When you’re in the midst of a mid-career crisis or professional reinvention, the right career coach can be a lifesaver, helping you identify potential future directions and the path to reach them. But how do you find the right one? As an unregulated industry, anyone can hang a shingle and declare themselves a “career coach,” an “executive coach,” or even a “life coach.” Some are talented and knowledgeable, and others not so much. Since writing Reinventing You, I’ve often been asked for recommendations about hiring a career coach. Here’s the advice I give.
Understand when you need to reach out. Because it can be complex to hire a career coach (How do I know who’s good? What if it’s a waste of money?), many people delay the process until they reach a breaking point — they’ve lost their job, or they’re so miserable at their current one, they’re on the brink of quitting. But as with most things, preventative measures are best, and you’re far better off speaking with someone before you’re overwhelmed and desperate.
If you’re not sure if you’re ready to hire someone yet, do some investigating. Get recommendations from friends and colleagues, scour blogs and do research online (because thanks to Skype, the coach you hire doesn’t need to be local), and create a timeline for yourself. If you don’t have time in your life now to explore work with a career coach, when will you? After tax season? In six months, after the new product launch? Make a firm commitment to revisit it down the line.
And keep in mind that if you’re facing a broader upheaval in your life, you may want to consider seeing a therapist (which will often be covered by insurance), rather than a career coach, which won’t.
Identify what you want to learn. Because coaches come from such widely divergent backgrounds, they have different skills and insights to offer you. If you want to make the right choice, identify upfront what you’d like to learn from the experience. If you’re feeling dissatisfaction with your professional life, start by combing the aisles of your bookstore; a variety of career books such as What Should I Do With My Life? or How Will You Measure Your Life? can help you ascertain the broad themes you’d like to explore, so your work with a coach can be more targeted.
If you want to understand how to navigate office politics better, you may want to consider hiring a coach who has personal familiarity with corporate life, so she’s speaking from experience rather than theory. Other coaches specialize in particular types of transitions, such as guiding people toward nonprofit or socially meaningful careers, or work with specific demographic groups. I even know one woman who bills herself as a “Workplace Cancer and Disease Crisis Coach.
Give them a test drive. Ten or 15 years ago, you would have had to vet your coach through a personal meeting or phone call, and perhaps by talking with their past clients. That’s still a good idea, but today you have another tool in your arsenal. Legitimate professionals have embraced content creation, including blogging, podcasting, videoblogging, and more. Almost every coach will have a “paper trail” allowing you to see for yourself the kinds of issues they’re writing and thinking about, how they approach the situation, and their personal style. You may be drawn to someone with a more reserved and serious style, or want an encouraging cheerleader. By consuming their content in advance, you can make an informed choice about whether you’ll “click” professionally.
Recognize it’s not forever. As you grow professionally, your challenges will evolve over the years. Today, you may be looking for help finding your true passion or making a career change; in 10 or 20 years, your goal may be a fulfilling second act in retirement. It’s important to recognize that different coaches may be uniquely suited to help you at different phases.
When I first started my consulting business, I devoured the works of one author whose approach I found particularly salient, and even paid to participate in various in-person workshops and a mentor program. His advice on starting and setting up a business was invaluable, but became less relevant as I fixed my sights on bigger goals and began to be able to predict exactly what he’d say. Today, I’m focused on learning from those who have already excelled at my next targets, such as writing a bestselling book and dramatically expanding my email list. Any decision you make to work with someone is revocable if it’s not working or if you outgrow the approach; by staying in touch with your goals, you can adjust accordingly.
It can be difficult to navigate a professional reinvention on your own. A good career coach can save you countless hours of frustration by sharing best practices with you and helping you avoid common pitfalls as you transition. But finding the right one makes all the difference.