity: I try to embrace creative, outside-of-the-box thinking — my mom is an artist and I grew up with a lot of “creative encouragement”. She is supportive of any wacky idea I have and has plenty of her own. I’m not sure if creativity is innate or learned, but she definitely encouraged me and my siblings to explore and innovate without shame or restriction. Innovating novel solutions (i.e., solving a pain point for society and offering something new that others are not) has played a role the company’s success.
High Self-Worth & No Expectations: This isn’t so much a trait, but a mindset. I grew up in a pretty traditional family where, as a woman, I was expected to get married and have children, but I don’t think anyone had big expectations of me in terms of career. It sounds like a bummer, but it was actually really liberating. My worth in others’ eyes was never about my success in a career. I’m not married and I don’t have children, and there was a time where my ego took a hit because of that (it still creeps up on me sometimes!), but I’ve worked hard to develop a strong sense of internal validation, self-worth, and self-esteem (rather than other-esteem). I see examples of the interplay between gender and self-worth with clients a lot — when male-identified people get laid off and/or have bouts of unemployment, it hits tends to them hard. They often become deeply depressed, and sometimes become unmotivated and stuck. This is likely because much of their self-worth comes from the expectation by society that to have worth, they need to be able to earn money and be a provider. When female-identified or non-binary people lose a job, they don’t seem to take it as hard and can more easily let it roll off, get back out there, and move on to the next opportunity. There are certainly exceptions to this pattern, but this is what I have observed anecdotally. I think having a strong sense of self-worth and no (or loose) expectations is what has allowed me to try new things and risk failure.
Feminism: I have found that a feminist way of being — valuing collaboration, equity, and power balancing — has been especially important, both clinically and as a leader. That is, I share power with others as much as possible. I value personal empowerment, equality, and others’ strengths. My goal as a feminist leader is to assist people (clients and colleagues) in viewing themselves as active agents on their own behalf and to recognize, claim, and embrace their personal power. I learned this concept as a therapeutic orientation in grad school, but I think it works well for creating a trusting, autonomous work environment, which has played a part in our success.
How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
I have a routine that doesn’t change much. I go to bed/wake up at the same time every day (early); I carve out about 3 hours of personal time in the morning (30–60 minutes of exercise, listening to podcasts, eating, etc.). I eat the same meal for breakfast for months until I get bored and my weekday clothing choices are not exciting. Structure and routine help me a lot, but I don’t think that’s right for everyone. Some people need to have a lot of variety and a more rotational approach where they take lots of breaks and switch things up is better. Others are slower starters and need time to warm up before they get going for the day. Everyone has to find the healthy habits that work best for them.
This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?
For me, habits mean routine and routine means I don’t have to think, which opens up brain space for thinking about other, more important and/or creative ideas. If my mornings are on autopilot, I can daydream about things I want to make or change. Sometimes the space created from routine just gives me space to process whatever is going on in my life (that’s probably more often the case to be honest!) The healthy habits also help me to stay on my routine. If I go out drinking all night, I’ll be hungover, sleep in, not exercise — it creates a domino effect of negativity for me. When I don’t take good care of myself, I’m not my best self and certainly not as productive.
Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?
Habits are complicated! There’s a ton of research on developing good and stopping bad habits. The psychology nerd response is about cues and rewards. Habits rely on context cues (e.g., reminders) and rewards. Some habits are hard to develop because they don’t have an immediate reward, and sometimes starting a new habit can feel like #&[email protected] (e.g., daily exercise when you’re first starting out). I exercise regularly now, and the endorphins are a good enough of a reward these days, but in the beginning, I used washing my hair as a reward — I wouldn’t wash it without making it sweaty first! There was a time that I had such a powerful aversion to physical activity, that there were periods where I dry shampooed my way through a week. Getting rid of bad habits? I try to replace them with new, healthier habits (and rewards), although some habits die harder than others. It’s tough!
