Every career comes with questions.
Am I going in the right direction? Why doesn’t my job satisfy me the way it used to? How do I get what I want? What do I want? Is this promotion, or this company, right for me? Is moving into management something I want to do? Should I make a shift, or can I refocus my efforts?
Coming up with the answers to questions like these isn’t always easy. For one thing, you might not have all of the information that you need to develop that answer, or even enough information to understand your questions.
For another thing, you just might be too close to the issues at hand to see the big picture on your own.
“It’s sometimes hard for a system to observe itself,” says Samantha Sutton, Ph.D. “As engineers, we think we can figure out things by ourselves. But the thing is, people very rarely have the ability to see themselves clearly. Because we’re looking at ourselves, it actually becomes a very conflicted system.”
That’s where career coaches like Sutton come in. Career coaches can help people examine those questions, focus their minds, develop strategies, and achieve their goals.
Sutton, a scientist who calls her coaching work Life Engineering, says it can be hard to ask for help, especially for high-tech people who have a history of being self-sufficient. But sometimes even the brightest and most talented employees need a push, and that’s where having an expert on your team can be invaluable.
Okay, So What is a Career Coach?
Different career coaches offer a variety of different services, but they basically boil down to the same thing. “Ultimately, a career coach is someone who can help people to get clear on their goals and objectives,” says Anthony Fasano, P.E., who works under the name the Engineering Career Coach. “Then we can help them put together plans to achieve their goals, and then to execute those plans.”
Fasano calls this another way to invest in yourself, much in the same way that engineers need to constantly improve their technical knowledge. “If you’re not going to be working on your career and your development on a regular basis, you’re not going to get good things happening in your career,” he says.
Career coach Stacey Lane says coaches can help take the place of roles that once existed in business but have started to fall by the wayside. “I think that in today’s world, the pace is so accelerated that we don’t have the same mentors or champions and long-term relationships that we used to have, because we move a lot more often and maybe we don’t work with people for as long.” She says that’s one of the biggest values of coaching: to have an outsider perspective to look objectively at your experiences, skills and strengths and help you position yourself for success.
How to Pick a Career Coach
As with any relationship, finding the right career coach for you is an essential part of the process.
First off, Lane says it’s important to look at your own need for coaching. “Be clear about what your needs are,” she says. “Do you want to do a bunch of self-exploration? Is it a combination of personal and professional development? Or do you want somebody who’s just going to be a strategist?”
With that in mind, start taking a look at what services coaches offer. You might start with their personal backgrounds. Knowing that a coach has experience in your own technical field—either through their own work or their clients—could make a difference to you, depending on your needs. “Do you want someone to give you some ideas for different things you could do in your current position,” asks Sutton. “Then, yes, you would want someone who has a similar background to you. If you want a career coach who will help you take a step back and understand yourself holistically and figure out what you’re passionate about and help you work through some mental blocks, I think the most important thing to look for in a coach there is someone who has a track record of doing that with other people and someone who you feel like understands you as a person.”
That track record is important. Sutton suggests taking a look at a coach’s record to see what organizations they have worked with and what testimonials have been offered by past clients. “See who trusts them,” she says. “That’s often a good sign.” Lane says it is common practice to ask for referrals from past clients, which can also help you to understand a coach’s style and success rate.
Sutton also suggests taking a look a coach’s writing, especially if they blog about career topics. “See if you like their approach and their outlook,” she says.
One thing you probably shouldn’t worry too much about is location. Career coaches can be found just about anywhere, but many coaching sessions are done by phone or Skype rather than in-person so it doesn’t matter where their offices are located.
In fact, a phone call will probably be how the whole process begins. Many coaches offer free half-hour sessions to as an introduction to potential clients. Sutton says this offers you a chance to figure out if the coach is right for you. “Do you enjoy talking to this coach? Do you feel like this coach understands you and what you’re saying? Do you feel that you can trust this coach?”
Most importantly, is this a person you want to build a long-term working relationship with?
The Coaching Process
Each coach has their own process, but in general it’s a path that takes several months and requires a lot from each participant.
The first step will probably be to define your goals. That might not be as easy as you’d think. “It can take a couple of sessions for people just to get their goals down,” says Fasano. For example, an engineer might say he wants to be a project leader, but what does that really mean? “At the end of the day, they might want to be a leader, but they’re using the project manager goal as a vehicle to get there.”
Understanding the underlying “why,” the true goal, is important, Fasano says, because it may not always be what you first think.
Your career goals may also dovetail with your personal goals, or even conflict with them. Sutton asks about every aspect of a client’s life—health, home, family, community, interests—to see how they fit into your career. “I need to understand your whole life, of which your career is just a part,” she says. “They need to fit together. You would never write code that can’t interface with the rest of your system.”
Expect to meet with your coach at least every couple of weeks for a several months, and also to do some “homework” between each session. “It’s a process,” says Lane. “There’s a lot to do between meetings. The more my clients are engaged in the process, the better the results are. They’re staying connected to it.”
Sutton says the homework helps you to take what’s discussed in your sessions and apply those concepts to your daily life. After all, practice makes perfect. “You can go to calculus class, but if you don’t actually do the calculus problems you will never learn calculus. You need to practice doing 30 examples of integration before you really understand how to integrate. The same is true with your life.”
Once the goals have been established, it’s time to create a strategy to achieve them. This can also be a long process, and it might require some back and forth. “A client might start doing something and find they hit a challenge,” Fasano says. “We just keep working on it to find a way to overcome it.”
Working with a coach isn’t inexpensive, but it should more than pay off in the long run. “Honestly, if you’re working with a coach, your career and your salary should be making up more than the cost in the benefit to your career,” Fasano says.
Perhaps more importantly than that, a career coach can help you to make the most of and enjoy your career. For anyone starting out with a lot of unanswerable questions, that can be priceless.