Career Coaching 101

05/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A reader of my last blog, "Make This Your Championship Season," asked me to explain what to expect from a career coach and how she might find one to work with. Here goes:

What to Expect from Working with a Career Coach:

If you were my client, I would begin by asking you to state the goal of the session. In other words, what do you want? I need you to articulate this at the start. Sometimes these are easy questions, particularly if you need a job immediately. Sometimes they are deceptively easy like when you are having trouble with your boss or colleagues or are baffled or bored with the work you do. Sometimes, they are quite profound if you are searching for something more significant, your calling.

The odd part is, often what you confess in the last five minutes is quite different from what you talk about during the first fifty-five minutes. I try to help you arrive at that deeper meaning earlier in the session. To do that, I ask you about you about your background in detail so that I can see your patterns of interests, levels of risk, opportunities taken or missed, people who have or have not acted as guides to you. Based on what you tell me about such relationships and activities, I know more about how much and at what level to advise you wherever you are in the early, mid, or late stages of your careering process.

No, I don't use the typical diagnostic tools; personality tests, vocational tests that other coaches and counselors turn to. People love these tests, and they promise answers. But I find that they don't tell enough or, worse, are misleading. The Myers-Briggs is, in fact, based on Jung's archetypes, which, in turn, are based on astrology. I am interested in astrology personally, but not as a career guide. They can be too definite or exclusive. Think of the personality needed to be a lawyer or a manager or an architect; you can be successful whether you are introverted or extroverted. It really doesn't matter. I help you find a path to do the job you want in the way that suits and satisfies you.

Only after you reveal to me what you want, even if you are not sure, can I suggest a strategy and ask you if you agree. We talk about it and modify or even change it. You use me as a sounding board, and I, in turn, move to get a better idea of an initial plan for you. I give you an assignment based on steps toward getting you to what you want and need -- finding more information, calling contacts, writing a business plan, strategizing a way to talk to your boss or potential boss, negotiating with a group, or searching for a job. We don't do this all at once, but in appropriate steps that build toward your ultimate goals and success. My assignments are totally different from the homework you did for school, which got you a grade but turned to dust a second after you turned it in. This homework is transformative. It changes how you think and live and will work. Trust me, it won't feel anything like school work because it will make you feel better every step of the way.

If you are like most people, you won't do it well or at all. Not at first, anyway. Why not? It's that old Duke Ellington quote, over and over, "Don't give me time; give me a deadline!" We need deadlines for adrenalin to kick in and to push us to keep our promises. I know that from my own procrastination as well as from my clients'. That's why I ask for due dates. That's why I help you rehearse your pitch for a new job or a promotion. That's why I break down your assignment into doable steps. Sometimes I ask you to email or call me between sessions to keep your motivation up and your attention out. Most of us are scared to death about our own possibilities. But that's precisely the reason you want a career coach in your corner: to get you where you long to be, doing the work that serves you and your group well.

How Can I Find a Good Career Coach?

As in any field, recommendations are still the best indicator. How would you find a good eye doctor? You ask your friends who, in turn, would ask theirs. Then you would check them out online. The same process goes for finding coaches. If your inquiries don't lead to a suggestion, try searching, say on Google. You want to find a coach who has demonstrated work experience, proven knowledge of the career process, published books or articles that you read and admire, as well as a personality that suits you. A tall order. To fill it, you may find that the best career coach for you isn't even living in your own city. So, rather than settle, you could have phone sessions. I, myself, have clients who I have worked with but have never met in person. It still works. It's worth your investment. Your need for a job, for a living wage, and for meaningful work that fulfills you is critical now and always.

A coach's educational specialty is helpful--my PhD is in Change Management from UCLA and my dissertation identified success skills--but it should not be determinative. Having coached a wide array of professionals and businesspeople for years-- from running the Career Center at CSUN and coaching the academic counselors to guiding careers at companies like P&G and 3M-- I can attest to the fact that experience is the most important criterion when choosing a career coach. This is something you should look closely for.

You need someone who is not only intuitive and understanding enough to figure out where you are and want to be, but is also intelligent, savvy, and strong enough to take you there.