Workaholics anonymous The sweet science of slowing down.
By Gay Jervey

(FORTUNE Magazine) – By late January, Jack Nicholson's role in About Schmidt has won the actor--who plays a suddenly adrift retired insurance executive--a new legion of fans. But perhaps none are more enthusiastic than the group that has convened in this large, loftlike conference room in Toronto. The crowd of about 50--mostly white males wearing sweaters, turtlenecks, and loafers--mill about, sipping coffee and commenting on the wintry weather. But soon enough conversation turns to Nicholson.

"How about that Golden Globe last night to my man Jack!" one young man grins. "He was so awesome as Schmidt."

"I'll say," another replies. "He just nailed it."

"God, that was such a sad movie," nods a third. "Schmidt is actually lost without work. He needed to take more Free Time!"

Wait a minute. Free Time?

This crowd of entrepreneurs knows a little something about Free Time. Over the years they and others like them have paid thousands of dollars to participate in a seminar series produced by a company called the Strategic Coach, and their sympathy for poor Schmidt is quite heartfelt. To hear them tell it, they all might well have become Schmidts had they not discovered Strategic Coach. Now, they say, they've focused their energy, increased their time off--some have even saved a marriage or two. And, they claim, they've also been able to make more money.

We know--you've heard this before. And judging from his success, Strategic Coach's Dan Sullivan--a former advertising executive who founded the company with his wife in 1988--may be on his way to becoming the next self-improvement superstar, like motivator Tony Robbins or organizational guru Stephen Covey. In the past nine years, the company says, revenues have grown almost tenfold, to $20 million in 2002. Since 1995, Strategic Coach, based in Toronto, has started offering workshops there and in Vancouver, New York City, Los Angeles, Orlando, and Dallas. Some 3,700 people now attend Sullivan's seminars every year.

But unlike Tony Robbins, Sullivan doesn't pump his troops to new heights of overachievement. His clients--successful entrepreneurs--don't necessarily need any rallying. "You don't really have to stir them up," Sullivan says. "Their biggest problem is complexity. They have too much going on in their lives."

Sullivan's charge is very different: teaching people how not to work. "Of the 365 days a year, there are only going to be three different kinds of days," Sullivan explains. "Focus Days, when you're producing the really best results; Free Days, when you're rejuvenating; and Buffer Days, when you are preparing--handling the backstage of your work. And you're not going to let one day's activities lap over into another's."

And Sullivan isn't kidding around about just how "free" those days are supposed to be. It's de rigueur that on Free Days, clients must go cold turkey--no cellphones, no pagers, no Wall Street Journal, no contact with the office, no nothing. Sullivan takes 14 weeks of Free Days a year and, for the record, practices what he preaches, which can make it difficult to reach him if, for instance, you're writing an article about him.

According to Strategic Coach statistics, after three years in the program, 95% of clients increased their income and 89% increased their Free Days. Those are the kinds of results that can create a die-hard following, and judging by the testimony of his disciples--which could have come straight out of an infomercial--Sullivan is well on his way. Steve Krein, a 32-year-old online publisher and marketing consultant, started with Coach in 1998. Since he joined the program, he says, he takes more vacations, enjoys three-day weekends, and has married his girlfriend, all thanks to Sullivan's teachings. "I increased my income by ten times, and my amount of free time as well. And I attribute it 100% to him," Krein says. Then he pauses. "Okay, 80% to him and 20% to me. But it was 100% his direction."

Or take the testimony of Susan Payne, whom I met at a late-November luncheon in New York City that Sullivan was co-hosting for clients. Payne, who owns a benefits-consulting company in New Jersey, describes herself as a "poster child for the Strategic Coach." When Sullivan approached our table, she grabbed his arm and announced, "My husband is here. He knows your voice from listening to your tapes. I would rather see you than any famous actor in the world!"

It may seem odd that Sullivan's popularity is peaking at a time of economic uncertainty, when most people have more Free Days than they know what to do with. But to hear Nancy K. Austin, a writer and consultant from Capipola, Calif., who co-wrote Tom Peters's A Passion for Excellence and has contributed to FSB, that's because Sullivan taps into emotions that aren't necessarily linked to the economy. "I think it has a lot to do with people's anxiety and guilt [about not working hard enough]. And those are two pretty powerful motivators." Sullivan's program, she says, gives entrepreneurs a structure so that they can feel comfortable away from the office. "Structure is essential and soothing, and can be very important for psychic housekeeping."

