Fast Company

How Do You Know When It's Time To Go?

Everything you ever wanted to know about finding a career counselor (but didn't think to ask).

Career counseling may be the fastest growing career in the counseling field. More than 5,000 counselors are members of the National Career Development Association. A growing collection of nonprofit organizations have become innovative sources of advice. And there's always the career factories -- not headhunters or outplacement firms (that's not what we mean by career counseling), but mass-market companies that specialize in aptitude tests, skills measurement, and other tools.

Judith Waterman, a career counselor in San Mateo, California, and a well-published expert in the field, has seen her client base shift dramatically over the last 20 years. She built her business around providing advice to "reentry women." Her next wave of clients were middle managers shaken about their career prospects. Now it's executives who are worrying less about the fast track than about the right track. And they're worrying more openly than ever.

"During the 1980s," she reports, "I was seeing high achievers who were thinking, 'How did I get here and why am I not happy?' But they were keeping it under wraps. Today career counseling is more like marriage counseling. It's more acceptable."

Betsy Collard, program director of the "Career Action Center" in Silicon Valley, one of the country's leading nonprofit career groups, documents just how acceptable. The center's 22 counselors see more than 300 people a month. Few of their clients, Collard says, fit the stereotype of the 50-something Organization Man downsized into despair. Her clients are younger, on the rise -- and still looking for something different.

"Part of this has to do with how personally knowledge workers view their work and the meaning of it," she explains. "But it also has to do with the chaos going on in the economy. In times of change, everybody turns inward to get clear about what's important to them, who they are, and what they want out of this."

Welcome to the new world of career counseling. Lots of people are doing it. Most people still haven't considered it. Should you? As you evaluate this career-management tool, it makes sense to focus on three basic questions:

When should I consider seeing a career counselor?

What do career counselors do?

How can I choose a counselor who's right for me?

When Should I See a Counselor?

First the wrong answer: After I quit my job.

Then the just-slightly-less-wrong-answer: When I'm so miserable I can't imagine staying at my job.

So how do you know when it's time to go to a counselor? "The new model is really built on wellness," Betsy Collard says. "Because the job environment is changing so rapidly, you shouldn't just think about going to a career counselor when you're in pain -- when the job isn't working and you have a values conflict and you aren't happy. You should also go in to develop a plan for staying fit. Find a way to work career fitness into your everyday life."

That may be expecting too much from a generation of people who are famously overstretched and always out of time. But the advice threshold, most counselors agree, should be far short of utter despair. And why not? There's not much to lose, as long as you don't fall prey to the scams that always plague growth fields like this. Most career counselors charge between $75 and $150 an hour. You can't generate real insights in one visit, but four or five may be enough. That means you can get serious career advice from a highly regarded expert for a total investment of $350 to $750.

So when do you see a counselor? "You benefit from it when your career trajectory is not what you thought it would be, or you're stuck on a plateau," says William Pollack, a psychologist and partner at Spectrum O.E.D., a Boston-area consulting firm that specializes in executive development. "You can't do without it when your work is suffering or you're dreading going to work. Because then, the alternative to well-timed career counseling is going to be outplacement."

Of course the question of when to see a counselor really begs the question of why: What motivates people to seek career advice? Far and away the biggest issue, counselors agree, is "values clarification" -- a search to match what feels satisfying and worthwhile with what you actually do.

Howard Figler, a Ph.D. psychologist and the author of The Complete Job-Search Handbook, has a private counseling practice in Sacramento, California. He likes to call career counselors doctors of purpose. "Purpose should be at the core of your career no matter what you do," Figler says.

Ilise Gold, a change management specialist in Westport, Connecticut, provides career advice in two ways: companies hire her to counsel their executives, and she also sees about 30 private clients a week. Gold says most of her individual clients come to her "when two things are missing: values and integrity." Her sessions revolve around three simple questions: "What's going right? What's going wrong? What did you imagine your life being that's missing?"

With all this talk of values, it's easy to get the wrong idea. Values-driven work doesn't always (or even usually) translate into politics or social change -- you know, the young investment banker who decides to join a Greenpeace flotilla. It's more about the experience of work and whether it meets your personal needs and professional expectations. Are you at a company where team play is the rallying cry -- but you'd rather be sitting alone writing great software? Are you doing work you enjoy, with people you like, in a company where you're anonymous -- but public recognition is vital to your self-esteem?

Values-based career counseling shifts your focus, if only temporarily, away from the external world -- career paths, bonuses, stock options -- to the internal world of what matters to you. "It's not the world `out there' you have to get to know first," stresses Judith Waterman. "It's the world `in here.'" Waterman estimates that one-third of her clients come away genuinely surprised by what they discover. For the other two-thirds, merely making explicit what they've always known, and developing a plan to act on it, can be just as useful.

"What's important," says Waterman, "is that by the time clients walk out they can articulate -- not just know ambiguously -- what they need, what their strengths are, and what their weaknesses are. Then they can make choices based on who they are, not what makes somebody else happy."

What Do Career Counselors Do?

Although every career counselor uses a slightly different approach, most follow a similar template. First they assess your values, skills, personality traits, and goals. Then they compare these attributes with your current job and the broader market. Then they help put together a plan for achieving the best match. The heart of the process is the assessment. This is where you hope for those "a-ha!" moments, insights into your motivations that bring into sharper relief the job choices you face.

