The Coach Is In


altMany of us find our lives to be far more scheduled than reflective. Sometimes it takes an “aha” moment to shake us awake. For Dr. Julia Huber, an emergency physician, that wake up call came at the end of a shift… Dr. Huber realized that “work-life logistics” were entirely different than a true “work-life balance” and that she was ready for a change. But where should she start? Enter the life coach.

altShift, meeting, carpool, sleep. Repeat.
Many of us find our lives to be far more scheduled than reflective. Sometimes it takes an “aha” moment to shake us awake. For Dr. Julia Huber, an emergency physician, that wake up call came at the end of a shift.


Dr. Huber, who is a past chair of ACEP’s wellness committee, was working when she got a call from her nanny. Her husband was in Beijing for business and her nanny was supposed to take her young children to a family gathering. While driving on a poorly paved rural Kentucky road, the nanny had lost control of her Jeep, spun into a stone wall and then rammed into a tree. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt, but as Dr. Huber scrambled to the scene she began going through the various “what if” scenarios. What if they had been killed? What if they had needed to be transported to her ER? What if she had to run their resuscitations and then see other patients until her replacement arrived? At that moment, she realized that “work-life logistics” were entirely different than a true “work-life balance” and that she was ready for a change. But where should she start? Enter the life coach.

“Coaching is a future-looking practice that relies on a trusting relationship of mutual accountability between coach and client,” says Philippa Kennealy, a physician and life coach specializing in physician coaching. “Coaching helps the client establish a vision and direction, and the goals and habits to accomplish this vision.” Kennealy believes a good coach has many of the same qualities of a good mentor with the advantage of a coach being more consistently available and fully committed to focusing on the unique needs of the client. The ideal coach also remains confidential and anonymous and doesn’t try to bask in their client’s limelight.

If this sounds a bit too much like therapy to you, fear not. While therapy focuses on the process of discovering and understanding how past experiences may directly effect one’s current mental health, coaching is more future directed and action oriented. It assumes that the client is not overburdened with deep-seated unresolved psychological issues and that he or she is resourceful and motivated to create positive life changes. Essentially, if you want to figure out why the charge nurse gives you flashbacks of the nun who gleefully wacked your knuckles in third grade, see a therapist. If you want to improve your working relationship with her so that you can be a department chief, find a coach.


Dr Huber chose to team up with a physician life coach because, “I didn’t want to spend a lot of time trying to explain the unexplainable of what we as emergency physicians do every day. I came to coaching as a client completely motivated to rearrange my life and put more emphasis on what is important to me, such as absolutely being there for my kids.”

Physicians hire life coaches for any number of reasons, ranging from starting a new position to managing work after having triplets. Some physician coaches such as Dr. Francine Gaillour, the executive director of the Physician Coaching Institute in Bellevue, WA, focus solely on career and professional development. Dr. Gaillour has been a physician coach for nine years and coaches clients whose own careers have stalled or flattened. Dr. Gaillour helps them deconstruct and then reconstruct their own unique professional situations to better navigate towards their professional goals.

Coaching works best when the physician has at least one definable “coachable” goal, is motivated and committed to achieving that goal, and is matched up with a compatible and experienced life coach. Depending on the coach and the situation, the format and style of the session will vary. For Dr. Kennealy, a session with a new client begins with a “coaching H and P” to get better acquainted. “During this time I equip them with important decision-making tools. Together, we clarify expectations, set big and small goals, prioritize, and create an action plan. We then begin to ‘work the plan,’ using feedback and whatever metrics the client determines are important to modify or amplify the plan as needed.” Each time Dr. Kennealy meets with a client (she coaches exclusively by phone and email) they jointly decide on the action steps for the upcoming period.

Dr. Gaillour offers a more intensive three-part program. It begins with a discovery phase where a client completes several online behavioral and skill assessment tools. Next, she meets with clients face to face for a rigorous two-day session during which the client is asked to give a formal work presentation. This allows Gaillour to personally evaluate how the client appears to their professional world. At the end of this meeting she co-strategizes with them to develop a concrete plan that addresses their unique circumstances and goals. During the following six-month implementation phase she speaks with them twice a month to evaluate their progress and to discuss future tactics to keep them on course. For example, Dr. Gaillour may spend an entire phone session coaching a client on their preparation of an upcoming meeting so the client can maximize their desired impact.