Coaches stress that the seminars are practical, not touchy-feely Robert Bly confessionals. Nevertheless, they can become quite personal. After all, participants discuss their relationships, their worries, their goals, and their priorities. Coach Dave La Rue, who, in addition to leading the seminars, owns Baldwin Supply Co., an industrial-parts distributorship in Minneapolis, relates an incident in one workshop when, among other things, they were discussing how much pressure type-A perfectionists put on their families. "One of the dads stood up, interrupted the whole group, and said, 'That's me. That's me. This is how I've lived my whole life, and this is what I've done to my whole family,'" La Rue recalls. "And he said that he had to go out and call them. Right then and there, he called his wife and apologized for making her live like that for the last 30 years."

"We always joke about the fact that it's like Alcoholics Anonymous," continues La Rue. "You get up there, and you say, 'Hi, I'm Dave La Rue, and I'm a workaholic.' People don't necessarily say that. We don't really have that kind of setting, but a lot of people are thinking about it."

Sullivan is the first to admit that he had to learn the hard way. "I'm a convert. I was a workaholic," he confesses. Before meeting his current wife and forming Strategic Coach, Sullivan--who had a business providing one-on-one counseling for entrepreneurs--suffered through two bankruptcies and a divorce. "I had a completely unbalanced life," he says.

But don't get the wrong idea: He hasn't given up on cash--or ambition. He still dreams of expanding his empire. "We have gone from $2 million to $20 million over a period of nine years," he says, adding that the company's next goal is to break through to the next level and grow to $200 million by 2018. "This is a process that all our clients go through too."

Strategic Coach offers a number of different seminar programs for various income brackets. One series is tailored to people making up to $199,000 per year, the next for $200,000 through $500,000, and so on, up to the group making more than $1 million. Fees vary from $4,000 to $10,000 per year. After completing the seminars, the true believer can join the Masters Program. Strategic Coach also markets several ancillary programs, such as the Unique EDGE, a $1,000 version to help young adults ages 18 to 24 plan goals and focus their talents.

The seminar where all those About Schmidt fans have gathered is one of the company's Masters workshops. Most of the participants here have been attending Sullivan's classes for between five and eight years--some as many as 15--and as a result they have come to know one another quite well. As the group assembles on the first morning, friends call out to each other, catching up on events over the four months since most of them last got together.

Throughout the day the group amiably goes through its appointed tasks. They start with an exercise called Positive Focus, in which they write down their accomplishments from 2002 and what they hope to achieve in 2003. While this doesn't seem too radical a notion, it's intended to help attendees avoid the Gap--the feeling that none of their accomplishments are meaningful. By listing their successes and how to build on them, Sullivan's clients can measure progress against their own performance, not against some unattainable ideal.

Next up: the Retirement Trick, in which the participants try to think of themselves as being retired, doing only the work that they want to do and passing the rest on to others. The goal is to identify their Unique Abilities--those skills that come naturally to them and at which they work most efficiently. After lunch they get to work on the Results Multiplier, in which they devise a set of personal commandments, called Always Laws. The group divides into two groups --I'm seated with George Goulet and Rob Darnbrough, both of whom own Canadian insurance companies and who have become friends after having taken several years of Strategic Coach seminars together. Later the discussion gets continued in three-and four-man panels.

"I think I've pretty much gotten the Free Day thing happening," begins Paul Walker, a Canadian insurance and financial consultant. "I spent four weeks off in July."

"During those four weeks, did you have the urge to call the office?" asks Goulet.

"I called back in once a week," Walker replies. "I can't go any longer than that, but my assistant lies and says everything is okay."

"If I called in today, they'd get mad at me," Darnbrough says, nodding.

"Oh, well," Goulet grins. "If the place burns down, we'll find the ashes."

It's easy to see why Sullivan's philosophy--time off, peace of mind, financial success--is so popular. But like the Atkins diet, it may not be a solution that can work for everyone. (Of course, that's true of any self-help seminar.) "People are desperate for complete solutions," Austin says. "There is this demand for an answer that can be installed like carpeting.... But it's not foolproof. It's not the perfect solution."

Be that as it may, many of Sullivan's followers seem ready to wander the desert for 40 years, if that's what their leader prescribes. As the workshop disbanded, he was surrounded by clients who were eager for a word with him. "I want you to know that I did what you told me to," gushed one woman. "You told me to hire another person so that I could concentrate on my Unique Ability, and I hired three!"

She touched Sullivan's arm and declared, "I obeyed you."