Originally published for the International Coach Federation.

Channeling Tim Gunn: How Fashion’s Favorite Mentor Models Coaching Practices

Using skills identified through the ICF Core Competencies, coaches employ a variety of techniques to motivate our clients to excel and, in turn, find our own inspiration in art, literature, poetry, philosophy, and from entertainers of all kinds.

I find inspiration watching “Project Runway” where fashion consultant Tim Gunn demonstrates many of the competencies a professional coach must have, although he is a mentor and not a certified coach.

On Project Runway, fashion designers compete for a coveted spot at New York’s Fashion Week. Each week, contestants must impress host Heidi Klum and three other judges, who are all fashion experts, eagle-eyed, picky, and brutally honest. As Klum intones in every episode, “in fashion, one week you’re in and the next week, you’re out. One contestant is eliminated and bid “auf wiedersehen” by Klum.

The remaining designers face a new challenge that tests their creativity, endurance and resilience. They work under extreme pressure – thirty minutes to sketch, another thirty to shop, $100 to spend on materials, and a day to measure, sew, adjust, accessorize, style hair and makeup, and make final alterations. The creation must be runway ready and red-carpet worthy. Under this pressure, compounded with the added stress of competing on television, many crack, cry, deteriorate, and lose hope. Although aired weekly, the contestants face a new challenge every day or so, operating on little sleep and all living and traveling together.

Enter Tim Gunn, mentor to all contestants. As a former Associate Dean at Parsons School for Design, he knows the industry and what the judges expect. During each challenge, he shepherds the designers through sketching, shopping and finishing their final designs. Dressed in beautiful suits with silver grey hair and wire-rimmed glasses, he exudes both professorial and sartorial elegance. As the show progress, he coaches, cheerleads and motivates each contestant to turn out the best work possible. He enters the workroom and meets with each designer to assess progress. In a room filled with designers actively sewing and fitting, and a camera crew, Gunn’s focus is trained exclusively on the individual (although the others watch on and the camera may pan to their facial expressions). At that moment, there is only one designer in the room.

He starts with an upbeat greeting, stating his intention to check in and immediately establishing an authentic, concerned presence, as he sizes up the work while assessing how it tracks the challenge and the designer’s point of view. He wants them to do well. Next, he finds out what the designer intends – the desired outcome. Exploration of the situation follows where Gunn really gets into the coaching realm. He listens actively to the contestant and his attention to detail and nuance are exquisite. During a recent show, a designer said, “I was really excited about this fabric” and Gunn immediately caught the past tense in that sentence and asked, “You were?” Her feeling had changed and attentive listening brought it out. He asks powerful questions, often drawing on issues that cropped up in earlier episodes like “How can you address the judges’ concern that your designs look old?”

Gunn asks permission before offering feedback. He uses direct communication, offering what he sees as possible issues with the garment, often with humor mixed in. In a challenge where the designers were using Jacqueline Onassis as a muse for an updated look, Gunn said “Jackie O would NOT have camel toe.” He has compared designs to sanitary napkins and diapers, but always with integrity and the clear intention of helping the designer see what he sees and, more importantly, what the judges may see. He creates awareness through his questions. “Where is this person going?” “What can we do with a vintage housecoat to make it modern?”

The designers gain perspective, recognize self-imposed roadblocks and limitations and form ideas for improvement. Gunn helps each designer believe they can win not only this challenge, but the whole competition. He is relentlessly enthusiastic, optimistic and positive. Any issue he mentions is capable of mitigation and he doesn’t criticize for the sake of it, only when action can be taken to fix it. Future actions are discussed and a plan is set. He makes sure the goals are specific, realistic and achievable. Gunn ends the session on a positive note, using his famous catch phrase “make it work!” or “I like where you’re going with this” or “you have a lot to do, work, work, work!” Some designers feel great when he leaves and others are worried because they have identified difficult issues, but they are never left without a plan and, most importantly, hope.

Watching Tim Gunn reminds me that wherever someone is in their journey, there are always steps that can be taken for better outcomes. Gunn does it with class, grace and style. When, inevitably, a designer is eliminated, he is there with a hug and, often, more encouragement, “we are going to see big things from you in the future!” Designers leaving Project Runway often express gratitude and, I am sure, that is largely owing to the supportive presence of Tim Gunn.


Originally published at the International Coach Federation here.

By | 2016-05-27T20:53:43+00:00 May 1, 2013|Categories: Coaching, International Coach Federation, Life Coaching|Tags: , |

About the Author:

Dena Lefkowitz is a veteran attorney and certified professional coach who helps clients reinvigorate their careers, polish business development skills and rediscover their sense of purpose. A former board member of the International Coach Federation’s Philadelphia chapter, Lefkowitz has successfully coached a best-selling author, lawyers, and chief executives. Firms have also hired Lefkowitz, a former in-house counsel, to work directly with entry level lawyers to improve performance and increase their early contributions to the firm. She holds her BA and JD from Temple University and Temple University School of Law.

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