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The 'life coach' movement, an outgrowth of corporate training, helps clients get their lives unstuck

Thursday, May 17, 2001

By Diana Nelson Jones, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Tom Volkar has found his niche in life helping you find yours. He is a whole-life coach, guiding you toward the life your heart would tell you to live if it could get your head's attention.

Daniel Marsula, Post-Gazette

As society increasingly values fulfillment and bliss, this new kind of coach trains you to attract goals, not to run toward them.

"It's kinda silly not to be joyful about your life," says Volkar. It is joy that makes you successful and attracts what you want, he says, and he drives a hard line: Either you are living with joy, or you are leading a negative life -- there is no in between.

Some people blanch at this. You can't go around leaping and clicking your heels together all the time. There's hard stuff to deal with and many sources of pain. You might get cancer. How can you be joyful through that?

Volkar says, you can.

The 51-year-old Finleyville native is one of an estimated 10,000 life coaches worldwide, 15 to 30 of whom live in the Pittsburgh area. They have segued from the ranks of therapists, career and marriage counselors, motivational speakers, sales reps, educators and business consultants in the past decade. Their clients need to get their lives unstuck and back on track and pay from $250 a month to do it.

Companies as high-profile as Eastman Kodak and IBM have made coaching part of their corporate cultures.

One Ohio coach with a prominent Web site sold Mary Kay Cosmetics for 10 years and now coaches, among others, people who sell Mary Kay products. Deb Martin, a coach in Michigan, was training employees for several businesses when a government agency asked her to coach its employees. "I said yes. Then I scrambled to find out all I could about coaching," she says.

Volkar spent years as an advertising sales manager. He was often tapped to motivate groups at sales conferences and eventually stepped across the aisle into motivational speaking. After one speech, a member of the audience sidled up to him and asked, "Do you do coaching?"

Recalling the moment, he laughs, admitting he didn't know about the field but that he had coached sports years before. "I said yes, because it seemed like the natural response. It's a little like being an athletic coach: You encourage people to stretch and then raise the bar."

Though the field has been growing since the early '90s, it is still largely unknown in middle America and still fluid enough to allow people in who simply have a knack for it. The International Coaching Federation formed in 1996 to accredit those who meet their certification requirements -- including seven international training sites and a specific amount of study and coaching time. ICF counts 3,740 members.

A financial planner in San Francisco, Thomas Leonard, created the first teleconference training site, Coach U, on the Internet in 1992. His young clients had begun asking him for personal and lifestyle advice. A branch, Corporate Coach U, was founded in 1997. A third branch refers coaches to corporations. All told, the company has 3,800 students and graduates in 36 countries and expects revenues to top $10 million this year.

Coaching got its groove in the corporate demand for hard-charging enthusiasts to inspire workers toward greater production and job satisfaction. The difference, says Volkar, is that a consultant eventually leaves while the coach and his clients form relationships: "The coach runs along beside you, cheering you on."

There's some new-age crossover in the field with "intuitive consultants" and "touch healers," but the bulk of coaches still have at least one foot in the corporate-training culture. Volkar still has corporate clients, but he has found a growing niche with artists, writers and people seeking life partners. He emphasizes authenticity, or self honor, to help people get to where, as he puts it, "you are doing you as clearly as you can."

It was in getting his own life back on track that Volkar found coaching, he says. "There's a saying among coaches, " 'Our mess is our message.' We attract people who are going through what we have had to work through. Most of us can't get near to being all we can be, but we can be all that we are. That's enough."

Never down, always up

During his money-and-status-driven Type A days, Volkar was an advertising sales manager. He liked getting other salesmen charged up. He spoke often at sales conferences. He worked too much, smoked, carried too much weight, drove too fast and with incidents; his choices played some part in wrecking his 19-year marriage.

"In my heart I wanted something else, but in my head I wanted to make money."

He realized early in life that his core strength is buoyancy: "Since I was about 6, I realized I was upbeat. You can not get me down." To this day, Volkar keeps a photo of himself at 6 on a shelf in his office. Of the cute, grinning blond tyke in a polka-dot bow tie from 1956, he says, "I always want to connect with that little guy."

Volkar, a brawny man who plays rugby with the South Pittsburgh Houligans, still has the sandy hair and open face of his boy self, and his laugh fills an entire section of a restaurant, as if to blow out all stale emanations. He maintains that the 6-year-old you, the one who learned to sublimate honesty, neglect self-honor, subdue joy and subvert dreams is still inside us all. It was a simple truth that took something of a crisis for Volkar to find.

