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  WINDY CITY TIMES

On doing what you love: Coach Jody Michael
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times
2013-06-19

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Where were you when you decided what you were going to do with your life?

Maybe you were in a college class and you figured it out while you were engaged in a project. Maybe it was an "aha moment" during one of your better (or worse) days at work. Maybe it was after a major life event and you realized you were meant for more.

Jody Michael was in a floatation tank.

A successful leader in the finance industry, Michael purchased a 10-pack of sessions in a sensory deprivation floatation tank. "My first float was claustrophobic; I almost didn't go back. The second was deeply relaxing. During my third float, I became deeply aware and alert, yet completely relaxed. While in that state, I heard my inner voice very clearly naming what I should do—coaching."

And Michael knows what she is talking about. With a background in neuroscience, mindfulness, and cognitive psychology, she uses the principles and metrics of hard science to help people achieve change. She understands now that she was experiencing alpha brain waves, which one attains through meditation, in that third float.

Her brain was literally telling her what she should do with her life.

One of the first (non-sports) coaches

In 1996, when the openly gay Michael founded Jody Michael Associates, no one knew what a career coach was. "People would always ask me, 'What sport?' not knowing it was something else completely." Though she loved sports, it was the people aspect of career coaching that kept her attention.

"When I launched [the business,] I never for a minute thought it would grow to more than just me. I had already been coaching internally in the financial industry for years. I was leading large floor operations and used coaching in my management style, but it didn't have a name. I had been trained by one of the grandfathers of coaching, Fernando Flores, and so, I was one of the earliest coaches in the country."

Michael's desire to be a coach comes from two main drives: her passion to effect personal and professional transformation in others and her compassion to help relieve their pain.

Do no harm

Michael is insistent that mental health and physical health go hand in hand. Understanding oneself and being free of mental suffering helps the physical body. That's why her emphasis is on complete transformation.

"So many people are in so much pain. All you have to do is look at the billions of dollars we as a country spend on psycho-pharmaceuticals and you can see how we are medicating and deadening ourselves to the pain that we feel. To be a catalyst for those individuals who are stressed, stuck, depressed, over-worked and confused and to coach them to perceive, react and live differently is truly a gift that they honor me with. That opportunity to inspire them to create their lives instead of just responding to what life throws them is a privilege."

While she offers four distinct types of coaching, Michael works with a range of clients, including corporate executives and leaders, entrepreneurs, career professionals, high school and college students and individuals looking to create the life they want.

And that includes clients under the rainbow flag. "While I wouldn't say that I specialize in coaching the LGBT community, I did purposely seek out training at the Howard Brown Health Center under Theo Pintzuk, who was a fabulous supervisor and mentor," she said. "The 18 months that I spent there gave me the opportunity to work exclusively with the LGBT community."

An empathic observer

Michael's desire to help others stems, in large part, from her early childhood experiences.

"My mother was mentally ill and spent most of her life in a mental hospital. In fact, from the time I was 18 months old, she spent far more time in the hospital than at home with me. So I was exposed to mental hospitals at a very early age," Michael said.

Michael described her mother as "very warm, gentle and loving." Seeing her overmedicated, put through an "ungodly number" of electric shock treatments, and placed in two different mental hospitals made an impression on her as a child that she holds onto. "Witnessing the emotional pain, isolation, stigma and hopelessness that mental illness can often bring created tremendous empathy in me," she said.

"I became a very keen observer of individuals' personal pain. I have always been driven to help people alleviate it—something I could not do with my mother, although the day I turned 21, I did take her out of Elgin State Hospital and cared for her until her death in 1986."

Because of her personal experience with suffering, Michael understands the burdens that some of her clients carry. In fact, one of the things she is most proud of is "processing my challenging childhood without negative residue or scars that may have otherwise impeded my capacity to trust, risk, love, grow and thrive."

Healthy competition

However, the softer more empathetic side of Michael is joined to a rather competitive personality. As a young girl, Michael was, admittedly, a tomboy most likely to be chosen to be the quarterback of neighborhood touch football games or defeating boys in pickup games of basketball.

She credits this with some professional success. "Growing up playing with the neighborhood guys really helped hone my skills, made me a better player and gave me an intimate glimpse into the competitive psyche of the male world. Later, it translated into an ease in connecting with men and helped me navigate the business world and the trading pits," she recalled. Even though, in the pits, physical jostling was normal, she found herself comfortable with the extreme competitiveness.

This competitive nature showed up in other arenas. Besides the three sports she played in college and the semi-pro basketball (before the new professional women's teams), Michael has proven she doesn't shy away from the road less traveled.

As she thinks of the times she's been an early adopter, she ticks them off on her fingers: "first girls' class of Lane College Prep High School (that was an all-boys school for about 100 years), one of the first women traders on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange trading floor, one of the earliest career coaches in the country, also she took one of the earliest Internet courses: an Ontological Design Course in the mid-'80s."

