James Coltharp never thought he’d have his own business. He liked the team approach too much. But now here he is, coaching teams as his business.
When the Oxford, Ohio, native and economics instructor at Miami University (OH) became an economist for the Federal Communications Commission in the early 1990s, he moved to Washington, where he advised two commissioners and eventually became the chief economist.
In 1997, Coltharp, who now lives in Arlington, joined Comcast as its first employee in the region. He says he was thankful to learn from Comcast founder Ralph Roberts and son Brian (now chairman and CEO). He helped build the office here, representing Comcast on Capitol Hill and before the FCC, later becoming chief policy advisor.
“The company was growing into big acquisitions, and a new place in the industry, rolling out new services,” Coltharp said. “It was very exciting, lots of growth, a great way to learn about leading people.”
He loved motivating people, thriving in this intensity of growth. “There were very exciting, historic things that were happening… It’s great we went through services and challenges; we learned to compete. We learned to become better and our company became more competitive.”
But several years ago, he started thinking intentionally about his life. Helping a seriously ill friend in his last weeks changed him, and Coltharp grew contemplative. Sitting with his friend, Coltharp kept a journal. In the corner of each page, he jotted “second half,” envisioning what it would look like. “I wanted to get better, and I wanted to help others.”
He had already founded Bright Lights Tutoring in 1993, for fourth- through sixth-graders in Washington. He served 18 years with the organization, creating a reading library and coaching volunteer tutors. He found personal fulfillment helping to connect children with professionals; the kids loved that the tutors came “from big jobs to teach them.” He also helped single mothers facing homelessness with job searches.
So he assessed. People had said he’d make a good coach, but he’d never thought about pursuing the field. Eventually a challenge pushed him to greater clarity. He’d been practicing ballroom dancing with his partner, Olga Chekhova, for years, focused on being a team, and entering competitions.
Headed to a competition in the winter of 2015, while hauling a suitcase, he slipped on sleet and ice covering his porch. Pain shot through his foot. He hobbled to his car, driving to get an x-ray — stopping to beg for crutches from a pharmacy drive-through window in the snowstorm. The doctor pronounced his foot fractured, saying it would take 14 weeks to heal. Coltharp showed the doctor dance pictures on his phone.
“She doesn’t have 14 weeks,” he said, pointing to Chekhova. “This is her profession, and I’m a part of that. What else can we do?”
They formed a team strategy, working with a physician, physical therapist, trainer, Coltharp’s partner Chekhova, a boot, and practicing 12 hours a week. (“I learned I could spin with a boot!”) He also put a freezer in his office to ice his foot eight times a day.
“It could’ve stopped me, but it didn’t,” he said. “We got stronger.”
By May 1, the couple was dancing in Los Angeles, placing high at the Emerald Ball Dance Competition. But Coltharp doesn’t like to talk about that. Instead, he speaks about how they worked together on the waltzes and tangos. “After a significant injury, the goal was to come back stronger than before and perform as a strong team.” Mission accomplished.
During that time, the phrase “Keep Pressing On” became stuck in his mind. “There are times when things don’t look good. You need a conviction that helps drive you to press on.” The phrase, he said, “fit with a coaching mindset, with a desire to help people get better.”
“Challenges people experience are similar,” Coltharp said. “They may struggle with how their company is taking off or with public speaking or with how to deliver their best at the moment they need it. Peak performance. What is it that separates someone who’s good and someone who’s a champion?”
Coltharp thought more about coaching. He left Comcast in October 2019 and earned an Associate Certified Coach certification from the International Coaching Federation in 2020. Now 60 years old, he’s found his “second half,” helping teams, entrepreneurs and companies “get better, deliver peak performance, and grow.”
Naming his new coaching business the KeePressingOn Project (his consulting business is James Coltharp Policy Solutions), he sold the vision, hired four employees and found clients nationwide.
“I care about building a positive view of the future, a champion’s mindset, and communicating hope. It’s not about winning but being clear with needs, goals and approach. It’s about excellently executing,” Coltharp said.
Adds the dancer, who wears cufflinks engraved with his late friend’s initials during each performance: “Even small steps matter.”
Advice for businesses today
Coltharp’s KeePressingOn Project launched during the pandemic. Following are his thoughts on leadership during tumultuous times.
This is a time for courage
Coltharp recommends adaptability and hope, pivoting and flexibility in tumultuous times. He also recommends validating the deep losses. Leaders need empathy and intuition to understand that people deal differently, he says. Besides uncertainty and working remotely, in the long run people are dealing with weariness, discouragement and depression. “This is a time for courage. It’s not about feeling good because many may not, but it’s about hope, to believe there are opportunities, and begin to run to those. It may involve focusing differently.”
Ask yourself these questions
When people say they want to get back to normal as soon as possible, he explains it may not come in the way they think it will. Ask yourself “how do you get better, grow, find courage and hope during this time? In business, how can you lead, motivate, and engage teams in a different way? How will you grow?” Companies who understand this will enter into a new time much stronger and with a different posture.
For best results, build trust
People don’t need lists of things to do, he says; they need compassion. For motivating teams during crises, he suggests engagement and trust. Understand your teams—what will help them in their remote environment? One employee might be juggling schooling online for a child; another may be out of state helping elderly parents. Caring, keeping folks together and building trust is important. That will affect results.
Play to your strengths
He says it’s not about working harder but intentionally thinking about “using your natural strengths.” He cites the story of Ethiopian marathon runner, Abebe Bikila, in the 1960 Olympics. Breaking in new shoes, his feet blistered. So, he took them off, running barefoot through Rome’s cobblestone streets. “This is how we run in my country,” he is reported to have said, crossing the finish line 25 seconds ahead of the favorite, and setting a world record.
Photo and Caption:
IMG: James Coltharp
Photo by Tom Hogeback, Village West Photography, Oxford, OH.
“As I listen to folks, the uncertainty and anxiety from earlier this year has given way to a weariness and discouragement. These are days of deep challenges for so many families… losses and wounds….I want to respect those situations….this is a time for people to look for a path, for hope and strength…such a path is ahead. It’s important to remind people their story is not over. I hope as people think of their work, working another week remotely, that people will try, take the first step they’ve not considered possible, perhaps take a risk where they have hesitated, make the phone call to say, ‘I’m sorry this hasn’t been working well, let’s work on it once more together.’” – James Coltharp, KeePressingOn Project