Cara is CEO of Ready Reset Go® and President of the International Association of Career Coaches.
As a veteran of hundreds of conversations with prospective career coaches, I'll be blunt: It isn’t for everyone. As with every other profession on earth, there are people for whom it’s a true calling and others for whom it’s a sincerely terrible idea. If you’re looking for clarity on whether this rewarding, challenging work is for you, read on. I’m going to give you the good, the bad and the ugly about being a career coach. If I scare you away? Great! Because we all should do what we are meant to do.
We’re not life coaches.
If you have ever been or worked with a life coach, you know their job is to ask questions that guide people toward a better understanding of themselves and their desires. That’s part of career coaching, but we’re more like consultants in many ways. Career coaching is part heart’s-desire-discernment, part education — a combination of Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting and Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. Life coaches are trained to refrain from “telling” people what to do. Career coaches tell. You tell them when they aren’t saying the right things. You tell them what their résumé, their interview outfit, their body language might be telling a hiring manager or recruiter. If you don’t feel comfortable telling people what to do, if you like to be there holding space with someone for months on end, you might be an amazing therapist. You’re probably not a career coach. Our clients want — need — solutions, and quickly.
We are not recruiters or headhunters.
There are career coaches who, like me, have a recruiting background. But some of the best come from other fields, like law. And retail. And marketing. Headhunters and recruiters work for the employer. With occasional exceptions, a career coach is paid by the job seeker. Your clients need you to be on their side. They need to feel safe explaining why they were fired, or soul-searching about trying something new. They need to be able to be transparent with you in ways they can’t (and shouldn’t) be with a hiring manager. “The real reason I quit my last job was harassment, but if I say that, will they think ‘troublemaker?’” Or, “I hated my old boss… and I know I shouldn’t say that in an interview, but what do I say?” Job seekers must know that you, the career coach, work 100% for them. You’ve got to be someone who looks out for the little guy. If your happy place is “the establishment,” you might be an amazing recruiter. You’ll hate career coaching.
We aren’t mystical gurus on mountaintops.
Were you born knowing what you were put on earth to do? Lucky you! Seriously, if your happy place is “unimpeachable authority figure,” you have a wealth of options in conflict management and the justice system, not to mention ashrams. But an excess of certainty is a serious drawback in my line of work.
If you’ve struggled to understand what you were meant to do, if you self-question a lot, if you have intimate knowledge of feeling unseen or like a bit of a misfit — if your résumé is a wild patchwork quilt of randomness? Congratulations, you have part of the arsenal of a career coach. You understand what your clients are going through. When you’re clear on what you don’t know (as well as what you do know), it’s a huge asset in discernment work, which for me is the juicy part of what I do. I love seeing people’s faces light up when they finally figure out their calling in life.
But it is not an easy thing to learn how to do. I have a process that I’ve refined over many years to help clients “land” on their career path. I teach people my process. Good career coaches also share. We augment our knowledge base by collaborating — a lot. I’m part of a cohort of career coaches with exposure in different areas and sectors. We give each other input on client cases. It helps keep us honest about what we don’t yet know, improves confidence and exposes everyone to shifting trends and concerns in various sectors. It takes time to build that knowledge base, but it can and should be done.
Here’s what a good career coach does do.
We help people find the right job. The tool kit you need for this includes learned skills as well as traits and personality styles. Yes, career coaches help people with their job search. And if you’ve hated this process yourself, you might be a good career coach because you feel it. And I bet you’ve found hacks others can benefit from. We help build interview skills. If that unnerves you, great! People who spring from the womb with natural eloquence and confidence often don’t understand why other people have a hard time with it. Your struggles turn into superpowers in this field. We help with salary negotiation (and that is where your clients will really understand the return on the investment they made in working with you). Great career coaches know how to write résumés, and not just because most people hate doing it.
In a nutshell, if this work is meant for you, the days will fly by and you will honestly look forward to Monday morning. You’ll need to come face-to-face with the mirror in ways that are often uncomfortable. And you’ll have to accept the unglamorous aspects of being a CEO, an administrative assistant and a marketing intern all while doing the actual coaching.
So you really should turn around and run the other way if you are not genuinely curious, willing to confront yourself and open to wearing a lot of hats. But if that sounds exciting to you? Maybe this is what you’re meant to do! If so, you owe it to yourself and the world to pursue it. With all of your heart.