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Choosing a Career Counselor or Coach

By Marty Nemko

So you’ve decided you need to spring for a pro to help you find a career, land a job, help you be more successful in your current job.

Here’s how to find the right one for you:

First, decide if you want a career counselor or a career coach.

While there is overlap (indeed, I feel my practice is truly a cross between the two) career counselors are more likely to:

1. Help you develop insight into who you are: your strengths, weaknesses, and predilections.

2. While not providing psychotherapy, help you understand fears that are keeping you from choosing a fully self-actualizing career or conducting an aggressive job search.

3. Teach you sound methodology for landing a job.

4. Help you craft a resume and cover letter.

Career coaches are more likely to:

1. Ask questions to help you identify goals and objectives for improving your performance on your current job or for getting promoted.

2. Ask questions to help you identify goals and objectives for improving your life outside of work.

3. Focus on the here and now rather than looking back to childhood-rooted psychological factors in your behavior.

Once you’ve decided whether you want a counselor or coach, how do you find the right person for you?

Sure, ask friends for recommendations, but I urge you to talk with three candidates before choosing one. You’re unlikely to get three names from friends so I recommend you simply google “career coach” or ‘career counselor,” visit the websites of a number of them and then phone those that sound potentially right. Don’t worry if they’re halfway cross the country. By-phone counseling can work almost as well as in-person. Better to have a superior counselor/coach by phone than a mediocre one in person. That said, if it’s important that your career counselor know the local job market well, google “career counselor’ and your locale.

On the phone, start by saying something like, “Hi, my name is X, I’m looking for a career coach and liked what I saw on your website. Would you mind answering a couple questions?” The person will undoubtedly assent, whereupon ask:

“Clients in what sorts of careers or situations are you most and least effective with?” (Do not tell your situation first. That can tempt the person to shade his answer to match your situation.)

If your situation doesn’t match with the person’s strengths, thank the person and say you’re looking for someone who specializes in people in your situation. Don’t let the person convince you otherwise. There are thousands of counselors and coaches. You have the right to hold out for one who’s particularly effective with people in your situation, for example, one that specializes in disgruntled lawyers or stay-at-home mom who’s ready to reenter the workplace. I, for example, feel I'm particularly effective in helping people of high intelligence become happier and more successful in their current career, also perhaps surprisingly, in helping people find a good romantic partner or improve their romantic relationship.

If the candidate counselor/coach does specialize in people in your situation,

1. In about 30-60 seconds, describe your situation and ask “How would the process likely work in my case?”

2. What is your hourly rate? I recommend against working with anyone who insists on a prepaid multi-session fee. Good counselors are confident enough in their ability not to try to get your money for multiple sessions upfront. So if you like the counselor but s/he only mentions a multi-session prepay, ask, “I’m only willing to work with someone who charges by the hour? Are you willing to do that? And if so, what would that hourly rate be?”

3. Of course, this will vary but approximately how many hours, over what period of time do you guess we’ll likely end up working together?

4. Is there anything else you’d like to tell me or ask me?

It’s usually recommended, at this point, that you ask for references. I don’t believe that’s worth it. Even most bad counselors can dredge up a few people who will say nice things. And many excellent counselors will refuse to provide references because they don’t feel the need to take the time to get clients’ permission to release phone numbers and impose on his clients to offer references. Or if they're eminent, it somehow feels demeaning to ask people to serve as references.

At this point, if you haven’t yet spoken with three counselors/coaches but like the person, say something like, “I’ve really liked talking with you and will probably call back to schedule an appointment but I’ve planned to talk with one (or two) other people and I feel I should do that. Is that okay?

If the counselor is anything but supportive of that, beware. At minimum, it suggests a short fuse that could blow at some point during your work together.

In my next column, I’ll teach you how to make the most of your work with a career counselor or coach.

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