What she wasn't first in? "My mentor encouraged me to purchase 5,000 dot com names for $5 a piece back then. Did I listen? No! Ha! I would have been a millionaire."

Coaches of the coach

Ironically, Michael never had a sporting coach she had a deep connection to. However, she had teachers at every level of school "who made a significant impact by making me feel seen and special and who shaped my world lens in a powerful way."

Teaching was one of the first professions that other people suggested to her. In fact, Michael had several opportunities for teaching, even at a young age. In high school, she had three teaching jobs. At 16, she worked for a non-profit called BUILD, teaching drug prevention to 8th graders in the Chicago Public Schools. She was paired with one of her former teachers and "after a few classes, she saw that I could handle her class, so she often left while I conducted the hour-long class unsupervised," Michael recalled.

She continued volunteering and being placed into teaching roles. In keeping with her love of sports, whenever there was a female gym teacher out and a substitute wasn't available, she was pulled out of her other classes to step in.

Although she got a teaching degree, the allure had started to fade. She recalls the final straw while working in CPS: "One day, when I was assaulted in the halls of Wells High School and the principal did not stand up for me, I decided my teaching days were over."

She never went back to teaching, other than a class here or there at the University of Chicago while in the PhD program.

"While I certainly value my teaching experience, I think that the traditional Western model of education is becoming rather antiquated," Michael said. "There are more dynamic methods of learning than the prominent hierarchical model of an expert imparting knowledge to pupils. Much more interesting to me is a more generative conversation, an organic or Socratic method of learning—and coaching allows for this. There is something to be learned from everyone."

As a true Chicagoan, when asked who her favorite coach is, she replied: former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson. "He had a holistic approach to coaching that was influenced by Eastern philosophy and spiritual practices, which I connect to deeply. I admire his masterful application of psychology, philosophy, strategy and high emotional intelligence in his coaching."

The power of coaching

And, as a coach who wants to apply the same principles as Phil Jackson, she strives to help her clients transform their lives. Much of her business comes from word-of-mouth, and while the firm offers executive, career, trader and life coaching, most of her clients seek executive or career coaching. "Work accounts for such a great portion of our lives; feeling fulfilled by that work and knowing that it is contributing to some greater purpose can have a profound impact on people's quality of life," she said.

Throughout her coaching career, Michael has helped clients achieve extraordinary success, but one story stands out. "Six years ago, a client came to me who was depressed, having a hard time in his marriage, but mostly hating his job every day. He had been working for a few years in what he considered to be a menial job selling a product that he couldn't care less about. He came to me for 'What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?' career discovery coaching. We worked through our process and came to the conclusion that his best career fit was software and web design.

"Unfortunately, because of financial constraints, he couldn't leave his current position and go back to school. So, we designed a strategy for him to learn the required skills in a matter of months, with minimal in-person schooling. During those months, he was working all day, studying all night, studying all weekend, and starting it all over again the next week.

"Soon after, a boutique web design company offered him a fantastic job with a great starting salary considering he had no prior work experience. They took a chance on him, and within one year, he received multiple raises and promotions and was sought after within the industry. Later that year, he took another job, was promoted to chief technical officer within four years, and was then recruited by a well-respected Chicago company."

Doesn't feel like work

It might be stories like that one that help Michael keep her passion strong. Eighteen years later, Michael has amassed more than 30,000 one-on-one coaching hours, and her fuel to help others achieve their best is still burning.

"I still wake up every morning loving my job and looking forward to my 14-hour workday. People don't understand how I can work that long and see so many people day after day for so many years. But that's because they've never had the experience of loving something so much that it doesn't feel like work."

Jody Michael Associates has grown, too. There are now eight full-time team members plus more subcontracted coaches, and she sees her company continuing to grow strategically without compromising quality.

One of the newest members of her company is Cathy Cullen, Michael's partner of 18 years and love of her life. Michael explains that Cullen is filling the role of COO at Jody Michael Associates. "She has a wonderful linear and intelligent engineer's mind, which is a nice compliment to my visionary, creative mind!"

No slowing down

Michael emphasizes that she is nowhere near the end of her coaching career. "I still find this work engaging and challenging. I am continually fascinated by what it means to be human." And as reflected by her interest and expertise in the fields of neuroscience, mindfulness, human behavior, cognitive psychology, systems theory, ontology, change models, and leadership and organizational dynamics, she has been doing her homework.

In the coming years, Michael would like to focus more on speaking engagements and large workshop events, and she also plans to publish at least one book. But her overall motivation remains the same as always: "There's nothing more rewarding than seeing people achieve their greatest goals—creating the life they want."

Visit www.jodymichael.com or call 773-275-5566.


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