WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — Seven years ago, Mary Hickey was in a rut. Her professional life was going nowhere and she was living a life that didn't hold a future she liked.
As a high-tech consultant for companies such as Cisco, she was living from one contract job to another, and knew future work resided at companies run by people 10 years younger than her.
"That was not something I wanted," she said.
But moving in a new direction professionally and personally wasn't something she wanted to do on her own. So she turned to a career coach, Nick Parham, who helped focus and encourage her.
Today, she has her own business, Renaissance Urn Co., designing decorative urns for funeral homes, and she couldn't be happier.
"If I didn't find help, I would still be spinning," he said.
As economic times get tough, more and more people turn to "coaches" for support. Whether it's a lost job, career change, or just a life that's in disarray, people turn to coaches for a wide range of advice and guidance.
Elka Vera, who has a practice in Oakland, Calif., says many small-business owners seek support from someone who can help them.
"With my own practice, I have seen many more people reaching out because of concern of the economy and fear of job loss," Vera said.
One of Vera's clients, Riquelle Small, used her to help organize her thoughts, and help figure out her path in both life and business. Originally she saw Vera weekly, but now she just visits her monthly for "maintenance" sessions.
"Although we have our own answers within us, it's great to have people who can help get information out of you and show you where you want to go," Small said.
The International Coach Federation defines coaches as "partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential."
The ICF says it's important to find out what kind of training the coach has had, if they adhere to a code of ethics, and if they have credentials. Also, the group advises people to make sure the areas they specialize in are in lockstep with what is sought, and that there's good chemistry. Most coaches offer free consulting sessions to make sure there's a fit.
A search on Yelp near San Francisco returns more than 1,000 hits of those offering coach guidance. And the type of coaches run the gamut. The most common is a life coach, but there are career coaches, transitional coaches, business coaches and spiritual coaches, to name a few.
The cost of coaching sessions usually runs from $75 to $150 an hour. Many coaches offer package deals that include forms of correspondence, such as text messages or e-mail exchanges, between sessions.
The Better Business Bureau has only received a handful of complaints about life coaches, but most have to do with contract and pay issues, not the coaching itself.
Vera is a life coach who says her "sweet spot" is "self-employed creative hearts" such as videographers, interior designers and architects. Though she will occasionally have sessions in her Oakland offices, most are held over the phone.
"I think of life coaching as a personal trainer for the soul," Vera said. "I think coaching is about creating choice and bringing clients a lot of awareness."
Brent Parry, 67, of Antioch, Calif., recently took a certification course so he could help people. His specialty is people in the late stages of their careers, or those planning to retire early. He feels qualified to help because "that is exactly what I did."
He says the most important part of being a coach is to make sure he's on the same plane as the client, and doesn't have an agenda.
"If you told me you wanted to do something and change your career, it's not my job to try and talk you out of it," Parry said. "My job is to help you along the way of what you want to do."
The major concern in terms of coaching is that it's self-regulated. The amount of training can vary. The ICF offers credential programs, and there are other certification programs available via the Internet, but nothing is required to be a coach.