What to Look for in a Career Coach

For your future professional goals, the expertise of a career coach can be invaluable.

A career coach and client seated at a table reviewing a laptop screen

This blog post was originally published in September 2020, and was revised April 2023. 

The economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the imperative to work from home—for those who can—have created the most disrupted business climate in living memory. Under relatively normal conditions we all struggle with work questions: how to move up in your career, how to become a better manager, how to leave your job and take a leap into your passion. After COVID-19, these and other needs are exacerbated by unprecedented working conditions. It becomes all the more valuable to find resources to help navigate professional choices.

A career coach can offer some of the most valuable, objective perspectives on your career goals, and in creative and individually-specific ways. A career coach can operate across many areas. Some lead seminars to engage groups of people at once, but many provide one-on-one consultation to help write resumes, prepare for interviews, discuss your deepest professional needs, help executives learn to be better leaders, and even diagnose the health of a corporation’s workforce.

So the first question is: can career coaching benefit you? If it can, then you face the daunting prospect of hiring a coach. Business coaching in the United States is a $13b industry and there are over 100,000 people formally practicing career coaching according to IBISWorld. There is no single organization that accredits career coaches, and a vast array of career coaches and career coaching styles to choose from. Thankfully, with patience, guidance and thoughtful consideration, you can find the career coach who is right for you.

Benefits of a Career Coach

For most of us, we cannot begin a workday by taking off our true self and stuffing it in a coat closet. Who we are is inextricably connected to our professional existence. At the core, a career coach helps you improve the harmony between what you want from your life and how you pursue those wants through your work.

A career coach can offer practical advice, to be sure. They can identify your transferable skills when you want a career transition and assess your career opportunities when you want to quit your current job. Resume polishing, tips on conflict resolution—those are standards of the practice. It can be so useful to get a resume review from an impartial third-party with experience working with hiring managers across many industries. Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches trains a coach to be a resume writer and to understand how organizations use resumes to find candidates. Advice on presentation and interviewing skills may be all you need to land your dream job.

But you may not need a career coach to move you to the next salary level or job title. The value of a career coach, for you, may be to move you towards greater personal growth. Career coaching can show you how to improve your leadership and interpersonal skills or help you learn to healthily integrate your work with the rest of your life. A coach can help you set measurable goals for your business and create a process to track them.

Many turn to coaches in moments of desperation, when faced with a life-changing decision at work or when there is a breaking point. During the pandemic, more than 45 million people filed for unemployment. Yes, career coaches (virtual ones) are a valuable resource for a job seeker to find work and optimize your LinkedIn profile. But career coaching can also operate well from a place of stability when you have the maximum opportunity to explore your career plan. No matter what your current situation, career coaching can be a lifeline.

What to Look for in a Career Coach

To get the best experience from career coaching, you must be motivated and open to guidance. Businesses who are trying to fix poor leadership in executives sometimes think career coaching is the answer without determining if the executive in question is willing to change. Close-mindedness or disinterest in career growth cannot be healed by a career coach. Consider all the opportunities in your professional development or job search.

But when it becomes clear that a coach can be a good move, you want to be able to take time finding the right coach. It helps to solicit recommendations from people in your network, in addition to your own research. Since there are many organizations providing coaching certifications, and because there is no administrative body which requires coaches to have any particular training or significance, you cannot take it on faith that any given coach will be worth your time. There is however an obvious value in choosing an experienced career coach. For executive coaching, where you are aiming for an executive position or you are an executive willing to improve under a coach, experience with the C-suite and high-level decision making is a must for the coach.

Especially if you are paying for the coach yourself (rather than being provided one by your company) you want to make sure you have the information you need. Make sure the coach is in your budget. Ask about their coaching methodology. Are they drawing on psychology or human resources training? Do they need to get a full background on your working environment and corporate structure before they can make recommendations, or do they just want you to tell them about your dream job?

Coaching can take place in person, of course, but also over the phone and via video conferencing (especially during the uncertain conditions of the coronavirus pandemic). Many coaches keep flexible schedules that allow them to meet with you at night and on weekends. Whatever the schedule, it can be immensely valuable to consider the coaching relationship as lasting over a meaningful period of time.

One of the founders of executive coaching was Dr. Harry Levinson, a clinical psychologist and management theory pioneer. Levinson developed models for understanding employee satisfaction and organizational health based on psychoanalytic concepts, which explains some overlap in the roles of therapist and career coach. Levinson emphasized, in particular, the value of time in the consulting process. A client is unlikely to have insights about their behavior from just one initial session of therapy, and, as Levinson once warned of the relationship between a client and an executive-coach, “Clients and consultants prefer the ‘quickfix’ approach to organizations.[…]It is this impatience and shortsightedness that has led to the acceleration and popularity of more prescriptive approaches that promise more than they can possibly deliver.”

The most important determinant of success is your relationship with a career coach. You need to trust them to hear and understand you, rather than become dependent on a coach to dictate your choices. Whether you are an individual or a business hiring coaches, you have to be prepared to devote a lot of time to the relationship. Likewise, you should expect and ask for regular assessments of the progress your coach is making with you.

Career Management Center

Not every successful businessperson needs to find a career coach on their own. Instead, let the business school at top-ranked SMU help you. Put simply, when you fill out your Cox application, your success trajectory just got unlocked. Your next career move is on the horizon.

At the SMU Cox School of Business, our Career Management Center provides students with a variety of career services, including career coaching. Our experienced career coaches can help you develop your personal brand, prepare for job and internship interviews, and identify companies to target in your job search. And they are available to assist you even after you graduate from your program. 

Are you ready to make the next move in your career? Consider the Online MBA program at the Cox School of Business. Designed to fit the schedule of busy professionals, this program will provide you with knowledge, skills, and hands-on experience you need to face the challenging and ever-evolving and global world of business.

Request more information today