Most of us have heard of a “life coach” but have little idea who they are or what they do.
We talked to Lauren Zander, a top New York-based life coach, who makes an enviable living off of motivating others to achieve success and happiness. She is the cofounder and chairman of The Handel Group, a network of life coaches with top-tier clients. As we chatted over the phone, she was on her way to spend four hours with a client in the Hamptons.
Zander has been a life coach for the past 16 years and makes $US400,000 annually, from her role at The Handel Group, teaching gigs at elite schools, and television appearances. Today, she coaches between 10 and 15 clients at a rate of $US500 an hour and spends most of her time developing her business.
As a professional life coach, Zander is part therapist, drill sergeant, and spiritual advisor rolled into one. In her private coaching sessions, she might address anything from figuring out how to start a business to how to save a marriage, and in her corporate coaching gigs, she tackles problems at a company from the top down. Her MIT course called “Designing Your Life” focuses on 18 “areas of life,” including career, money management, sex and romance, and participation in family life.
In a typical coaching session, Zander spends at least an hour with a client on the phone, over a Skype video chat, or, if it can be specially arranged, in person discussing the fears that are holding them back from becoming the person they wish they were. She gives the client a list of concrete goals at the end of each discussion that serves as homework, which she considers a key difference between her and a therapist.
“I am going to tell you what to do and will expect you to do it,” she says.
Zander recalls one of her clients who came to her because she felt like her life was in shambles — she was 100 pounds overweight, her marriage was falling apart, and she lacked ambition. Zander got the client to stop taking a passive aggressive approach to her problems, and eventually she turned her life around, she says.
Zander’s company, The Handel Group, currently has 10 life coaches and seven executive coaches available for booking on its website, and last year it brought in just under $US6 million in revenue, Zander says. Coaching prices start at $US350 an hour (Zander is the most expensive coach), and coaches will work with their clients from anywhere from several weeks to several years.
There are also small group sessions over the phone that go for $US200 for four weekly sessions, and large group sessions without a chance for participation that go for $US20 an hour.
While she can’t reveal the names of most of her clients, Zander did tell us that she’s coached Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker for years and has worked with executives and employees at Sony Music Entertainment, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, and the New York Times.
When she works for companies, it’s her job to address dysfunctional relationships in teams. She first speaks one-on-one with an executive and then has a group session with the exec’s employees. For example, at the Times, she needed to find a way to get a valued, high-ranking employee to start working more cooperatively with coworkers.
Zander says she first got the idea to spend her life motivating people to overcome their fears when she pursued her first passion, environmentalism, and realised it wasn’t for her.
After graduating from George Washington University in 1993 with a degree in environmental studies, Zander began a fellowship with the United Nations’ Global Environment Facility.
“The more I wanted to save the trees, the more I hated people,” Zander tells us, explaining that this was what started her on the path to a career in personal improvement. “That’s when I realised that the trees are fine; it’s the people that are the problem.”
At the age of 23, Zander started working for Landmark Education, a self-improvement group, managing volunteers and program schedules. In 1998, after six or seven years with the company, she realised that she was unhappy with its impersonal coaching tactics and decided that she would quit her job and start her own practice.
“It finally clicked,” she says. She’d always been the type of person who could talk to someone about their problems and aspirations until 4 in the morning, and she realised that becoming a life coach was her ideal job.
Some of Zander’s first clients were the volunteers she worked with at Landmark, and she networked heavily to maintain a constant flow of clients. She mentions that some of her first clients included an entrepreneur in the cell phone industry who wanted to grow his business, a jewelry designer who wanted to make more money, and a Wall Street guy who had plenty of money but was terribly unhappy.
Her method was not based on any particular philosophy or rubric, but instead was based on long conversations with each client, getting them to reveal the things they normally suppress, like difficulties with their parents.
Zander initially charged $US125 an hour and worked just 10 hours a week. It was a huge improvement from working 80-hour weeks, six days a week, for a $US60,000 salary at Landmark, she says.
She spent the rest of her time networking, making it a priority to tell three people about her business every day. Within six months, she had 40 clients, which she says was especially impressive because life coaching hadn’t fully caught on yet in the late ’90s.
Then, in 2002, her friend Mel Robbins, an attorney, expressed interest in becoming a coach herself. Zander wanted to see if she could train her, and her experiment proved to be a success. Robbins became a popular national television and talk radio host and author.
Motivated by Robbins’ success, Zander started her own life coaching network, The Handel Group (“Handel” is her maiden name), in 2004.
“Starting it forced me to codify my teaching method,” she says.
All of Zander’s courses and coaching sessions are based on the Handel Method, which she designed. “It gets you to determine how you talk, what your brand of excuses are, and what your personal mission is. It gets you to face yourself,” she says.
Zander, who was the star of A&E Biography’s television special “Celebrity Life Coach” in 2010 and has appeared on “Dr. Phil” and “The Dr. Oz Show,” is currently developing a television show and is participating in a documentary. The Handel Group is also developing a pilot program for teenagers and younger kids at underprivileged public schools.