I hate most people who call themselves "career coaches."
And I do some career coaching. I've spent thousands of hours of my career coaching people for interviews, job applications, networking, and how to change jobs. I work with private clients who want to change careers or get a promotion. I've seen the questions that people ask when it comes to changing jobs or starting a new phase of their career.
And I've heard the words of "advice" from other career coaches.
A lot of it is awful. It's the kind of advice given to you by your high school guidance counselor: well-intentioned and makes some intuitive sense but isn't really backed up by real-world experience.
Or it's hack-ish tricks that somebody read in a book or heard on a podcast and never went out and actually tested it themselves.
This is particularly frustrating because an excellent career coach can be a life-changer. They can help you overcome barriers to your career you didn't even realize you had and they can provide an outside perspective on your career transition. They can help you see when you're sabotaging yourself and provide ways to not do that.
I'm tired of hearing horror stories from my readers and requests for "how do I find a good career coach?"
So, I went ahead and put together this guide for what you should look for in hiring a career coach.
The Problems With Many "Coaches"
Any Schlub Can Become a Coach
The biggest problem with "coaches" in general is that anybody can become a coach.
Anybody can call themselves a coach. Anybody can say they do "coaching." And anybody can launch a "coaching business." There's essentially no barrier to entry.
This is great if you're a good coach and want to set up a business around your expertise. It was wonderful when I started getting paid by private clients to do career coaching. I didn't have to go get some goofy government license to do it and I was able to drive more clients by referral.
But this is not great for a consumer who doesn't know what to look for.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the "life coaching" space. At least with career coaching, a coach needs to sound like they know what they're talking about and you can ask them what experience they have with helping people get jobs. In life coaching, this is a lot harder to do. WTF is a life coach? What do they do? Do they "motivate" you? "Inspire" you? Just generally help out with your life?
It's not clear.
So it's not surprising that the vast majority of life coaches have lives you probably wouldn't want to live yourself.
In fact, most people who get into life coaching do it exactly because of this - the barrier to entry is insanely low and they're desperate for money:
Desperation is what drives a lot of people to life coaching. It’s an easy label to give yourself. You don’t need certification. You don’t even need experience. If you’re just calling yourself a life coach and not taking the time to position yourself and educate yourself on what you’re a coach for, it’s not good.
When we make decisions out of desperation, we make poor decisions.
Source: GrowthLab: Confessions of an Ex-Life Coach
This is why I am very clear that I am not and do not do life-coaching. I don't even call myself a career coach -- even though I do career coaching -- because I instead consider myself a career expert who can coach.
Coaching is a Skill -- Just Because Somebody Knows About Something Doesn't Qualify Them to Teach
And that's yet another problem with many coaches: just because you know about a subject doesn't mean that you can teach about a subject.
Coaching is a skill and it takes time and practice to develop that skill. Not all that can do can teach (think: your research professor in college who had to teach an intro class and was awful at it) and an excellent coach takes years to hone that skill.
For years, I struggled with coaching people through career work because good coaching is hard. I admire my old colleague TK Coleman and my copywriting and business strategy coach Marc Aarons for this reason. These guys are great coaches. They're great at guiding people to the right solutions.
I used to get frustrated when coaching participants at Praxis (my first real coaching opportunity) or tutoring students in ethics at Penn. I would want to just give them the answers and tell them what to do. But that's not what a coach should do. They should guide people to the right thought processes so that they can explore questions on their own.
It took me time to develop this skill. And I'm glad I spent the time and money to get better at it -- and I'm still improving! I don't ever expect to be as good as TK or Marc or others really experienced in this area. But I can get close if I focus on developing that skill.
Think About The Coach's Incentives
Most coaches bill on a monthly or package basis.
There's nothing necessarily bad about this (it's kind of hard to bill otherwise when it comes to coaching), but keep in mind that this means the coach has an incentive to draw out your solutions.
The success of a coaching business is a function of its churn. Churn is the rate at which existing customers leave the business -- it's a common business function in anything subscription-based. If your churn gets too high, it gets too costly to acquire new customers and the business fails.
This is why I don't make private, one-on-one coaching a big part of my business model -- I'd rather focus on coaching a few clients really well and have the rest of my business come from consulting or products than frantically focus on finding new one-on-one clients. And when my clients do cancel their subscriptions, I make a point to celebrate. I consider that a "graduation." I helped them solve their problems and now they don't need me anymore.
Still, you'll want to protect yourself from a career coach who is just milking you for money. Look for these elements when researching career coaches. Any coach worth their salt will have all of these.
What To Look For
1. Good, High-Quality, Personalized Testimonials
Probably the most important thing to ask when considering a career coach is, "has this person generated results before?"
This is easy to figure out: do they have good, high-quality, personalized testimonials?
