Michelle Schafer is Owner and Career Coach of Michelle Schafer Coaching. In this feature interview, Michelle shares the secrets behind her success to date and tells The Industry Leaders how she is continuing to grow and improve as a business leader.
For those who don't know about you and your work, can you tell us who you are, and where your business is based?
My name is Michelle Schafer. I'm a career coach specializing in career transition and leadership development, a mom, a lover of the outdoors, a small business owner, and a proud resident of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Although my business is based in Ottawa, the majority of my work is virtual, which means I can coach clients in Canada, the US, or around the world.
Family is of utmost importance to me. I have a partner who is my best friend and biggest cheerleader, and two boys aged 14 and 16 who I’m watching develop into responsible, fun, adventurous, and independent young men. Carving out time for these most important relationships can be a challenge as a small business owner and yet a huge priority for me daily.
Adventure is also a big part of my life, with memorable trips climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and, recently, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
What was the main inspiration behind starting your business?
I love learning about the career stories of my clients, and how I got into coaching is a story on its own. I've been restructured twice and reinvented myself twice in my career – first from financial services to not-for-profit, then not-for-profit to small business ownership (7 years ago!) as a coach and the owner of Michelle Schafer Coaching.
I joke that at age 46, I finally knew what I wanted to do when I grew up! My good coaching friend Val planted the seed years ago, as I had always coached as part of my job - then, when my position was eliminated a second time, I started networking with coaches to learn more and find out about their coaching specialization and what coaching school they went to. I realized while taking my first level coaching certification that this was something I wanted to do as a career (not just off the side of my desk), so I established my own practice and, because of my own transition experience, chose to focus my coaching in the career space. The book “Answering Your Call” by John Schuster provided a lot of inspiration to me as I was contemplating this huge pivot in my career.
Failure makes us stronger, more resilient, and we learn from it - entrepreneurship is hardly all roses!
When I work with clients, I focus on work that gives them energy. For me, I am deeply fulfilled and truly inspired by the progress of others ‒ it's rewarding to work with someone who may be stuck when they come to me and end up developing new strategies and using new tools to help them take steps forward toward their career goal. I believe that everyone deserves to find a career that allows them to do work that gives them energy, for a company that believes what they believe in. That’s my Simon Sinek “why.”
When I was restructured, I was provided a career coach to help me navigate the job market and give me a "soft landing". I wanted to be that person.
I am proud to hold my Professional Coaching certification with the International Coaching Federation and I am credentialed as an Integral Professional Coach with Integral Coaching Canada. This year, I was nominated by Faces Magazine for Ottawa Career Coach of the Year and was named as one of Ottawa’s Top 20 Career Coaches in 2020. Last year I was honoured as a Brainz Executive Contributor and recipient of a Global 500 award.
Who does your business help?
Are you looking for work, and needing to re-enter the job market quickly, stressed after a recent job loss and not knowing where to start? Perhaps you are feeling stuck in your career, and longing for more purpose in your work, with an organization that believes what you believe? Or maybe you are needing expert assistance with creating a job search strategy and marketing yourself, including resume development, interview practice and networking strategies? I can help!
Are you a leader requiring assistance to lead a remote or distributed work team to keep people motivated and connected? Or needing to build confidence to inspire and lead employees as a new manager, navigating the transition from individual contributor to leader? Perhaps you are struggling with having challenging conversations, delivering key messages or providing feedback in a clear and constructive way? Or needing support to get out of the weeds and transition from “doer” to “strategist”?
I've been building my writing "muscle" more, which has resulted in, sharing thought leadership and participating in podcasts and interviews. I'm found through Google searches more now than I ever was before.
Maybe you are looking to establish healthy boundaries with your team and empower individuals to develop and implement their own solutions? Or you know you are being groomed for a more senior role, and need to “fine-tune” your leadership competencies? Perhaps you are wanting to have a more productive and positive relationship with a manager, employee or peer, dealing with conflict in a healthy way? Or looking to strike a better balance between your work and personal life? I can help!
I work across all sectors, with experience in the public sector (federal, provincial and municipal) as well as not-for-profit, tech, financial services, healthcare, retail, hospitality, sport, music and tourism. I work with clients at all levels of an organization, including both new and experienced leaders.
Can you share with us a time when you failed, and what you learned from that experience to make yourself a better entrepreneur?
I'm glad you asked. When I work with clients who are interested in transitioning into small business ownership, they tend to focus on all the benefits and rewards (like being your own boss, having flexible time etc) but are less interested in exploring the challenges or the failures, and it's important to understand both sides. Failure makes us stronger, more resilient, and we learn from it - entrepreneurship is hardly all roses!
When I was obtaining my first level coaching certification (which was a tough 6 months filled with practice, theory, learning, applying and feedback), the group was split into triads to practice coaching each other. When it was my turn to coach my fellow colleague, I froze. I was able to start, but then forgot all the strategies, questions and considerations that would help me lean in to what my "client" was struggling with, and help her through this.
It was bad!
I was in tears after, as all I kept thinking was "why am I doing this? I'm not cut out to be a coach!". I was fearful that I made the wrong move - that coaching wasn't for me after all - and thinking of starting a business based on this would not be a good idea. This experience taught me about the power of my narrative - that story in my head that was founded on a whole lot of assumptions and judgements - in this case, judgements about myself - and not a lot of fact. It turns out, my practice coaching assignment wasn't as bad as I was telling myself, and I learned a lot about resilience and persistence in that program.
Moral of the story: Don't give up. You can do it. There will be waves (sometimes tsunami-sized ones) but if you keep your head above water you will make it to shore.
How do you define success, and how do you measure it in your business?
