• Michael Stern

National Coach Academy Interview








Note: This article was originally published on the National Coach Academy website. I am grateful to Brandon Baker from Life Coach Path for conducting the interview.

Our main objective here at the National Coach Academy is to enable aspiring coaches to reach their full professional potential. One of the most effective ways to educate students about the world of coaching is by offering them a window into the world of real, practicing coaches and showing them all the different ways coaches make a difference in the lives of their clients.


We hope today’s interview adds another insightful glimpse into the dynamic world of coaching.


Today we are interviewing Michael Stern. Michael is a Career and Life Coach based in Portland, Maine.


NCA: Can you describe your coaching practice and the kinds of clients you typically work with?


Michael: There are essentially two distinct, but related, aspects of my practice. The first one is more of a holistic life and career coaching practice. I tend to work with individuals in their 20s and 30s who are looking for support with questions around finding deeper meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in their life and work.


In that capacity, I’m often supporting people in envisioning what kind of life they really want to create for themselves, developing some strategies for how to bridge the gap between their current reality and their future potential, establishing healthy habits and systems for living, and optimizing their performance. I’m also working with people on a psychological and emotional level to support them with any resistance that inevitably comes up along the way — fears, doubts, self-limiting beliefs, etc. That’s the first track of my work.


A more recent iteration of my work focuses specifically on supporting current and future leaders to develop their emotional intelligence. I’ve recently completed a certification program through Daniel Goleman’s organization (www.golemanei.com). He wrote the book called Emotional Intelligence back in 1995 and he is one of the pioneers of that field. The coaching program was based on his models and his research.


I see emotional intelligence as an essential set of skills that will help current and future leaders steward the evolution of business that I think is currently happening. There’s a lot of great energy in the world right now around things like conscious capitalism, stakeholders, values, mission, purpose — all of these exciting trends towards reclaiming business as a force for good in the world. We are also living during a time of accelerating complexity and disruption, with environmental, social, and technological forces converging to create unprecedented challenges and opportunities. Leaders are in an interesting position of having to adapt to those changing marketplace conditions and I think emotional intelligence really holds the key to creating that sustainable future that everybody is interested in.


To me, the common denominator of both sides of my coaching practice is about supporting individuals and organizations to realize their potential and then make their unique contribution to help create the world they see as possible.


NCA: In working with your clients, what would you say is the most rewarding part of that process and on the flip side of that, what is the most challenging aspect of the work that you do?


Michael: On the rewarding side, I would say that part of my coaching philosophy is that deep down, we all want to give back. We all have this impulse to make a contribution and make the world a better place. That looks different for everybody, but I think that’s a universal attribute. For me, being able to support people in getting in touch with that for themselves and then being able to express that effectively in the world — that in and of itself is very rewarding for me.


Additionally, I tend to work with people whose journeys mirror my own in some ways. There’s something personally meaningful for me about being able to give back to people who are struggling with certain challenges that I can personally relate to. I think that’s often true for people in helping professions — we end up doing that work out of some kind of personal need or wounds. I think that’s actually an important aspect of getting in touch with one’s purpose: identifying what would be personally meaningful because we can relate to it directly and it genuinely moves us. I find that very rewarding, as well.


Also, a big part of my job as a coach is being a lifelong learner in order to serve my clients. I am constantly learning about new ideas, practices, and tools that are designed to help people live their best lives. Of course, I’m not interested in those things only for my clients. I’m interested in those things for myself, too. The more I can implement those things in my own life, the better example I can set for my clients and the more successfully I’ll be able to share them with my clients so they can benefit from them as well.


That is actually an interesting link to your other question about the most challenging part of being a coach. There is, at least for me, sometimes a tendency to feel a little bit like a hypocrite when I hear myself giving people suggestions or asking them questions, because you’ve got to take your own advice a lot. What’s nice about that is it holds me accountable and it keeps me on my edge which I really value. At the same time, it does create a certain pressure to “walk your talk.” That can be challenging sometimes.


