Should you hire a career coach?

Paying for a pro may make sense - but exhaust free options first.

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By Arnesa A. Howell, Money Magazine

Five signs that a coach isn't playing to win
Watch out for these red flags that suggest a career coach may not be worth the money.
Asks for full payment upfront and tries to lock you into a long-term contract.
Makes promises of any kind related to getting you a job or a certain salary
Refuses to give you references or to connect you with past clients
Gives vague answers about how to reach your goals, or doesn't give you any homework
Provides you with only positive feedback and no constructive criticism

(Money Magazine) -- After being laid off this summer, Amy Bauer began to contemplate a career switch (from investor relations to corporate social responsibility). But it had been more than a decade since the 37-year-old from the Baltimore area had even crafted a résumé. For assistance, she turned to a career coach.

"She helped me determine which of my skills are transferable and tweak my résumé so it's applicable," says Bauer of coach Kimberly Bowen of Career Life Designs. Adds Bowen: "Amy and I have set really good goals together and every two weeks, we check in." Since they paired up in June, Bauer has landed several informational interviews, which she credits to the coaching.

"Any time there's an economic downturn, career coaching spikes," notes Christopher Metzler, associate dean for human resources studies at Georgetown University. With job searches now averaging 25 weeks, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, who doesn't want help marketing themselves?

Such assistance doesn't come cheap, and since anyone can call himself or herself a career coach, quality varies widely. Still, good coaching, in the right situations, can be well worth the price.

What you'll get

At its best, career coaching helps you clarify your job goals and develop strategies to reach them. That may include assessments (such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, used to determine which fields suit your personality) and discussions (starting with questions like, When have you felt especially satisfied?). It also involves practical steps like writing effective résumés and practicing interviewing skills.

You can go through a whole process with someone, or just get targeted advice on one particular area. With a good adviser, "you should leave each session saying, 'I've taken a step forward in my job search,' " says Robert Hellmann of the Five O'Clock Club, a national coaching firm.

When it makes sense

A good coach can be helpful if your job search is lagging or you're getting discouraged, Metzler says. Part of his or her job, after all, is to keep you on task. A coach may also make sense if you're transitioning to a new career, returning to the workforce, or trying to advance within a company, he says. In such cases, an outsider may help you focus your efforts and identify necessary skills.

But sessions average $161 an hour, according to the International Coach Federation trade group, and clients typically use three to six visits. So explore free options first. Most colleges offer their alumni gratis meetings, by phone or in-person, with the trained staffers in their career offices. Professional organizations also sometimes offer seminars to members.

How to find someone good

If you want to pursue individual coaching, some due diligence can help ensure that your money is well spent. Start by asking for referrals, both from people you know and a professional group in your industry.

Narrow your list to three, and interview them to find out about their experience, success rates, and typical clients. Be wary of coaching certifications, says Douglas T. Hall, professor of organizational behavior at Boston University's School of Management. (Some can be achieved in a single weekend.) Instead, look for a master's in counseling psychology, human resources, or organizational leadership. Speak with past clients about their experiences and, finally, request a free initial session.

As for Bauer, she's still looking for work, but she's happy to have paid for the coach. "It's great to have someone in my corner," she says.  To top of page

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