Updated: Nov 12
Anyone can hang a shingle and say that they’re a career coach. But that absolutely doesn’t mean you should.
For the right person, becoming a career coach is a deeply rewarding and exciting pursuit and profession. Declaring yourself a career coach without the needed skill set, mindset and business understanding is almost 100% likely to blow up in your face. In the best case scenario, you’ll be bored, broke, or spending most of your time in damage control mode and dying of anxiety. In the worst case, you can end up in serious monetary, reputational or even legal jeopardy. Designating yourself a career coach when you don’t actually understand what we do (and how) is kind of like declaring yourself a dermatologist based on reading two articles about what melanoma looks like. It’s not good for you—or for your potential clients.
The good news is that there are many career coaching certification programs that can help you learn everything you need to become a credible and successful career coach.
Why do you want to become a career coach
First, ask yourself why you’re interested in this career direction. Successful career coaches generally have a few personality, mindset or “mission” items in common:
You’re a curious person, perhaps even restless in jobs where you do the same thing over and over.
You’re honestly interested in helping people.
You’re probably frustrated by bureaucracy, mismanagement and corporate “shenanigans” or politics and wish you could somehow make the world of work a nicer place.
You’re generally good at reading people—insightful, intuitive, a good listener, someone who asks a lot of questions.
You might have had a longstanding interest in the social sciences, whether you’ve specifically studied them or not—you’re probably turned on by politics, psychology, economics, sociology, spirituality/religion or other human behavior phenomena. (Not all coaches relate to this one but it’s common.)
You might have found you’ve had a lot of jobs where you felt like you didn’t fit in, or you did fit in but secretly found them stifling. You’re highly motivated to be your own boss.
If any of these sound like you, you’re likely on the right track and should continue to look into becoming a career coach.
What You Need To Learn To Become A Career Coach
Now that you know you want to become a career coach, you need to tackle what you need to learn to become a career coach.
There are a few questions you can start asking yourself: How much do you actually know about the business world? Do you understand corporate hierarchies? Do you have a grounding in marketing practices, sales, management? To run a successful coaching business you need to learn and develop each of these competencies, and that’s before you even start coaching people. Here are a few things you’ll need to learn how to do, tactically, in coaching people.
Help someone accurately identify their career direction
Create and revise résumés and cover letters
Create and edit a LinkedIn profile that will get your clients found and viewed positively by recruiters
Understand the fundamentals of meaningful networking
Find relevant job postings online
Find relevant external recruiters in multiple sectors
Stay organized on your own and your client’s behalf if you’re in a stage of the process where a recruiter could call at any time
Teach people to anticipate and nail interview questions—and make sure they know what not to say
Understand how AI is used in recruiting so your client isn’t caught off-guard by a one-way interview
Help a client develop a strong professional presence
Guide people in a range of positions so that they have a phenomenal first 90 days in a new job
What’s more? Becoming a career coach also means committing to a lifetime of learning. Imagine the creation of a new technology or practice in hiring that has the same impact as the creation of LinkedIn. It’s now if but when, and the most successful coaches will those who learn it quickly and pass those learnings along to their clients through career coaching.
Who Makes a Good Career Coach?
(You might be surprised!)
When I get asked this question, which happens pretty regularly, I always smile and say “it’s complicated,” even though in a lot of ways it’s not. Success in coaching isn’t like success in computer programming or medicine or architecture, where the outcome is a direct product of your learned hard skills. Coaching is one area where, although training is definitely important, your success is often very directly tied to your baseline traits. So, good news, bad news: given the same exact training, some people will be naturals and some will find it’s a bad fit.
While a career coach is definitely not a therapist, plenty of therapists (and professionals from related modalities) make great career coaches because of their baseline empathy with people who are struggling to understand who they are and where they fit in. (You’ll still get to ask people how they feel about things, but you’ll also be telling them directly what to do about it!)
Some people have had immensely successful careers in a specific niche and want to share their huge knowledge base and their insights with others who share their interests (you can call this the “Obi-wan Kenobi” coach model). And honestly? A lot of great coaches have a history of being… well, corporate misfits. If that sounds counterintuitive, hang on: our tendency to be mavericks, outsiders or tellers of uncomfortable truths might have made us radioactive (or at least bored and uncomfortable) in banking or product marketing, but it often makes us perfecto when it comes to helping people figure out where they belong. We know what we brought to the table that went unappreciated. We remember how it felt. We are very motivated to help others find work where they can feel rewarded for what they’re actually good at.