So how do you achieve those insights? Without question the methodology of choice is storytelling. Waterman, for example, asks clients to write six paragraphs on jobs or projects they've done particularly well in their lives. She asks that one paragraph be based on a project before junior high school, one between junior high and adulthood, and one from the recent past. Sometimes she asks clients to talk through their stories rather than write them down, so she can videotape them and watch the tape with the client.

Why pay attention to events from childhood? "It's amazing how often the motivational patterns that are important now were important when you were little," she says.

William Pollack takes the narrative idea one step further. Not only does he work with clients on traditional storytelling, but he also interviews subordinates and superiors -- even family members -- to produce a richer portrait of values and motivations. One area he focuses on is how his clients get along with people, especially if they're leaders or managers: "What happens if there are fights or struggles? How do you deal with an employee who has a problem? What happens when a subordinate doesn't listen to what you say? Would you say that the people who work for you trust you? How do you know?"

Pollack then writes a report and reads it to the client. Counseling resumes after a break of a day or two. "Sometimes it can be earth-shattering information," he says, "and if you don't give a person a chance to think about it, they can push it away."

If stories aren't to your liking, you can always play cards -- another popular methodology. Counselors say "card sorts" are effective because they keep the diagnostic process simple and relaxed. They're also fun.

Silicon Valley's Career Action Center has developed a card-based diagnostic it calls Values Driven Work. The game uses four decks of cards that describe different aspects of professional life: intrinsic values, work environment, work content, and work relationships. Clients separate the cards into categories based on how important the attributes are to them. The object is to identify and rank your 10 top values -- and then to allow those values to inform the rest of your counseling sessions.

Some counselors don't play cards, but they do play other games. Judith Gerberg, a career adviser in New York City, uses plenty of conventional techniques, from testing to interviewing. But she also uses visualization, guided imagery, and art therapy. A closet in her office is filled with crayons, markers, modeling clay, and construction paper -- tools to help clients express themselves in terms of career aspirations. Gerberg also asks clients to cull stacks of magazines to make a collage -- a "treasure map" of what holds the most meaning and value to them.

It's a long way from modeling clay to standardized tests, but it's impossible to discuss career counseling without some reference to testing. Just about every counselor uses tests in one form or another. Even counselors who pronounce themselves adamantly opposed to tests have some kind of standard written exercise they rely on.

Indeed, some of the most widely used career tests have achieved borderline pop-culture status. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator categorizes personality types along four dimensions: extrovert/introvert, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling, judging/perceiving. More than 2.5 million people take the Myers-Briggs test each year, often in conjunction with the Strong Interest Inventory, which measures job preferences. The Strong is the mother of all standardized tests. It's been around since the 1920s, gets updated regularly, and has been taken by more than 30 million people. Other perennial favorites include the World of Work Inventory, the Sixteen PF Personal Career Development Profile (which links personality traits with different professions), and the FIRO-B (which evaluates interpersonal relationships).

Cliff Hakim, a well-known career-work consultant based in Boston, and the author of We Are All Self-Employed, worries that counselors often test for the wrong reason -- because everyone else does it. "There's a myth in the marketplace today that you have to be tested in order to better understand yourself," he says. "People who are reorganizing their career paths are overly tested, and many people in the career business don't know how to help them apply the information." Hakim says he occasionally refers clients to the Johnson O'Connor Research Foundation, an aptitude testing firm with offices in 11 major cities.

Betsy Collard of the Career Action Center offers a level-headed compromise on the use of standardized tests. "These instruments are a quick way to get at some issues you can then discuss and reflect on," she says. "That's their value -- as a short cut."

How Do I Choose a Counselor?

The simple answer is that you choose a career counselor the same way you choose a doctor, a lawyer, or a personal financial adviser. It's some combination of credentials, referrals, unique skills -- and the all-important comfort factor. A few special rules do apply to career counseling. For example, never do business with a career counselor who expects big up-front fees. Any respectable counselor is prepared to charge on an hourly basis. No respectable counselor demands long-term contracts or guaranteed payments.

The issue of "credentials" is trickier in counseling than in medicine or the law. Career counseling is not a field where formal credentials count for much. The industry has adopted certification procedures, but certification measures only a counselor's education and expertise in psychological principles. It says nothing about real-world experience. As a result, many of the best counselors aren't certified, and many certified counselors aren't among the best. Lots of counselors do write books or give public seminars, however, and whether you like the advice they give in public might indicate how well you'd like working with them on your own career.

Ultimately you've got to find a counselor whose assessment styles and schedules match what you're comfortable with. That means a lot of legwork. As more people visit career counselors, it becomes easier to get advice from friends and colleagues. Most experts suggest you interview at least three counselors before you make a final choice. And if you choose to visit a counseling firm -- either a nonprofit organization or a national company -- be sure to interview several people in the office to find the individual counselor best-suited to you. It's not very helpful if you like your counseling organization but don't like your counselor.

Ann Hornaday has covered business and the arts for the "New York Times" and "Working Woman." She is the film critic at the "Austin American-Statesman."

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