(They don't have to advertise them on their site but they should be available upon request. If somebody refuses to give them to you, you should refuse to give them money.)
So, what makes a good testimonial?
A. Full Name (Photos are a plus)
A high-quality testimonial should have the full-name of the previous client. Something you'll see pretty often online are testimonials with a stock photo of a smiling person and a first name (and maybe a last initial).
Even worse, sometimes you'll get just initials, or no name at all!
(These are not good testimonials.)
You want testimonials with full names and photos of real people. If the clients refused to let their names be used, then the coach probably didn't generate good-enough results to let them use their name. That's a gigantic red flag.
B. Verifiable Results
Testimonials shouldn't just say, "working with this person was great!" they should say "what did this person do to make it worthwhile? What results did they generate?"
Results don't have to be quantitative (although that's always a great plus). They can be qualitative -- a new job, feelings of growth by going and doing new activities at work, starting a new business, etc. -- but they do have to be verifiable.
You should be able to call up the previous clients and ask them, "what did you see as a product of working with this career coach?"
If a testimonial doesn't show those results, it doesn't necessarily mean the coach is bad -- it might just mean they're not good at collecting testimonials. But if they can't provide any verifiable results, that's a red flag.
C. Relevant Results
Those results should be relevant to the career coaching and relevant to your situation. This should go without saying but if you want a career coach to help you change careers, you don't want to look for testimonials about how this specific coach was an excellent executive career coach who helped executives feel less sleazy when networking.
Bonus: Video testimonials and in-depth case studies both provide a lot of these elements and you should request them if they're available.
2. Experience With Your Specific Problem
One guess -- we underestimate how little knowledge transfers from domain X to domain Y. Therefore, most general knowledge about general careers is superficial or for beginners.— Michael P Gibson (@William_Blake) January 31, 2019
Piggybacking off of C. above, you want a career coach who has experience with your specific problem.
"Career coach" is a massive category that pretty much says, "I help people with work."
That's not very helpful.
So you want to find a career coach who specifically focuses on your problems with work.
For example, I work with "ambitious professionals looking to get ahead at work." That typically means I'm working with people with a few years of experience who already are successful and want to become more successful.
If you're struggling to get hired in the first place, I'm probably not the right person for you.
Similarly, if you're an experienced executive with 10 years of C-suite experience, you'll want to go find an executive career coach.
Or if you're somebody looking to transition from the military into the private sector, you'll want to find a career coach who specializes in working with veterans.
This is important. Just because somebody is an expert in one area does not mean that they'll be an expert in another area. Confirm their expertise in your specific area before moving forward.
What does this practically mean for your search?
This means you shouldn't just search "career coaches near me" or ask your friends and family for introductions to "career coaches." You want to search for "career coaches for [X]" or ask people to introduce you to career coaches who work with people in your situation.
3. A Strong Money-Back Guarantee
Any coach should offer a strong money-back guarantee.
You should have an ability to say, "hey, thanks for working with me, but I didn't see any progress from applying what you spoke about. I'd like a refund."
At a minimum, the money-back guarantee should cover:
- 30 days.
- 100% satisfaction-guaranteed.
- Immediate refund.
Some can go beyond that. I've offered 110% money-back guarantees because I want to compensate people for their time and taking a leap on a career coach.
The point here is: if the coach is not confident enough in their abilities as a coach, you should not work with them.
This goes for any kind of career program, too. If they don't advertise a refund option, you shouldn't consider the program.
4. Clear Expectations
"Coaching" is kind of an amorphous general category of "teaching" and "advice-giving." So you want to find somebody who has clear expectations and a standard operating procedure (SOP) for their coaching. If they don't, they're not a professional and you shouldn't work with them.
Look for these elements:
A. What You'll Do
What are you expected to do as the client?
Are you supposed to schedule the calls and come with problems you want to discuss?
Do you have to fill out any surveys or personality profiles?
How many hours per month will you meet with them?
B. When You'll Meet
When do you meet with the coach? For how long?
Do you have to schedule the calls or will the coach schedule the calls for you?
How regularly will you meet with the coach? Is there some flexibility in the situation?
C. When They'll Respond
Response time matters.
Most people don't care for immediate response time, but they do want timely response time. In other words, if you have a question about an interview coming up, how quickly will the coach respond to your question? Are they accessible at all outside of your coaching hours? If so, how are they accessible?
You get what you pay for when it comes to expertise.
If a coach is only charging $50/session, that should raise eyebrows.
You want somebody who is in-demand enough and whose time is valuable enough that they charge well for their time.
All of these elements matter more than some kind of credential from a "coaching organization." They matter more than slick promotional videos or even the number of email subscribers somebody has. These elements signal results. And results are all that matter when you hire career coaches.