Coaching with Dolly

I was flicking through the sleeve notes for Dolly Parton’s latest album (in the passenger seat) on a long drive to York recently when I was reminded of a recent conversation with a new coaching client.

My client’s goal is to develop a new area of business in which to apply the skills that she has. It will take her into new arenas and require her to know and value what she brings.

One of the hard things in moving into a new business is to know what prospective customers want. And to act on that without distorting or diminishing what you offer. Dolly’s approach is to show “all the colours of my life” in all the areas of music that she embraces. She’s proud of her repertoire and range. And as we ‘market’ ourselves, we should be similarly proud.

My client said she wanted to know what I had learned from developing a coaching business. As a coach, this request sits uneasily with me. My way is unlikely to be her way. But can I share what I learned? Dolly helps with this: “I don’t like to give advice. I like to give people information because everyone’s life is different, and everyone’s journey is different.” So what information do I have about what has worked for me?

  • Show your true colours: showing yourself as you are rather than as you think your clients will want you to be. That way you get the right clients on the right basis.
  • Be prepared to put some people off: some people don’t like country music (in fact I’m not a big fan but Dolly is different). This is the price of showing who you are. But it leads to a better fit.
  • Adopt the reputation you want to create: coaches and others struggle to communicate what they are about. So what would you most like your clients to say about you? What do you want to make true? Dolly says: “Find out who you are and do it on purpose”.
  • Don’t sound like everyone else: coach profiles on Linkedin or individual websites seem inter-changeable to me. They use the same words, make the same claims, have the same feel. There’s nothing wrong with them. They’re just not very interesting. I suspect this is also true for businesses other than coaching.
  • Be bold in what you call yourself: this is part of not sounding like everyone else. I don’t pretend to have cracked this. But I like it when I find a “business story-teller” rather than a “communications consultant”, or a “provocative listener” rather than a coach.
  • Find your voice through many iterations: it is hard to be interesting, to show yourself in a compelling way, to find the reputation you want. So experiment, talk to people, notice how you explain yourself, listen to what they say to you, try drafts on clients and colleagues, imagine you’re speaking to a bright 4 year old who is about to become bored, repeat and revisit.
  • Network with a purpose that fits your values: I struggled with business-to-business networking events. And I felt uncomfortable schmoozing corporate gate-keepers and influential past clients. That was until I got interested in them. Once I started going with a spirit of inquiry, with the goal of discovery, then I relaxed. No hard sell, just conversation. And that meant they saw me as I coach. And that brings the right business.
  • Be clear about your business model: you can go solo, collaborate, form a partnership, be an associate, build an empire. Which do you want? That guides the work you do and what you say about yourself.
  • Decide on niche or range: few coaches make a living just from coaching. And some, like me, find synergy from teaching and facilitating on the leadership issues that many coaching clients bring. What’s your offer?
  • Do work that excites you, turn the other stuff down: this takes some courage, especially when you’re starting out or if times are hard. But your best work is your best marketing. And your best work requires you to be excited and engaged. Saying what you will and won’t do shows clarity and integrity.
  • Invest in yourself: or as Dolly observes: “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.”

In many ways, all this is the business case for authenticity. You owe it to your clients: they know what they’re getting. And you owe it to yourself. In the words of Janis Joplin: “Don’t compromise yourself honey, you’re all you’ve got.” Or in Dolly’s inimitable style: “I’m comfortable in my own skin, no matter how far it’s stretched.”

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