Great career coaches come from all sectors
I happen to have spent years in recruiting, but that’s definitely not everyone. Amazing career coaches can have backgrounds in recruiting, HR, retail, food and beverage, hospitality, law or just about anything else. Many have spent years figuring out what they’re truly meant to be doing, and have the kind of resume that’s so diverse it almost defies description. Some of us are definitely specialists—and that specialization can lead to a unique niche within coaching. Maybe you exclusively work with healthcare executives, or cybersecurity experts, or with women who left the workforce to raise families and have discovered that in spite of their amazing track record, recruiters are quietly looking the other way. Anything you have deep experience with, or insight into, can be parlayed into career coaching if you have the right temperament.
Do you have these baseline traits?
You’re insightful and curious. Good career coaches can both listen to others, and see through them a little when necessary. Your job-seeker probably came to you because they’re feeling blocked and don’t know why, or because they don’t know what’s really right for them. If you genuinely love figuring out what makes someone else tick, great. If you can mix that with a combination of empathy and “tough love” to help them get past their various fears and defense mechanisms, you’re potentially 24K in this line of work.
You are interested in people, both individually and societally. Many coaches are people who are also drawn to things like politics, languages, economics, anthropology and psychology. You like understanding why people do things. You’re probably a bit of a research geek, too, and the kind of person who lights up instead of shutting down when you’re confronted with something you don’t know.
You genuinely want to help others. Possibly the single biggest thing that unites good career coaches is that they feel best when they are being of service to other people. That’s not everyone, and by the way, it doesn’t need to be: it isn’t a value judgment. People have varied traits, and thank goodness they do! If you’re a person whose source of gratification is service to others, you’ll find you might have the kind of personality to thrive in career coaching.
You have tried on a lot of hats.You’ve had a variety of jobs that just didn’t feel like “you.” And you probably feel a little sheepish about it, like you have failed somehow. Welcome to the club! The more boxes you’ve tried to fit into, the greater your insights into where someone else might find their happy place.
You enjoy (or would enjoy) being your own boss. You’re not intimidated by the unglamorous side of coaching (dealing with bookkeeping, maintaining your own marketing machinery, staying on top of your continuing education requirements).
In other words, there are skills a career coach has to learn, as with any other profession. Your background can matter, but it matters far less than your personality traits and your goals. The world of work is constantly changing, and keeping up with it takes diligence, a learning mindset, and the right balance of confidence and non-arrogance. A healthy dose of skepticism about “the system” and a tendency to root for the underdog always helps, as does the ability to calmly and kindly hold up a mirror to people in order to help them get out of their own way. Honestly, we career coaches come from just about everywhere—but we all come to it with a desire to see other people succeed.
Feeling restless and wondering if career coaching might be right for you? We’re here to answer questions.
Do I Really Need Certification?
Legally? No; there is nothing to stop someone from declaring themselves a career coach, and there are people who simply pay a fee and get a “certificate.” But you’ll find there are serious pitfalls to doing so, both ethically and tactically. If you’re not certified by a rigorous, credible training program, you might struggle to get clients—and you’ll almost certainly struggle to keep them or get them the outcomes they want. I can’t say enough about the importance of a coaching community that’s focused on continuing education, mutual support, and open dialogue about hiring trends, market wobbles or unexpected opportunities. Having serious, significant training specific to career coaching (even if you’ve been, say, a life coach or similar) will absolutely help you attract and retain clients, and that will be because you’re coming to work with earned skills.
How to become a career coach
So, how do you learn how to do everything it takes to become a career coach? We know: it sounds like a lot—because it is a lot. Plus, the practice of career coaching is always changing along with the job market. That is why continuing education is a must if you want to earn a good income, get referrals from satisfied clients, and have a reputation for competence.
While it’s not easy, most IACC-certified career coaches will tell you it was the single most impactful shift in their career—not to mention personal growth and happiness.
Your first step, once you know you want to pursue becoming a career coach, should be to choose a certification program. Having training under your belt from the get-go is very, very worthwhile.
Second, find your first client. In the SPCC certification program, we ask that each student find a client to coach throughout their training. Not only will this keep you accountable to your studies; but having a first client allows you to apply your learnings as you go, which helps you retain what you’ve learned. Through the right program, you’ll also be able to ask for help from your instructor to get unstuck if and when that happens as you’re coaching your first client.
Once you’ve graduated, the learning doesn’t stop. To become not just a career coach, but a successful one, it is crucial to have an ongoing support structure to help you build confidence and excellence as you coach clients two, three, four etc. An ongoing support system can also help you navigate the ways you may want to structure your practice and overcome common hurdles in the first few years of becoming a career coach.
There are multiple ways to become certified as a coach and dip a toe in the water to see if this complex but fascinating career path is for you.