Leveraging Coaching to Help the Helpers


Which of my philanthropic investments produce the highest rate of return? It’s hard to say, but we love seeing the results of leadership training, coaching, and mentoring for social entrepreneurs. Almost a decade ago, master coach Renee Freedman and I began creating pro-bono coaching programs for high potential achievers. We recognized that helping talented, driven individuals to maximize their capacity for action would produce exponentially greater achievements. With a network of top international coaches offering their professional services at no cost to world-class social entrepreneurs, the result has been goals reached, resilience built, and lives enriched. We know that providing thinking partners for some of the world’s best thinkers produces rewards for both the coach and the coached, as well as some of the most vulnerable people in the world. Renee and I share some of our professional coaching stories in this article originally published in choice magazine volume 15, number 131.


Helping the Helpers: Coaching those who serve the vulnerable
By Ruth Ann Harnisch, MMC (IAC), BCC & Renee Freedman, PCC

When you know that your client’s work is the difference between life and death for some of the most vulnerable people in the world, your coaching takes on new meaning. We’ve coached people whose responsibilities are so great, they themselves become vulnerable to the pressure. Our clients often face danger, fear, threats and grief as they tackle the intractable problems without a quick fix. Coaching helps them carry on, build their resilience and maximize their service to others.

Harvesting Coaching Wisdom
When we met Alex Petroff, he was at the helm of a grand experiment in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). His vision: teach farming techniques to people so they could grow food and lift themselves from generations of poverty.

The DRC is known as a danger zone, with years of civil war leaving the population near the bottom of the world’s development index – hardly any education, short lifespans, dire poverty, violence and crime, sometimes close enough to affect Alex’s enterprise. After the organization Alex founded, World Villages International, attracted major funding, he decided to accept the pro bono coaching offered as a benefit of the fellowship program through which we met him. Frankly, he felt he had little choice. He thought he needed to at least give the appearance of being open to strategic support in managing this new money.

He hadn’t wanted a coach before. He doubted the results would be worth his time and effort. He didn’t think any coach could understand his situation. However, when his volunteer coach, Bill Carrier, challenged Alex to list ten things to address in ten sessions, and as each session unraveled a knotty problem, Alex was amazed.

The biggest surprise was that the solutions didn’t come from changing the challenging circumstances of working in the DRC, but from changes within Alex himself. He realized that he’d been approaching life with problem-solving skills he developed as a child, and he saw that he had simply not evolved. With Bill’s help, Alex unlocked the potential of his brilliant adult mind and equipped himself with tools and strategies that gave him a fresh approach to every issue.

The five-plus years that Bill Carrier and Alex Petroff have been coaching together prove that even the most reluctant client can come to describe coaching as “magic,” as Alex does. Now Alex is the magician, using his own coaching skills to help others become the best they can be.

Coaching Tip: Overcome a client’s skepticism by calmly demonstrating your competence, perhaps by helping the client discover a previously unseen facet of personality or character.


Finding Your Oxygen Mask
When she asked for an emergency appointment with a coach, we knew this self-sufficient, confident, leader of a nonprofit organization was in trouble. Literally, lives were in her hands. It was her dream, doing this lifesaving work, but it had become a nightmare from which she could not awaken.

She was becoming paralyzed by the fear of causing death, of allowing death to happen on her watch, of being responsible for deaths that would follow other deaths.

Her coach listened to this litany of sadness and guilt, and heard desperation. In a single session, they talked through the reasons she wanted to do this work. She began to remember the joy in success, and to acknowledge the inevitability that some would die.

The coach reminded her about the safety briefing on airplanes: “Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” The client recognized that her own self-care was now her most important job, because she can’t help anyone else if she’s not physically and mentally able to do the difficult work she truly wants to do.

She put on her own oxygen mask. And she is saving lives every day.

Coaching Tip: Help your clients prioritize their own well-being because this is what keeps them able to serve others.


Who Helps The Helpers?
You don’t want to meet Jimmy Lin professionally. He’s the co-founder of the Rare Genomics Institute, and if you’re seeking the advice of this acclaimed scientist, you are sick, what you have is rare, your doctor is baffled, there’s no national organization calling attention to whatever it is you have. Yet Jimmy and his team are going to help you.

However Jimmy’s outstanding academic achievements in genomics might help patients, they didn’t prepare him to run a nonprofit, become an industry leader, or manage a workforce of over 150 people. Jimmy loves research, studying, and learning, so he looks at his work with a coach as a learning journey. He set out to learn about different models of leadership so he could acquire the skills and habits that would serve him best.

The Rare Genomics Institute cannot exist or fulfill its mission without money. Jimmy used coaching to explore business models, deciding whether for-profit, not-for-profit, or hybrid models with partners would be most effective. Now his coaching journey is helping him further hone his leadership skills, shape his organization’s culture and mentor others.

Coaching Tip: Help your clients build a sustainable business to support the work.


Finding Value Through Coaching
Alexander McLean learned as a teenager that some people have no value in the eyes of others, like the AIDS patients of Uganda whose families had abandoned them. As he bathed them, fed them, prayed for them, advocated for them and learned from them, he was developing the foundation of his life’s next great work.

Meeting other young men his age about to be executed for crimes that do not merit the death penalty elsewhere, Alexander felt compelled to serve those living on the edge of society. And serve he did, immersing himself in the African Prisons Project, where he raced against the executioner to champion the legal rights of the forgotten and condemned.

Overworked and overwhelmed, Alexander turned to coaching. He gained self-confidence, developed his organizational management skills, and increased his competence and capacity as a leader. This eventually led to training African prison guards to use coaching skills to help do a better job managing the prisons and to support the development of staff members and prisoners. Nonetheless, Alexander notes that the crafting of a full and joyful personal life is the greatest value he’s received from coaching. Coaching gave him structure, accountability, and perspective that enabled him to detach from being consumed by his work and to enrich his personal life.

Coaching Tip: Help your client design their lives so that they can experience joy, even if their work takes them to sad places.

The kind of person who chooses to serve the most vulnerable is often at risk for becoming vulnerable, too, as the burdens they bear weigh heavily on their minds. Through our work with non-profit leaders, we know that coaching is a lifeline for those wonderful individuals. Coaches provide steady support to sustain them, a platform to explore risk taking, and encouragement to make self-care a priority. It’s as challenging as it sounds, and it’s the most rewarding coaching work we do.