The beauty of coaching is that it can fit around other work — you can start with a few hours a week alongside your other work. This also infuses your other roles with the benefits of coaching. Both myself and my coach friends agree that when we started coaching, our other careers also accelerated. Coaching made me a better leader, and leadership experience made me a better coach. It’s a virtuous circle!
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 Maya Gudka.
Maya Gudka, MSc, MA (Cantab) is an Executive Coach and Researcher. Following a successful career as an Economics consultant, she now coaches global leaders as part of an elite group of executive coaches at London Business School (LBS), Acuity Coaching and Wonder Source. Her research with LBS and University of East London looks at Positive Leadership and Digital Flourishing. She hosts the podcast ‘The Golden Hour’ about creating strategic time each day for your work, self and relationships.
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’d love to give you a dramatic story where I burned out, hit rock bottom and then saw the light but the reality is that I was drawn to self-help from a very young age, reading Steven Covey at age 8, and recommending self-help books to my parents and anyone else from then onwards! However, the concept of life coach was very new then and it didn’t seem like a viable career.
After receiving a First in Economics from the University of Cambridge, I decided to become an economist and kicked off my career on the adrenaline-fueled trading floor at Goldman Sachs, followed by economics consulting at PwC and KPMG. Because I was doing all the complex analysis, I had a seat some pretty big tables, and I was thrown into the deep end a lot — sent abroad in my early 20s to oversee big regulatory transformations, and face animosity from those who were resisting the change — in the long run it all made me pretty fearless in the workplace.
It was only when I became a young leader at KPMG that I received Executive Coaching myself, and realized it could play such a valuable role in the business world. The penny dropped and I started a journey of transition towards becoming an Executive Coach and Positive Psychology researcher / writer.
For a while it seemed like a struggle to maneuver my career like this, and people questioned why I didn’t stick with the more ‘high profile’ economics work. It’s only in the last few years that the economics and business background, combined with the psychology training, has paid off as a powerful combination for executive coaching.
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?
Networking — I worked hard, but practically every promotion I received also had sponsorship, cultivated through nurturing key relationships. For example, as a young manager, I put myself forward for a Director role at KPMG, which would mean skipping a grade- this was something that was never done! But because I also headed up and transformed the Women’s Network, and therefore worked closely with KPMG board members who knew what I was capable of, they advocated for me and I was put forward for the role.
Not being a perfectionist — I focused on communication over perfection. People knew they could trust me with huge projects because I really took ownership. But rather than trying to bust a gut, making my teams reach impossible deadlines, I focused on foreseeing issues and communicating about the buffers we needed to build in. This kind of thinking was unusual and appreciated by my team and my clients. The lack of perfectionism, and becoming a coach, also meant I was very comfortable with letting go and investing time coaching my team members to deliver so I could focus on the big picture and building the business.
Confidence — I’ve been told that I come across with quiet self assurance. I’m not sure I do, but maybe it is more than the average person and that’s all you need! I’ve never held back from asking for opportunities and having the tough conversations — especially when I wanted to move roles. This is never easy because your team will always want to hang on to you — but I worked hard to both preserve those relationships whilst also moving on and gaining the experience I saw as most important at the time.
How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
I’ll be honest. In my 20s I wasn’t very good at habits. I would try and then fail to establish them. But I still had some tools in my box — regular journaling to reflect and goal-set; and always learning through coaching or training. As a qualified aerobics instructor I also did lots of exercise and dance — I was in a dance troupe that trained frequently.
In my 30s, my kids have given me more routines to hang my habits on, and I’ve enjoyed creating rituals (habits with soul!) around my core habit of waking up early and doing my deep work (my Golden Hour).
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?
The habit of waking up early was my saviour last year during homeschooling, doing a masters, and also running my coaching business. It could have been a stressful time, but every day I woke up just before 5am, brushed my teeth, made coffee and sat down at my desk. I had a mountain to climb with the masters, but I knew that if I just got those three steps done, I would be on track and I would have 3–4 uninterrupted hours of deep work.
Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?
I am in the tiny habits camp! I believe that trying to do everything at once, like I did in my 20s, results in a faddy approach. I take one reliable habit (in my case I know I will have coffee!), and slowly add extra rituals to it, e.g. adding a better skincare routine to basic teeth brushing.