As Dr. Huber’s “coachable goal” was to improve work/life balance, she spent a good deal of time with her coach examining and defining her own core values. She was challenged to define what really fulfilled her and what she would do if neither time nor money was an issue. She was asked to contemplate an ideal retirement and then to see if she could insert some of those plans into her present life. “A decent coach will challenge you to speak the truth about your life,” says Huber. “They will drop down the tube with a client and be at his or her side on the way back up and into the place where goals are set and dreams are made.” Although it was hard work and required an open mind and commitment to change, Dr. Huber found the rewards immense. “Through the process of coaching I have been able to prioritize and have put my physical, emotional and spiritual wellness at the forefront, which includes being there for my family. I have found that my approach to work as well as parenting two very lively little girls has completely shifted.”

Coaching: Getting Started
Most coaching is done through phone sessions and email. Typically, coaching sessions last about 45 minutes to an hour and occur 2-3 times per month. Fees for coaching run the gamut. One web site, The Coach Connection, states an average hourly rate of $187 while several high-end coaches charge upwards of $400 per hour. Coaches are usually hired by the month or 3-6 month coaching cycle. Keep in mind that many coaching sessions can be written off as a category II continuing medical education credit or as a business expense.

A word of warning on quality. While there are several intensive certification programs such as the International Coaching Federation or the International Certification of Coaching, life coaching is an unregulated industry. There is no certification requirement to hang a “life coach” shingle and a coach’s fee may not always reflect their quality or experience. Finding a compatible coach may require a bit of work. Most reputable coaches will offer a trial introductory session
to see if there is a good connection. That positive chemistry and trust is crucial to a successful outcome.

In the end, Dr. Huber’s coaching experience was so transformative that she decided to become a life coach herself. She enrolled in a program at the Coaches Training Institute in San Rafael, CA, and has already begun to see the benefits, both with her clients and her patients. “Life coach training provided me with deeper listening skills and the ability to help people look at their lives in order to take direct action. Rather than stand over, I can stand with my patients. Rather than commiserate with colleagues, I can support them in the quest for a more balanced life.”


  1. Ms. Wolff’s article makes several unfounded assumptions. Her subtext is, “only really, really messed up people need therapy, but you’re a high functioning doctor, so if you are having difficulty getting along, you need a life-coach.” Are we so vain and proud as to buy into that argument? I sought grief counseling after my Dad died. After working through those issues, I found the counseling to be very helpful and forward looking. My counselor and I looked at things in my life that I wanted to change, made a plan and implemented strategies that needed to occur to reach those goals. The best part is that it was all with the counsel of an experienced clinician who has [i]real[/i] training and therapeutic expertise. If your life coach finds out that you have issues that keep you from implementing their plan, what expertise do they bring to the table?

    From the description, it seems a life coach is really a less-experienced counselor who allows their client to avoid the stigma of “being in therapy” for a hefty price tag. I can tell you that my sessions, which are extremely flexible (every two weeks, once a month) and immensely beneficial are much less than the lowest quoted price above of $187/hr – and as I mentioned before, the counselor is credentialed and far more experienced.

    Second, as a practicing Catholic and physician, I find the image of “the nun who gleefully wacked your knuckles in third grade” to be cliche and offensive. How about a little sensitivity? If this were a statement about “being forced into an arranged marriage” or “forced to wear a Hijaab” many readers would have thought the example to be insensitive and bizarre, but it is far too acceptable to make jokes or attacks against the Church.

    Indeed, in statistics from 2008, while the Catholic Church has abandoned corporal punishment in parochial schools in all but 1 of 174 Dioceses (there are 195 in the US) (, in 20 US States, it is both legal and still used (

  2. jeannette wolfe on

    Boy Dr Greg, I think that you misinterpreted the point of the article. If you have read some of my other articles I think that you would realize that I fully support all different forms of wellness. I certainly have nothing against therapy and think that it is tremendously helpful to a great deal of people. My hope in writing this piece, however, was to give many of my therapy adverse colleagues another professional option to help them when they get stuck in their careers or personal lives. Sincerely, Jeannette Wolfe

    As an aside- I also believe that humor is a good way to alleviate stress. As I’m the fourth Notre Dame graduate in my family, I think that you are reading a little too much into the nun comment.

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