"We get tons of chances to wake up," he says, "but most of us aren't self-confrontational enough to risk changing our lives. Sometimes you have to step off a cliff and see where your foot lands. Sometimes you can't see an opportunity until you do that."

His first effort at what he calls "joyful employment" was to bring laser tag to Pittsburgh in 1995. After two years, seven months and 19 days, he said, not enough people wanted to pay $5.95 to play at his indoor recreation parlor, The Challenge Center in North Strabane. When the $2.5 million project closed in 1997, he lost his shirt, he said.

But he didn't lose heart. His clients confirm that it's a big heart, big enough to say, That ain't failure, that's just another step toward what's next.

"I was still breathin'!" he says with a glowing smile, his arms up like a preacher lifting the congregation to its feet.

He remembered how much fun he had had pumping people up at sales meetings. He began offering companies the same kind of morale building, but with more depth. One of his first clients was Tim Few, president of a company his father owns, Bill Few Associates, a financial services firm in Ross. The younger Few had attended a Volkar seminar on corporate vision, and the Fews decided to bring him on board to work with their 50 employees.

Tim Few says his father founded the firm believing all employees are interdependent: "Everyone is a corporate citizen, and everyone has responsibility for the vision."

Volkar spent four months with the firm and ended up coaching Few. He emphasizes the power your positive vibes have in attracting what you want, Few says, a message that resonates with his employees to this day: "What you focus on expands, and when we do something good [as a company], we have celebrations."

By 1999, Volkar had reduced his speaking by half in order to work one-on-one.

Gina Hillier, a writer who lives in Harmony, read an article Volkar wrote last year and e-mailed him. She had just published a book, "The Highest and the Best," about mind-body medicine and intuition.

"The book took a lot out of me, and I had been working in isolation," she says. "I knew this was what I needed, a one-on-one dialogue with someone who didn't know me. People who love you sometimes say things they think you want them to say. Tom is a sounding board and an objective observer."

They have been talking since March, three times a month.

Her goal, she says, is to "reach my personal zenith as a writer. It's not about the product or production. It's more about the process, and being joyful in my work life every day."

For some who may think personal coaching is a vehicle for baby-boom hand wringing and self-indulgence, Hillier says no: "I think it's a wonderful statement about where we're at as a society. The more people achieve and attain, they are still looking for something beyond."

And if confronting yourself scares you a little, she says, it's good: "Complacency to me is death. If it's not challenging, you aren't living enough."

Client sets the pace

Clem Gigliotti Jr., president of Westmoreland Waste and County Hauling Corp., says someone referred Volkar to him. "I thought he was some sort of football coach who wanted to make a personal appearance."

When he talked to Volkar the first time, Gigliotti thought the concept was a little "abstract. I am a concise and clear-cut kind of person. But I think I'm pretty open minded, and I'm always of the opinion you can improve. So I said, 'Why don't you and I start a coaching relationship, and maybe as I understand all you offer, I can see what practical applications it might have for people on my staff.' "

Gigliotti had been loaded with job responsibilities and was anxious about being able to fulfill them. "Tom got me to see that the seemingly impossible task was very doable. My apprehension was in the way of being able to see. That was a big step."

Volkar also suggested that with quitting smoking, as well, the seemingly impossible can be done. "He said, 'Think about why you smoke. It's probably not simply that you enjoy it.' Understanding why we do the things we do helps us do the things we should do more and the things we shouldn't do less. You don't even have to be strong willed."

The men talk by phone three times a month, 30 minutes at a time. That is Volkar's preference; the phone is convenient and allows the client to be anywhere he wants to be. "I intuit and listen better when there are no visual distractions. On the phone, you get to things pretty quick."

The client sets the pace. Some merely need a jump-start for work. Some want to find balance and that something that's missing. Others have had trouble finding a life mate or feel bottled up, bogged down, over-obligated and ineffective. Some don't see their kids enough and are working too much, thinking they have to. Some eat when they are not hungry.

"The joy feeling is right there for us to choose, and we can choose it," Volkar tells the group at his monthly session at Indian Summer gift shop in Castle Shannon. A person can have control over what comes his way, he says, by giving out what he wants back: "Shit happens because we vibrate shit."

It's easy to feel great when you are in love, your job is rewarding and the sky is blue, he says.

"But we need to get to the place where those conditions are not a factor." As his clients groan at the seeming impossibility of such an achievement, Volkar's smile lights the room. "Really.That's where we need to be."

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