Bad habits are a huge topic! My research would suggest taking an experimentation-approach to this, to understand what does and doesn’t work for you. I personally like to use big events to make a clearly defined break in habit, which I learned from Gretchen Rubin. For example, getting Covid in January naturally meant I stopped drinking. This creates initial distance between you and the habit. Then you’re able to do the real work — of understanding your triggers, working with your cravings (they are actually a sign that you are progressing — if you manage to overcome them), and creating new wonderful rituals to replace them.
The key is not to focus too much on the ‘bad habit’ but rather the great things you gain (e.g. a clear head) from changing the behavior, and make sure you have your coping toolkit ready when the trigger or craving strikes.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
‘Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished’ Lao Tzu.
As someone who is action oriented and brings a lot of energy to what I do, I can also be impatient for results. This quote reminds me of my more intuitive and spiritual side, and stops me trying to rush things, or get disheartened.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
As well as coaching I am also a researcher, and supervise the research of others. The research topics are closely related to my coaching & I love being so close to the newest evidence-based insights! I’m currently working on 3 research projects which I’m really excited about:
- Flourishing through Social Media — I analyzed 120 peer-reviewed academic papers to understand how we can use social media more constructively. I have created a framework (in press), which I hope will help people access the opportunities social media brings whilst managing the mental health risks
- Burnout, workaholism and having a work calling — my research student is currently researching the relationship between these three constructs, and I am supervising. Burnout has been a huge topic of late and this is a fascinating take on the subject, particularly for people like my clients who work hard and are passionate about their work
- Leadership development through experimentation — I’ve been doing a large research project with London Business School and a big financial institution. The results show how we can learn and change through different types of experimentation and the importance of leadership identity.
Each of these projects are very relevant to the contemporary challenges in work and life today, and often inspired by my coaching clients.
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.
- A definition of what ‘highly successful’ means to you! First things first! How many hours of coaching do you want to do per week, at what rates, with which clients? What else constitutes success for you? This answer will be different for everyone. If you don’t define it clearly, you won’t know when you get there, and you’ll use other people’s measures of success! Write it down. Email it to yourself. I did this a decade ago. At the time it seemed utterly wishful — the numbers didn’t seem to add up. I dug it out last year and was shocked at how it matched my current reality — but of course, a lot can happen in a decade!
- Portfolio — The beauty of coaching is that it can fit around other work — you can start with a few hours a week alongside your other work. This also infuses your other roles with the benefits of coaching. Both myself and my coach friends agree that when we started coaching, our other careers also accelerated. Coaching made me a better leader, and leadership experience made me a better coach. It’s a virtuous circle!
- Anchor brands. For my B2B work, my association with London Business School, and all the blue chip companies I have coached, really helps. For My B2C work, being associated with platforms known for carefully vetting their coaches, such as Wonder Source, has given me access to individuals who would otherwise not have known about me and opened up my services beyond my own referral network and social networks.
- Your unique wisdom & expertise — Coaching is something people often come to after life and work experience and the beauty of coaching is that it complements so many other fields. Another person with identical training to you simply does not have the networks and precise experience that you do. Fully leveraging your past experience can give you unique wisdom and a ready-made niche. E.g. for a mentee with experience in the beverages industry, I suggested he tapped up his contacts in this space to let them know his change of career. It was a simple connection but one he hadn’t yet made, between his previous career and his new aspirations. He now does consulting and coaching work with major drinks brands using his coaching and positive psychology training, as well as his prior industry experience and network.
- Personal growth — I believe coaches need to have great empathy and warmth. They need to hold a non-judgmental safe space for their clients. This will come easier to some than others, but all coaches need to work on themselves — through supervision and training. This helps you appreciate what you’re uniquely gifted at in coaching, and where you need to develop further.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen coaches make when they start their business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
- Over-training — with the explosion of coaching courses it is easy to spend all year learning. Learning is wonderful but I always try to do it alongside, not instead of, actual paid work. This way I can put it into practice immediately, and use the training to win new opportunities
- .. and under networking — my opportunities have come from existing work networks, or new contacts I have cultivated through social media. This requires a systematic approach. Yet they don’t teach you much about this on coaching courses.