That's a great question. Beyond the simple math (like making sure I'm generating enough revenue to cover my business and life expenses), success to me is measured in skill development, increased visibility and knowing I made a difference in a client's life and ability to meet their challenges head-on.
This year, I've been building my writing "muscle" more, which has resulted in writing for Brainz magazine on a regular basis, sharing thought leadership over LinkedIn and participating in podcasts and interviews. In turn, these submissions have increased my visibility in the marketplace, and I'm found through Google searches more now than I ever was before.
For me, success is not just measured through revenue. Hearing from clients that I provided support to them at a crucial time in their life, is incredibly meaningful to me, and drives what I do. I'm deeply rewarded by a client's progress, so when I hear from a client that they landed a job they love thanks to my interview coaching, or have a client express how they leveled-up their leadership through our coaching sessions, I know I'm doing the right thing.
How do you stay motivated and focused on your goals, especially during the tough times?
The early days of the pandemic were one of those tough times - when clients started cancelling their workshops and coaching sessions, I became worried and wondered how I'd make enough money to survive. I even put my property tax and mortgage payments on hold for several months, to give me some breathing room.
What kept me going then was my clients. I kept in contact with them, checking in and seeing how they were doing, and providing resources to help them (especially leaders who suddenly had to lead a remote team - there was no playbook for that transition!). I started doing a lot of writing on LinkedIn then to share tips, articles and encouragement to the network. This was a big shift for me - before, I was happier hiding behind the posts of other people. Now I had an opportunity to help others by becoming more vocal and sharing my thoughts. Supporting my clients even though I had very few formal coaching sessions, kept me moving forward.
Right now I'm digging deep for that motivation as I recover from a femur fracture from a skating fall (and I love to skate!) It's been a frustrating time as I recover - not being able to work as much due to fatigue, and losing some business from workshops to be delivered in person. I keep reminding myself this is not my forever place - that things will improve as I recover. I've been trying to show kindness to myself and have temporarily reduced my workload in order to rest, read and recover.
What do you think are the key qualities that every successful entrepreneur should possess?
There are a bunch - it's hard to pick!
The key qualities I lean into are:
Love of learning, and
Strong relationship builder.
Resilience to survive changing circumstances and adversity (like a global pandemic!), self-motivation to define the structure of my day or to realize when I need to pivot, a thirst for continual learning because development and growth comprise a journey (not an event), and strong relationship building skills to help you network for new clients, deeply understand client needs and show them how you can add value.
What role do you think technology and digital innovation play in the success of businesses in your industry, and how do you stay up-to-date with the latest trends?
I'll admit - I'm not technically savvy. But as an entrepreneur I've needed to be. I've needed to embrace technology and recognize how it can make my life easier. LinkedIn has helped me stay in touch with trends and new technology.
ChatGPT is an example - there is a lot of talk right now about how it can help job seekers create resumes and generate interview questions to practice. It can also help with career development and give clients ideas of new career paths to explore. I've been attending webinars to learn how GPT can support my business, and I have set up an account to play around with it so I can see how it can support my clients and even my writing. There is lots of potential - I'm trying to embrace it even though it's outside my comfort zone.
Do you use any particular software or tech tools to make your life easier at work?
Calendly - hands down! Using this platform to book my client meetings has saved me so much time in back-and-forth emails with clients to book a date, then subsequent emails to send the Zoom link (and more emails if the meeting needed to be rescheduled!) I have no idea why I didn't start using this sooner! It's made my life infinitely more manageable and has saved me hours per month on administrative tasks, which gives me more time to do what I love: coaching!
Grammarly is another tool - I've been amazed at how much my writing has improved since using it!
What do you think sets your company apart from others in your industry, and how do you plan to continue to differentiate yourself in the future?
I think what makes me unique is I wear three hats - I can help clients who are navigating a career transition, leaders who need to develop their ability to lead a team effectively, and I can facilitate workshops focused on both topics. In this way, I can support clients in any stage of their career (and even retirement). Occasionally, there are times where leadership coaching evolves into career transition coaching (for leaders who are looking to transition to an individual contributor role) and vice versa, so it's helpful that I am specialized in both areas.
When I hear from a client that they landed a job they love thanks to my interview coaching, or have a client express how they leveled-up their leadership through our coaching sessions, I know I'm doing the right thing.
I also develop individualized coaching programs that address and support a client's unique needs. Instead of providing a set path or mandatory assessments to complete, I meet the client where they are and focus on what's most important for them at that moment. Many coaching firms offer set programs for clients which allows for little flexibility. Each of my coaching sessions is highly individualized, which helps the client feel seen, heard and understood. I'm certified in the Foundations of Team Coaching with the Global Team Coaching Institute, so I plan to develop the "muscle" of coaching teams in the future and deepen my knowledge, experience and expertise in this area.
Are you working on any specific products, deals or promotions that people should know about?
Yes - I have an exclusive deal for followers and readers of The Industry Leaders! When you reach out to me and say "I saw your Industry Leaders interview" , you will receive a 1-hour virtual coaching session on a career topic of your choice for $200 CAD + HST (regular price $400 CAD + HST). That's a saving of 50%!
What does the next 12 months have in store for you and your business?
I’m working with Stratford Group to launch a team effectiveness program. This was born out of a new partnership with Liane Davey, a renowned organizational psychologist and sought-after speaker on topics such as healthy conflict, leadership, communication and building effective teams.
This team-centred program will spark conversation about how teams can remove barriers that get in the way of achieving results and being productive, and will contribute to stronger psychological safety within teams and employee engagement. This program is so needed today! I've also been doing a lot of writing and media work, and look forward to sharing podcast episodes and online interviews as they are published.