Personal coaches have exploded into the business mainstream. Time-strapped professionals are seeking the services of such "gurus" at an increasing rate, often for worthy reasons. Some of the more common include a desire to balance personal and professional life; to clarify true values and implement them effectively; and to create a plan for excelling in the workplace and/or moving up the corporate hierarchy. But who are the individuals who make up the field, which was relatively unknown only a few years ago? What do they really do and what are their credentials? And, most important, can you benefit by working with one? The focus of this article is to shed light on the real role of a personal coach and offer concrete steps for selecting the right one. I have discussed the recent phenomena that is personal coaching with Anneli Driessen, who is president of W.I.N. Inc. Executive Coaching, Counseling and Consulting Services and has received her designation as master certified coach. She's had a successful private counseling practice in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, since 1978, specializing in individual therapy and relationships, and now coaches executives and chief executive officers of large corporations in several countries. Despite the heightened media coverage, many people, when asked, don't know what personal coaching is or entails. Driessen offers an excellent description she once heard: "Coaching is like having a personal trainer for your soul." It's her belief that coaching is a service in a one-to-one relationship between an individual with a professional coach (mentor, consultant) who assists in clarifying, articulating, prioritizing and achieving personal or professional goals. As a result, coaching helps to increase the results the client wants in life, work, spirit and relationships, and to overcome obstacles, circumstances and resistance. No substitute for therapy Often, however, there's a perceived blurring of the roles of a coach and therapist. Coaching is clearly not a substitute for therapy, nor is it intended for people with emotional problems. It's about creating results rather than dealing with crisis. As for the recent popularity, Driessen feels there's no conclusive answer. She's researched several trends in the psychology and therapy field, with the biggest being that they've been losing business for 10 years. Why? She believes people perceive that they have more readily accessible help. (Just consider the popularity of Oprah and Dr. Laura). She also cites the negative connotation associated with therapy that isn't associated with coaching. That might be because coaching is rooted in sports and is geared for enhancing specific skills and reaching the oft-cited state of "peak performance." Some people want coaching on very specific areas, such as dealing with employees or handling a merger, and the results can be quick and dramatic. Coaching provides a more cost-effective way of maintaining a sense of balance. Considering that most coaching is done primarily on the phone, it's very time-efficient. Additionally, with the aid of technology, clients don't have to travel to their coaches' office because they can receive very effective advice via e-mail and even video conferencing. Anyone can benefit Although Driessen often works with executives, she truly believes coaching isn't exclusive. Anyone who truly desires personal and professional growth with specific results can benefit. Clients range from entry-level professionals wanting to chart a quick ascent within their company to the veteran executive wanting to give back to the community. Regardless of age or whether it's personal or career improvements desired, an effective coach can help. Remember, however, that coaches don't fix things. They enhance things. The decision to seek out and work with a coach is very personal. And, unfortunately, according to Driessen, anyone can use the title "coach." Consequently, an increasing amount of "flakes" are doing just that with the hope of cashing in on the recent growth explosion. She says the most important step you can take is to thoroughly check a coach's credentials to guard against getting burned. The next step is to trust your intuition. The whole basis for the relationship is one of trust. Most credible coaches offer complimentary engagement conversations, which last approximately 30 minutes. During that time, you get to know one another and can better determine whether your working together will generate the desired outcome. Driessen further recommends that you work with a master certified coach (MCC) who's certified by the International Coach Federation. The ICF's purpose is to assure the public that officially certified coaches meet or exceed clearly defined standards and competencies. It does that by offering the MCC designation. An MCC pledges to operate within the ICF Code of Ethics and Standards of Conduct, can document at least 200 hours of coaching-specific training and 20 hours of individual mentoring, supply at least 10 client references, document at least 2,500 coaching client hours, and must have passed a written and oral exam, to name several of the requirements. The decision to work with a personal coach is very personal and has a tremendous upside in terms of life and career improvement. If you're interested, visit Driessen's site at http://www.annelicoach.com, and the ICF's at http://www.coachfederation.org. Roy Chitwood is an author, trainer and consultant in sales and sales management and is president of Max Sacks International, Seattle.