T.J. Skelly was at a crossroads. After being laid off as a high-level manager at an automotive parts supplier in 2000, he was offered a six-figure management position at a similar company. Skelly, 48, knew a corporate job would help support his wife and three teenagers. Yet for several years, the idea of starting his own business gnawed at him. Not knowing how to go about it or what entrepreneurship entailed, Skelly turned to a life coach.

A cross between a consultant and therapist, life coaches counsel people who need a nudge, guidance, or support (or all three) in matters ranging from health and wellness issues to financial and business affairs. Skelly chose Paul O'Connor, a former entrepreneur with a track record of helping other business owners and creative types. At first, O'Connor acted as a career coach, offering strategy advice when Skelly launched Gateway Products Group, his own automotive and industrial supplier in Duluth, Ga. Now that Gateway has gotten off the ground (the company reportedly booked more than half a million in sales this year, and Skelly hopes to double that next year), O'Connor helps him balance work and personal priorities, like teaching Skelly how to create a manageable to-do list.

"Once you make a list, you wonder, How did I ever get through the day?" says Skelly, who now has more time to attend his daughter's lacrosse games. Other tasks O'Connor assigns include meditating and keeping a personal journal.

Skeptics may point out that discipline and a PalmPilot, not a professional, are needed to get lives back on track. But as with a personal trainer, sticking to a regimen is easier with instruction and positive reinforcement.

"Being coached made me a more interesting person. I could die tomorrow, and I know I love my life."

Not to mention the motivation that comes from paying for such services, which can range from $400 to $1,200 per month, according to International Coach Federation board member Judy Feld. That usually covers three or four 45-minute sessions, either in person or over the phone, plus e-mail correspondence.

Isn't, then, a coach merely a professional friend? As Skelly points out, you wouldn't share all your personal and financial details with a friend; to coaches, you're "someone about whom they haven't made any predetermined judgments."

Higher-end fees are more than some therapists charge, but don't confuse the two, says Feld. Coaches offer action-oriented advice, focusing on forward-looking solutions instead of delving into a person's psychological past. Few have therapy or counseling backgrounds; a recent survey of ICF members showed that more than 70% were former consultants or managers.

Coaches are required to complete a rigorous two-year training course and spend 250 hours with clients to receive an associate coach certificate from the ICF, the industry's credentialing association, with 6,000 members. A "master" certification means 200 hours of coursework and 2,500 hours of experience.

An alternative to one-on-one coaching is the seminar-based program, like Dan Sullivan's Strategic Coach, based in Toronto. Its quarterly one-day workshops for entrepreneurs have attracted a cultish following since its founding in 1988. Participants are coached in clusters based on their income. Steven Krein, now CEO and managing partner of the New York City-based investment firm Transformation Ventures, began six years ago as a 27-year-old in the $100,000 income group. He's now in the $1 million-plus club.

"You're around other people who want what you want out of life," says Krein, who now works four days a week instead of seven, has lost 50 pounds, and has taken up photography and scuba diving. "It's made me a more interesting person. I could die tomorrow, and I know I love my life."

Skelly could say the same thing, and the $350 he pays a month to O'Connor seems a bargain: "I find that because I'm focused and motivated, results come easily."

The Well-Balanced Life

The Turnaround
How a life plan charted the course of one company and its owner. By Donna Fenn.
Not sure how to devise your own life plan?
Use this worksheet to help get you on your way to developing a life plan that benefits you personally and benefits your business.
Got Game?
When life makes you want to call a time-out, perhaps it's time to call in a coach. By Jess McCuan.
Need help getting your life into shape?
Resources to help you get your life into shape. By Stephanie Clifford
Paid Time Off
Avocations become side businesses for entrepreneurs mixing work and pleasure. By Stephanie Clifford.