- Too much time building your website rather than getting referrals — I delayed updating my website till I absolutely had to. In the interim, I used social media and Wonder Source as a shop front. My website was better once I was established and knew what problems I was solving for my clients. Plus it’s easy to tinker with your website and procrastinate about doing the hard work of winning big coaching contracts!
- Thinking you can do it alone — as soon as you can afford it, get support — a high quality online auto-scheduler (I use OnceHub), a virtual assistant, help with content or website for marketing. Nowadays we are told that marketing is easy — ‘just use social media’. The problem is we then have to do it all ourselves and get burned out, or are inconsistent with what we do.
- Being impatient, then inconsistent — It might take longer than you expect to build up your coaching practice. Stick with it. When I worked inside organizations, my biggest coaching breaks came when the business need arose for coaching and I was able to deliver it, rather than when I was pushing for it.
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.
My no1. tip is to make sure you are also receive coaching. I’ve had eight coaches over the past ten years! When you’re ready, actually pay for coaching too. This is the best way for understanding what it’s like to be in the clients’ shoes and know what really makes a difference for them. For example, I’ve learned the following on customer experience:
Get the basics right — don’t reschedule at the last minute or ideally at all, have a clear system for responding and scheduling clients, have a good but brief introductory email, turn up 5 minutes early. I was told early on that ‘coaching begins before you’re in the room together’. So don’t outsource this communication to a virtual assistant unless they can do it better than you would.
If you are faultless with the above, then you can let your actual coaching speak for itself. I recently paid for coaching and my coach turned up late and it made me quite irritated at the start of the session.
Finally this might sound obvious but you’ve got to actually care — I’ve received a lot of coaching as well as delivered it, I can now tell when I have a coach who was born to do what they are doing, versus someone who is not all in, or just there for the money. Be the former!
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?
I would break this down into three phases:
Phase 1 — Early stage: tap your personal and professional networks. Start having coffees with the gatekeepers who purchase coaching or who assess coaches for coach pools, and put yourself out there as a coach.
Phase 2 — Build anchors :
- For B2B — your existing workplace or collaboration partners are key for B2B work. The aim is to find ‘anchor organizations’ who know and trust you, who you can regularly send you clients. It might seem hard initially to maneuver this, but if you manage it, its the golden egg.
- For B2C — similarly, being on a vetted online platform like Wonder Source was fantastic during the pandemic — I received clients from completely outside my existing network, who trusted me because Wonder Source had done the hard work of finding and vetting me.
Phase 3 — Showcase expertise — share your expertise on the platforms which are best for you. Decide how you wish your wider audience to get to know you — it might be through a podcast, speaking events or blogs. By the time they reach out to you, they already know, like and trust you.
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?
Firstly, nurture your support system. Striking out on your own, and making career transitions is hard. My masters (in Coaching Psychology and Positive Psychology) gave me an incredible support structure — my peers provide me with encouragement, ideas and opportunities — because having your own business can be lonely!
Secondly — and I do this a lot with clients too — build your coping toolkit.Mine includes Epsom salt baths, walks, journaling and planning, stretching, the Aura meditation app, cuddling my kids, coffee-planning sessions with my husband.
Thirdly, don’t fall prey to every latest trend. Pick the essential activities you need to get going with and focus on those — we are in the digital overload era after all. I like to keep my nose to the ground as there are always new ways to interact digitally. But, this is only around the edges of my work, and because I enjoy it. My core plan for each quarter doesn’t waver too much.
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 spent a lot of last year researching, and sharing how we can better use social media for flourishing. I uncovered a simple framework to help 54% of the world that uses social media, to use it in ways that support rather than detract from wellbeing and flourishing. This research seems to resonate with people and I am keen to spread this more widely — so that young people, and adults can access the opportunities from social media whilst managing the risks.
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.
Cal Newport. I love his podcast and his books. Because he is an academic, he often shares research-related hacks, which has helped me as I straddle both the academic and business world.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
My podcast, The Golden Hour where I talk about starting with making just one hour great each day.
Learn more: https://www.wondersource.com/profiles/maya-gudka
And follow me on Linkedin, Twitter, and Instagram!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!