We are pleased to share an article entitled “The Gift of Pro Bono Coaching” written by Roberta Miceli.
I never intended to use pro bono coaching as a business development tool, and yet, that is exactly what happened. Pro bono and, eventually, low bono coaching engagements helped me gain confidence, fluidity, and clients.
One thing I knew for certain as I stood up my leadership coaching business was that I needed clients and lots of them. I needed clients so that I could coach and coach and coach until every engagement with every client felt smooth and natural.
I graduated from an excellent Executive Leadership Coaching program through the School of Continuing Studies (SCS) at Georgetown University. During the program, I had the chance for lots of practice and constructive feedback. I also received my Associate Certified Coach (ACC) shortly after I graduated and joined a community of practice where I continued to have the opportunity to receive focused feedback on my coaching.
I had the credentials. I had the support. I had positive feedback from clients I coached. One of my first clients sent me a box of Godiva chocolate with a note that said, “Working with you has made me a better person and I will forever be grateful for that!” Another client sent me a fruit basket with a note that said, “I think about you and my experience with the coaching often. I think how lucky I was to have had the opportunity to work with you and how grateful I am to have learned so much about myself in such a short period of time!” And yet, I still didn’t feel confident about standing up my own leadership coaching practice without lots of additional practice.
I wanted to feel natural as a coach and I knew the only way to do that was to coach lots of clients. So, I decided to try the strategy of offering leadership coaching on a pro bono basis. I created an overview of my offer and sent it out to a few trusted colleagues and asked them to share it.
Voila. My strategy worked and soon I had a new challenge – more clients than I could handle. Instead of panicking and turning down the potential new clients, I asked them if they were willing to wait until my schedule opened up and the majority did.
As I began my work with the pro bono clients, I explained that I wanted to gain experience as a coach and I knew the best way to do that was to coach. I also followed the sage advice of a seasoned colleague and offered 10 sessions of pro bono leadership coaching for each client with the understanding that if they wanted to continue after the initial 10 sessions, I would charge for the service.
I’m pleased to report that my strategy paid off. I was able to achieve my goal of feeling natural as a coach. I learned how to embrace being a beginner instead of shying away from it. I learned how to be uncomfortable learning a new skill and I relearned how to be humble and patient. I continually had to remind myself that mastery takes practice and lots of it.
Through my pro bono clients, I got to experience many of the things I heard the master coaches at Georgetown talk about. I had to say no to continuing with a client who wanted to engage me after the pro bono offering ended. I had to say no because I knew I wasn’t serving him well. To my surprise, he reached back out for coaching about a year after we stopped working together and was open to tackling the underlying issues he wasn’t willing to address earlier. I also had to end the coaching engagement with a couple of clients because they consistently missed sessions without giving me notice. In this case, I felt like they were taking advantage of the pro bono arrangement. I also had to say no to new clients who were in the same chain of supervision at their federal agency.
As for gaining experience, I got to coach clients who were emerging leaders at federal agencies and clients who were preparing to retire and wanted to think about their next act. I got to coach attorneys who realized that working at a law firm wasn’t a good fit and wanted to explore other career options. I got to coach Executive Directors who were struggling with how to work with their Boards. I got to coach elementary and high school principals who were trying to figure out how to support their staff and students with returning to “normal” after the pandemic. In short, I got to coach lots and lots of people in a variety of situations and by doing so I gained the confidence and experience to begin to feel natural as a leadership coach.
When I shared my strategy with other leadership coaches, I got a lot of push back. Other coaches believed that I was I doing a disservice to the field by offering my services for no charge. They felt that I was underselling myself and calling into question new coaches who charged for their services. They believed that with a certificate from an accredited coaching program and an ACC from the ICF, I needed to charge for my services and my pro bono scheme was a mistake.
I had no doubt that the concerns my colleagues shared were legitimate for them. I also knew for certain that I needed more time and practice to feel confident and natural as a coach and I needed to execute my strategy to get there.
Ironically, what started as a way to get clients so I could gain fluidity and experience as a coach turned into a pipeline of clients who chose to continue when the pro bono engagement ended. It also opened doors for me at the clients’ organizations and within their networks. Many of the clients respected my honesty and integrity and recommended me to their friends, colleagues, and organizations. As one client said, “I’ve gotten more value out of this (pro bono) coaching than I ever did with paid gigs.”
The strategy also provided low-bono coaching opportunities. Many clients wanted to continue with the coaching engagement and could only do so on a self-pay agreement. For these clients, I asked what they could afford and accepted the rate they offered.
I need to be fair and share that I also had a few unexpected challenges. A couple of low-bono clients referred friends and family and promised a low rate on my behalf. This situation helped me realize that I needed to explain that my low bono offer was for the client only and did not extend to others. The other challenge came in the form of clients who referred me to their organizations with the expectation that I would also offer the low bono rate to the corporate organization. Again, I had to be clear with the clients that the low bono rate applied only to them. Finally, there were a few clients whose low bono rate I refused. The rate they offered felt unfair, and even though I wanted clients and practice, I also wasn’t willing to be taken advantage of.
And so, ultimately, I achieved my goal of coaching lots and lots of clients until leadership coaching felt natural. The gift of my journey was added bonus of business development.
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