Caroline Kim Oh was a teenager when she arrived in this country with no knowledge of the language and worked her way up to a job as head of a national nonprofit organization. Now she’s using the lessons she’s learned over the years and helping others as an Executive Coach.
What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How long have you been doing this job?
I am an Executive Coach who works with clients who are (or want to be) leaders in the nonprofit sector. As a coach, it’s my job to provide time, space, and structure to help my clients set and achieve their goals. I’ve been doing this work full-time for about six months, but I’ve been an informal coach and advisor for most of my career.
How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail?
Coaching has a lot of aspects – I ask questions, I really listen, I act as a brainstorming partner, and I help my clients come up with their own answers. When requested and appropriate, I also share my experiences as a nonprofit leader and a working Mom, and I give feedback on resumes and strategic plans, but it’s important to remind my clients that I’m giving my opinions, not the answers. I help my clients sort through the clutter of their everyday lives and figure out the path that makes the most sense for them.
Are there any misconceptions about your job?
I’ve heard Executive Coaching described as a cross between therapy and consulting, but that’s not quite it. I’m not there to help my clients heal or resolve their past issues, or give advice. I’m there to be a partner and make it easier for my clients to use the resources that they already have. It’s not my job to come up with the answers – they do that on their own – but I help to make it possible.
What is your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you?
I’m an Asian woman and an immigrant. When I was younger, that made me very self-conscious – I wasn’t confident about my writing or my ability to speak like a native English speaker. I was definitely jealous of people who grew up here or moved to the States earlier and didn’t have the difficulties I had. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve realized that nobody cares if I have an accent. I no longer feel like I have to prove anything to anyone.
Being a woman has its own challenges. In the work world, I felt people often didn’t take me as seriously as I wanted because I’m a woman and I’m small and I don’t look like I’m going to be the person that has command of the room. Also, while I believe that I was born to be a Mom, I somewhat resented having to “clip my wings” to have kids. I love being a Mom more than anything else in the world, but I also love my career, and it’s impossible to balance both and feel completely satisfied in both aspects of your life, all the time. Luckily, all those experiences inform and enrich my coaching.
What was your journey to doing this kind of work? How did you get here?
I came to this country from South Korea when I was in middle school, not speaking English at all. It was hard – my parents were very supportive, but they worked long hours and didn’t know how things worked in the United States, so I had to figure a lot out on my own. I was very lucky to have older cousins help me with my college applications or even take me into the city to see a movie.
While I was in college, my brother was injured, and it really made me think about the importance of having a job that makes a difference. I just couldn’t figure out how. I thought about medical school, but I hadn’t ever taken a science class, and I thought about being a public interest lawyer, but I hadn’t really prepared to go to law school, so I took a job at a nonprofit for a year. I immediately fell in love with the work and the people who do it, went back to graduate school for a degree in nonprofit management, and then landed at iMentor, where I worked for 12 years.
iMentor was perfect for me – the organization pairs working adults with young people from low-income communities to help them the way that my cousins and friends helped me when I was younger. I’d also noticed in college that a lot of other kids had opportunities I didn’t – I’d spend the summer working at my parent’s store, while they were visiting Europe or Asia or doing nice internships. iMentor helps kids like me access caring adult mentors connect them to more opportunities, skills and knowledge. I loved that.
At iMentor, I went from Program Director to Executive Director to President in a rapidly expanding organization, got married, had kids, and somehow found myself as an accidental advisor to nonprofits and nonprofit leaders. I had people calling me all the time, asking about staff development or fundraising or board development or work-life balance. Becoming an executive coach felt like a great way to focus on that part of my work and make a living doing it.
Do you love what you do? Do you think you’ve found the right path?
I absolutely love what I do. I love the sessions – meeting with my clients and really listening to them and working with them. I love the process of developing the coaching relationship and getting to know my clients deeply. My clients have made life-altering decisions in their sessions with me and even I’m amazed at times by what we’ve been able to accomplish together.
What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?
I often find that my clients underestimate their own strengths. They gloss over all the things that they’re good at and focus in on their weaknesses, because that’s where they want to improve. That’s important, but it’s as important to acknowledge and celebrate the areas where you are strong.
What kind of challenges do you face and what makes you just want to quit?
I consider myself a 40-year-old intern right now, because I’m learning by doing, and my rate reflects that. The money that I make as a coach is nowhere near the salary that I made – or could make – as an executive director. In exchange, I am able to control my work schedule, and work only 2-3 days a week, which allows me to focus on other aspects of my life, including caring for my young kids. I’m lucky to have a dual-income household so that my income can be a supplement instead of the primary income, but the pay differential is a major consideration for someone entering this field. My income will steadily increase over the next couple of years, but it would be hard to support your family on just this.
What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold?
Coaches’ pay varies. I’ve heard of coaches who only charge $50 a session and others who charge as much as $500 a session. It sounds like a lot, but that pay covers not only the work I do during the sessions, but any research that I do or time that I’m available over the phone and email between sessions. Coaches also spend a lot of unpaid time on business development: networking, speaking, writing, and meeting with potential clients. Many people end up supplementing this money with consulting work or freelance work.
If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
Right now, I’m finding that I really love the work and I’m getting better and better at it – I’d love to become one of the best in the field , but I don’t feel a need to become a big corporation and have other coaches working for me. I’d rather use talks and articles to reach those people who I can’t coach and share the lessons I’ve learned. In all honesty, though, I have no idea where I’ll be in five years. It’s enough for me that I’m enjoying the work that I do now and that I’d like to keep doing it.
Learn more about Caroline Kim Oh on her blog, LinkedIn page, or Twitter account.