I think the other challenging piece is on the business side. For me, I got into coaching out of a sense of passion and calling. But as a self-employed individual, a lot of my time goes into things that are not talking to my clients about their issues. There is a whole other side of being a coach, which is a completely different skill set and brings a whole other set of challenges. But I view the entrepreneurial journey as just another vehicle for my personal evolution, so I interpret the challenge through a framework of opportunity and possibility.


Your role as a coach is to help other people identify their own answers to the questions that they’re working with. The skillset of a coach doesn’t depend on having answered all of your own questions. It’s about being able to ask good questions and provide a neutral and open space of support for other people to do their own exploration.

NCA: Can you think of a mentor or a coach in your own career who was the most vital to your success and in what ways did this mentor help you thrive in your career?


Michael: The way I got into coaching was that I had been working for a small consulting company and we did corporate trainings and consulting engagements around resilience and performance. Part of our programs often included some one-on-one coaching work and I found that part of what we did really rewarding. I also felt that I had a certain natural talent for it.


When it came time to part ways with that company, that’s when I started to think about beginning my own private coaching practice. At that time, one of my very good friends had already been running his own coaching practice. He had built up a pretty successful practice and he said, “If you want to get into it, I will start sending you some leads — if I have overflow, if anybody can’t afford to work with me, or it doesn’t work for our schedules.” That was a huge support as far as having a lead funnel.


He also shared some specific tools that he used in his own coaching practice with his clients. He had me go through them myself as if I was a client and then he also supported me in being able to use them as a coach with my clients. He also made himself available for informal coaching whenever I felt like I wanted or needed that. Again, he was a very good friend of mine, so our friendship and our mentorship relationship kind of blended into each other a little bit. He is someone that I admire and respect as an individual as well as a coach. He definitely was a huge part of helping me get my footing.


When I first started coaching, I just jumped in. I wasn’t trained in any particular coaching methodology. I didn’t have a specific group of people that I really wanted to work with or anything like that. I was like, “I’m going to work with anybody who wants to work with me and I’ll work on whatever issue they have and I’ll just figure it out.” I trusted my own background and experience and intuition, and he affirmed for me that that was enough to get started. So definitely in that first year or so, having his support was invaluable.


NCA: One of the most common challenges new coaches face is self-doubt. Some coaches call it Imposter Syndrome, where early on they feel somehow inadequate to take on the role of coach. What is one piece of advice that you would give to somebody who is in the beginning stage of their coaching career and dealing with these doubts in their mind?


Michael: It’s very common. The first step is to normalize it and acknowledge that it’s not a sign that something is wrong. It’s part of the territory. If we can strengthen our relationship to it, that can help us relax whatever additional layers of anxiety and negative inner dialogue that might pile up on top of it. We just say, “OK, I’m noticing that I’m feeling a little insecure. I’m feeling like I don’t quite have the level of competence that I would like to have in this particular area.” We can reframe what feels like inadequacy to something more along the lines of opportunities to learn and grow knowing that there will always be opportunities to learn and grow and we’ll never be done with that process.


There is also an ethical component. It’s about knowing when you’re working with somebody who’s got things that they want to work on that you are actually not the best person to support them with and to be okay with it. To be transparent about that and to find other ways of supporting them by potentially connecting them with other sources of support. In therapy, it’s part of the job. You have to have that supervision as part of your training. So while that industry is more regulated, it’s a very similar situation in coaching.


It’s useful for coaches to think about the differences between coaching and therapy and mentoring and teaching. My understanding of the coaching paradigm is that you don’t need to have had the same life experiences as your clients. You don’t need to have mastered every area of your life in order to coach other people in those areas of their lives. Your ideas and answers to life’s questions are, in some ways, irrelevant.


Your role as a coach is to help other people identify their own answers to the questions that they’re working with. The skillset of a coach doesn’t depend on having answered all of your own questions. It’s about being able to ask good questions and provide a neutral and open space of support for other people to do their own exploration.

© 2016 by Integral Alignment LLC