Hiring a Career Coach
How to be sure you’re getting your time and money’s worth
We talked to Mary Jane Ryan, an expert who’s written eight books, including This Year I Will…: How To Finally Change a Habit, Keep a Resolution or Make a Dream Come True.
She has done leadership development with executives at major corporations including Halliburton, Cornell Medical School and royal Dutch Shell.
Can you use a life coach to help with your career?
I call myself a professional thinking partner, not a life coach. The word coach sounds like “drop and give me 17 pushups.” It’s a rah-rah model. To me, the work is affecting people’s thinking, helping them move toward what they want in their lives.
How do you choose a good expert?
You really need someone who helps people with their careers, a focused person who’s experienced and comes highly recommended. There are a million-trillion life coaches. What’s most important in choosing one is recommendations from people you trust. Most coaches are willing to do a free conversation, so interview a few first, and remember that you’re looking not just for rapport, but specific, solid help.
How long should a free introductory interview be?
Thirty minutes is typical. Mostly, it’s “Here’s what my issue is.” The professional should ask you something like, “If we work together, what will be different in a month? In 3 months?” Three months is the timeframe I typically work with. The professional should also ask you how you’ll measure results.
How is a coach different from a therapist?
Our work is results oriented and measurable. Let me give you an example from a first session I did with a couple in their thirties yesterday. They’re working on a business together. She was a successful sales person in the past, but she can’t get traction on this business. They’re both ambivalent about working together. We talked about all of that in 30 minutes, and I sent them on a task. The woman said she wanted integrity, to do something she loved. I pressed her to be more specific. Turned out a concrete goal is to make $250,000 in revenue a year.
As a thought partner, I focused them on what they really want. They agreed that for 3 months they would act as if they want to work together, lose the ambivalence. The woman said, I can make millions for everybody else, but I can’t do it for myself. I asked, “If your old company were a client, what would you tell them to do?” She said she’d ask them to create and try three different scenarios for success. I told her to do that for herself.
How can you cut away clutter and make the sessions really productive?
You need to focus on the what and the how: what you want and how you will get it. Don’t get lost in the why. In the previous example, we could have spent so many sessions on why the woman wasn’t making money for herself. The left brain, the analytical side, wants to know why. But that’s not the real question. The session is all about what you want. The more specific you are about that, the better. Typically you may not know the how – that’s what you’re hiring somebody to help you with. But if you’re caught up in the why, you’re wasting your time.
What other mistakes do clients make?
They think that talking to the coach is an action. It’s not an end in itself. Out of the session comes the action and you have to perform those actions. It can be tempting not to: After a session, you feel understood, received, relieved. But if you don’t take the action, you’re wasting your money.
Any danger signs that you’ve hired the wrong person?
I was trained in a particular methodology – using a person’s strengths to overcome their challenges – but I adapt to each situation. People who use other coaches sometimes tell me that the coach has a step-by-step program that they use for everybody. They’ll ask the same questions even if they don’t relate to a particular client’s issue. You can find better help than that.
How can you be sure you’re staying on track?
It’s the coach’s job to worry about whether you’re on the wrong track and to redirect the conversation if needed. The client is not necessarily orderly about the conversation so I always have a contract in writing: the desired outcome in 3 months and how we will evaluate it. Evaluation is key. Even if you say you want to be more relaxed in job interviews, you can measure that on scale of 1-10. I use that measurement as a kite string to hold onto the conversation. You might discover that the issue is more than being nervous at interviews – that there are other things you need help with. But it’s my job to keep them contained. If you start talking about your mother-in-law, I say, “Is that something you really want the kite cord around?”
How else can you maximize your sessions?
The people who get most out of the work are the ones who come prepared. They give a quick summary of what’s happened since we last met so I can know where they’re going. They think: Where am I still stuck? The other thing is to be ready to complete the actions you say you’re going to do. The people who do that change really quickly. Those who don’t just spend a lot of time and money talking about it.
When you’re learning something, you must have reminders. Say you’re trying to learn to ask questions. How are you going to remember to do that? Have your BlackBerry beep every hour.
If you can only afford one session, can it help?
Absolutely. A woman called me because she hadn’t filed taxes in 6 years. She needed support for doing it. She disappeared, then showed up again months later, ready to do the work. In the course of talking to her, I told her she needed someone sitting next to her who’s an expert, who’s dealt with the IRS. I asked if she knew anybody. She said a friend had used a nonprofit service. I asked her, “Will you get that number?” Yes. I asked, “Will you call me when you’ve made contact?” and “Will you call me when you’re done?” She agreed, and my job was finished.
How much should you plan on spending?
Because there are so many people trying to make a living as a life coach, you can get help dirt cheap. But I would be concerned. If you can only afford $20, I’m afraid you’ll only get $20 worth of help. Typical hourly rates are $125 to $200 an hour, but a lot of life coaches use a sliding scale based on a client’s ability to pay. I once helped a woman who needed to retrain her brain after a car accident, and we worked pro bono for six months. Afterward, she did me a painting as thanks.