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When You Find a Career Coach, Beware These Red Flags


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Photo credit: Getty Images/Gary S. Chapman

Perhaps you're facing a big work transition or have another good reason to need a career coach. As you screen professionals whom you might want to hire, it's important to realize that not everyone has your best interests at heart. Or, they may not be effective, despite all the good intentions in the world. With that in mind, here are some red flags that the career coach you've found may not be the right fit for you.

Large Up-Front Commitment

Any career coach worth his salt will ask you to commit fully to the process. You need to put in time, hard work and, yes, money for coaching, if you want lasting results. However, when the up-front commitment seems exorbitant, in the $10,000 to $20,000 range right out of the gate, you should become wary.

Similarly, if the career coach outlines an unbreakable schedule of multiple meetings per week for six months or a year, you might want to question what you're getting into. Ask about the importance of fit and how long you should expect to get to know one another before locking into a huge up-front commitment. (Answer: at least a session or two should be spent on exploring the fit.)

At the least, any up-front commitment should be associated with an hourly rate or expected schedule of meetings. And you should have a contract that spells out what happens if you decide to leave the coaching engagement earlier than expected -- and how much this reduces your monetary obligation. There are any number of reasons, including quitting your job or being transferred overseas, that might legitimately change the coaching course you set out at the beginning.

Mind Games

A second red flag may begin to wave after you question a large up-front commitment. Reasonable, professional career coaches won't get defensive when asked about the commitment and they'll be able to talk you through the various paths to the goal you seek to reach. Charlatans, on the other hand, are more likely to switch into heavy handed mode, seeking to manipulate or guilt you into signing on.

If you encounter extreme pressure or immediately are put on the defensive with questions about your level of commitment to change, back away slowly. A career coach should be a partner helping you find the right answers for you, not a Svengali or guru who holds the key to your career success. Be wary of mind games or buzz words that don't seem backed up by rational, logical explanations. Seek to work with someone who possesses humility and sees nuance, rather than someone who claims to be infallible.

You Don't Feel Heard

Just as there is chemistry with a romantic partner, there must be a good personality fit between you and your career coach. You should feel heard and listened to with empathy. Your coach should be able to explain the process and shared expectations for reaching the goals you set early in the coaching engagement.

If you don't feel a connection to the career coach in the first meeting, many experts advise you to move on. You should certainly expect to screen a few career coaches before finding the one you can truly trust to help you achieve the next work promotion or career goal ahead of you. Be wary of a coach who launches into a slew of personality and aptitude assessments before clearly explaining why they'll be helpful in your specific situation.

Lack of Track Record

A career coach is no different from any other professional services provider in the importance of a track record and references. Regardless of whether you were referred to a given career coach by someone you trust, you should check news reports, Internet citations and the Better Business Bureau to see if there are any legitimate complaints or criticisms of the individual in question. Ask for additional references so you can speak with past clients.

Has your coach been quoted in local or national media, invited to speak at human resources and training events, or been recognized as an expert in other ways? Even recommendations on LinkedIn can give you insight into past clients and the coach's expertise. Look carefully at your coach's expertise. Just because someone's had a successful business career doesn't mean he'll be a capable coach.

Temporary or Part-Time Coaching

Finally, you want a coach who is committed to coaching as a career, not someone who has hung out a shingle as a way to make money in between jobs. Has your coach showed dedication to his profession by establishing an LLC or obtaining a credential in coaching? (Although neither of those two conditions is enough in and of itself.)

Your coach should be part of a broader community of coaches and ideally have a background or some training in behavioral science. Just as you need to bring your best to the table, and be willing to evolve, so should your career coach be invested in developing himself and his skills. A coach with established mentors or a group of advisers to rely upon will be more likely to bring a range of perspectives to ensure your success in the coaching process.

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