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Five Tips on How to Pick a Career Coach

Vivia Chen

March 25, 2013

Megaphone © Kitty - FotoliaAll this talk about career coaching is making me anxious. Everyone and his pet turtle seem to have one. Is my career going down the toilet because I lack my very own coach? Is it too late to turn my life around?

Arguably, most anyone can benefit from a career coach—someone who will help you define your goals and devise ways to achieve them. Who doesn't need someone who will push and nag you to do better, and tell you when you're being stupid or lazy? Frankly, we all need a kick in the butt every so often.

But before you start dishing out dough for a career coach, remember this: Career coaches are not for everyone.

"It can be a terrible experience for someone who's not coachable," says Washington, D.C.–based coach Ellen Ostrow. "Some people are not suitable for coaching because they are depressed." Part of her job, she adds, is to screen out those who are so clearly despondent that it's difficult for them to take action. Baltimore-based career coach Mark Hunter puts it even more bluntly: "I tell them I'm not here to fix you. You have to be whole, not broken."

In other words, career coaches are not therapists. They don't want to know about your terrible childhood. "Whereas therapy involves looking back, coaching is all about looking forward," says career coach Nancy Manzo, who works primarily with lawyers.

Assuming you are just neurotic and not a total basket case, what should you look for in a career coach? Here are some tips:

1. Check out professional credentials. Ideally, the coach should be accredited through the International Coaching Federation to ensure that s/he has met minimum standards for coaching education and experience.

2. Ask for references. Nose around—talk to people at work and individuals in the management ranks at corporations to get some well-vetted names.

3. Drill down. "Ask questions about their style/philosophy of coaching, the logistics of working with them, and the types of results they have helped their clients create, as well as their expectations of you as client," says Whittney Fruin, the career coach at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe.  

4. Make sure the coach listens to you—really listens. Virtually every coach I spoke with mentioned listening as a key factor. "If I were trying to choose a coach, I'd want to feel that the coach really heard me, understood what I was trying to accomplish, and the obstacles I was facing," says Ostrow.

4. Do a test drive. Most coaches offer a free initial session, so you should do your due diligence and try out more than one. "Tell the coach what you want to work on and ask them to coach you in one of those areas so you can get a sense of what it would be like to work with them," advises Fruin.

5. Find someone who's critical. "Make sure that they are willing to challenge you when it becomes necessary," says Fruin.

Finally, one of the quirks of career coaching—at least with those who deal with professionals—is that it's often a phone relationship. "I meet my clients once in a while," says Hunter. "But they are very busy, and they find it more convenient to talk over the phone." Besides, he adds, people "are more focused and less distracted on the phone."

Whatever works.


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Great tips! I'd add that it's also helpful to look at a career coach's area of expertise.

For example, I specialize in helping professionals who are struggling with their career direction. My clients are clear on the type of work they don't like (usually their current job), but they don't know what would be a better fit for them. My coaching program is specifically designed to help my clients answer the big question of 'What's next?'.

There are also coaches who will focus on helping you with a job search or time management or improving your performance at work.

When you're looking for a career coach keep in mind that 'career coach' is a broad term for many different types of coaches. Get specific about what you're looking for to find a good fit.

good post, Vivia....

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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