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
Don’t sleep with someone on the first date. Just kidding. I think my biggest life lesson recently has been to have an abundance mindset (as opposed to a scarcity mindset). So much of life is about perspective, and the thing that I think we all forget, is that we can choose our perspective. I try to choose abundance. When a potential lead doesn’t work out, you can get anxious and make fear-based decisions (e.g., give a discount you’re uncomfortable with), or you can choose abundance, let it go, and trust that there will be many, many more opportunities to come your way. This resonates for me because it comes up so frequently! So many things end, leave, or don’t work out — in business and in life. We can freak out and live in the fear that there’s not enough to go around, that all the good ones are taken, or we can rest in the peace of knowing that this world is big, abundant, and there is always more.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I’m most excited about our new, online data-driven career services platform which makes the Career Testing & Assessment process faster, easier, and more affordable. We’re utilizing the same battery of tests that help people struggling with career indecision and gain career direction, but making it available virtually. We collect data about who users are and what drives them to get out of their bed in the morning to go to work. We assess their interests, skills, personality, values, and work style to help users to make a data-driven career decision that’s going to be satisfying long-term. We conduct an integrative interpretation (i.e., combined qualitative and quantitative data). From there, we’re able to combine multiple sources of data, draw connections, and pick out specific job titles that would be strong fits for users. It’s unique in its hybrid model, combining one-on-one career coaching with a digital product/platform to perform integrative career assessment, making Career Assessment and Ph.D.-level career coaches more affordable and widely accessible.
The other thing I’m excited about is our social justice services. We are also dedicated to resisting the dehumanizing experience of discrimination and oppression and offer low-fee services to users who can’t afford them. It’s our goal to challenge, confront, and help individuals to overcome identity-based discrimination in their careers, break barriers, and to obtain fulfilling, well-paid positions in careers they love.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many coaches are successful, but some are not very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful coaches from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need to Create a Highly Successful Career as a Life or Business Coach”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
My five things:
- Confidence — Confidence is huge. I’ve met with coaches who don’t have confidence in themselves and it shows. I recently did a bunch of sample sessions with business coaches for myself (coaches need coaching too!) and there were multiple coaches who were very knowledgeable, but hesitated when speaking, lost their train of thought, seemed intimidated by me, etc. Their self-consciousness was distracting and didn’t make me feel safe in their hands. To be a successful coach, you don’t have to have all of the answers or know everything, but you need to give off solid vibes which usually comes from knowing who you are, what you offer, and believing in the value you bring. I’m not an expert in everything (or even most things) and I say that with confidence. When I don’t know something, I admit “I don’t know” and seek consultation from someone who does or conduct research to figure it out. I’m confident in my ability to do that.
- Internal Validation — Relying only on external validation or “other esteem” gets coaches (myself included!) into trouble. With that mentality, what your clients think of you is everything and you become far too people-pleasing to be effective. Yes, we all want to be liked — that’s tribe mentality and it’s engrained in us for survival. But we need to challenge this. I say this as a recovering people-pleaser myself. A successful coach needs to be able to say the hard things and give real feedback to clients. This can be done gently and with tact, of course, and that’s a skill we all can learn. I can think of many occasions where I had to give difficult feedback to a client. I remember a sweet young man with a supervisor who “hated” him and he couldn’t understand why their relationship was so strained. After working with this man, I realized he was pissing off his supervisor because he asked one million questions about every task that was asked of him. It was scary to bring this pattern up with my client — I didn’t want to hurt his feelings and I didn’t want him to not like me! But at the end of the day, he needed some constructive feedback. The courage you need to give real/difficult feedback comes from not needing validation or approval from others.
- Humanism — Humanism and empathy are core to what we do as people in the helping profession. I imagine that all coaches have a natural ability be feel and show empathy and that is likely what brings them to this field. However, life being what it is, we sometimes get busy, over booked, overwhelmed, stressed, etc. and our warmth tends to crack under these types of pressures. We start to lose it in our email responses — instead of a greeting and closing, we send a one-line response. We lose it in our sessions — we forget to say “hi” and ask how someone’s day is going before launching into the session. It’s not always easy to remember these small acts of human kindness, but I think including this in every interaction is what separates the good and the great.
- Customer Service — It’s all about the customer. One of my first jobs when I was in high school was at Bloomingdales where “the customer is always right”. Bloomingdales treats customers well — they don’t put up fights on returns and they try to accommodate whenever possible, which builds loyal customers. I try to do the same with our clients. You can’t make everyone happy all the time, but you choose how you treat clients. For us, this means responding to emails quickly, being flexible, and treating clients with respect and grace.
- Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity — A big part of the work we do is about social justice and working to level the playing field for everyone. We try to do this with our own hiring and training practices and with our social justice services, offering significant discounts to people of oppressed identities who are earning a low income. Even if you don’t have a large practice with multiple employees, you can diversify your vendors and choose to work with LGBTQ- and/or BIPOC-owned businesses, for example. I think part of being a successful in anything is empowering and bringing people up with you. To me, that’s real success.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen coaches make when they start their business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The most common mistake I see is not choosing a niche. Most coaches market themselves as “life coaches”, which is very general. I think people are afraid to choose a niche because they’re afraid they will pigeon hole themselves and not be able to get out, or that they will lose out on clients who don’t identify with their niche. Pigeon holes are a myth — you can always expand your skills and specialties. Yes, you will lose out on clients who don’t identify with your niche, but you will lose more by not having one. Everyone wants a specialist who understands them and their unique issues, not a generalist who works with everyone. So choose an area or population that you’re excited about, preferably one that your community/society needs, and then add on to it as you grow and expand.
Based on your experience and success, what are a few of the most important things a coach should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience? Please share a story or an example for each.
Asking, listening, and being detail-oriented: It’s important, especially as a coach, to remember names, places, relationships etc. I ask for the names of their partner, kids, etc. and I take notes. Before I meet a client again, I review the notes so everything is fresh in my mind. It’s also important to me that I pronounce people’s names correctly, so I ask if I’m not sure.
Non-judgement: I have had clients that feel shame about their values (e.g., valuing high earnings above all else). I’d be lying if I said I was “non-judgmental” about everything, I’m not. I have judgements, opinions, and my own set of values. But who am I to tell someone what to value? I try to take a stance of non-judgement meaning that I get on board with my clients’ values and what they want for their lives. My job is to help them to build the life they want — not to convince them otherwise. I may challenge them and offer an alternative perspective, but at the end of the day, it’s their life. I also try to have compassion — oftentimes I find out that clients who value high earnings above all else had some type of financial trauma growing up (e.g., parental employment volatility, poverty, etc.)
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business, and particularly in coaching. What are the best ways for a coach to find customers? Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
Word-of-mouth is huge for us — if you provide great, supportive customer experiences your former clients will become your best marketers. Reviews are also key, especially from user-driven websites like Yelp and/or Google. However, when I first started and had no clients, I purchased ads with Google AdWords, and that’s how I got my first client! I networked in my community too and have since gotten a lot of referrals from auxiliary professionals (e.g., psychotherapists, psychiatrists, divorce mediators, etc.). I also love writing and have pitched media outlets on articles I wanted to write. Most online media publications have a “submit a pitch” button at the bottom of their website.
Coaches are similar to startup founders who often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to end up burning the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to your fellow coaches about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting their business?
I choose not to burn the candle at both ends. I work a lot, but I also prioritize my sleep, exercise, and social life. I think prioritizing yourself is the most powerful thing you can do for your clients and your business. Healthy selfishness (i.e., advocating to meet your own needs first) is generally a healthy choice, especially in the helping professions. To quote the airlines, “please don’t help others until you put on your oxygen mask first”.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I want to make our Career Testing & Assessment accessible to most people and to implement it at a younger age (e.g., for high school- and college-aged people). We’re working on it! There are other products out there with this aim, but they’re all so disconnected. They’ll give people one test, and it will tell them to be a farmer when they live in NYC or it will tell them to be a physician when they don’t have the resources to attend medical school. The tests that are out there aren’t multidimensional and they don’t take people’s boundaries, barriers, or unique circumstances into consideration.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would be delighted to have lunch with Tim Ferriss. I’m a huge fan. I think he is so brilliant and resourceful. I’ve been so inspired by his career and what he’s built, but even more so, I’ve been inspired by his vulnerability and authenticity, especially in terms of his mental health. It was his book, the 4HWW, that inspired me to put up a website and start this business in the first place! I also feel like we’re already friends because of the 100’s of hours I’ve spent listening to him on his podcast. Hi, Tim!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!