Why is it that we will hire a contractor to help us renovate our homes, a personal trainer to whip our bodies into shape, a tutor to help our kids who are struggling in math–yet when it comes to our careers, we think we need to figure it all out ourselves?
With a demanding career and two children under the age of two, public relations professional Dawn Sullivan said she felt like she was drowning. “I was trying to do it all and I was finding it incredibly challenging,” says Sullivan. “I’m one of those Type A people and I felt like I wasn’t doing any of it well enough.”
The stress got so bad Sullivan once asked her husband to take her to the emergency room because she thought she was having a heart attack. “It turns out it was an anxiety attack,” she says.
Sullivan was ready to resign from her post as managing director of a public relations firm when her bosses asked whether she would like to try hiring a career coach. The idea of consulting a coach to help her figure out her work-life struggles had never occurred to her.
Sullivan expected her coach would immediately begin to ask about her career and what she thought she should be doing at the company. Instead, he surprised her by asking about her personal interests, likes and dislikes, what got her excited, what made her feel fulfilled, and what she felt challenged by. “It was a lot of introspective thought on me as a human being and not necessarily career first,” says Sullivan.
She went back to her bosses and changed her job description to allow her to spend more time focusing on those tasks she found personally fulfilling. “Now, I’m doing something that I really love and that I’m really good at,” says Sullivan, who has since been promoted twice, and is now senior vice president at .
You don’t have to be ready to head out the door to seek advice from a career coach. Anyone who is struggling with some aspect of their career can benefit from having access to an outsider’s perspective, says Gina London, a former CNN correspondent and anchor who now coaches business professionals around the world to improve themselves through better communication.
London compares a career coach to an interior designer. “You’ve had the same couch and the chair and the pictures in a specific way for the past 15 years–and you can’t think that you can make a whole new look just by rearranging the pieces within your room,” she says. “That can only come with a fresh perspective, with an outside eye; someone with experience of what other rooms look like.”
A career coach can help you see aspects about yourself and your career path that you’ve been blind to. But how do you find the right coach for you?
Here’s a list of what to look for in a career coach:
While some companies have their own coaches in human resources who are tasked with helping employees navigate through particular career dilemmas, London says an outside coach can offer a different perspective.
Coaches inside a company’s HR department would be looking at opportunities for you internally, whereas you may discover through the coaching experience that your current company may not be the best place for you. The biggest benefit of hiring a career coach is having access to someone who is objective about your career, and doesn’t have a vested interest in your current job or employer.
Go with your gut feeling–make sure you like and trust the person you will be working with. “You will be personally vulnerable in this relationship,” says London.
If you can’t establish trust right away, then you’ll be less likely to listen to him or her when they give you feedback; defeating the purpose of a coach.
“You’re not paying a therapist to simply listen to you,” says London. “Your coach should be able to give you tools, tips, and techniques that deliver real results.”
Quantifying results is key to London, and is what differentiates a career coach from a mentor, in her opinion. “A mentor can give you advice based on their own experience,” she says. “A career coach is looking for ways to quantify [the help they’re providing]. It’s not just advice; it’s a strategy to impact and drive results.”
As with most professionals, asking for recommendations is a great way to find your career coach. If you don’t know anyone who has hired a coach, set up interviews with a couple of prospective coaches, and ask them to provide you with the contact information of a few people they’ve helped.
Most coaches offer initial consultations free of charge to give you a chance to assess their style, and to determine whether you click with them. When speaking with references, ask what the coach’s process looked like and what the results of the sessions were.