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Choosing a Career Coach? Avoid These 7 Red Flags

In the past year, 41% of my clients have come to work with me AFTER they’ve tried working with a traditional career coach.

Let that sink in. That means they’ve already gotten their hopes up, invested money, carved out time from their life to dedicate to their career…and they still don’t know what they want to do. Talk about discouraging.

I wondered why this kept happening. Why was career coaching failing these people? So, I started taking notes when clients shared these frustrating stories. A few patterns emerged about why working with these coaches didn’t pan out.

In this in-depth guide, I’ll walk you through each career coaching red flag my clients reported so you can avoid choosing the wrong career coach and find the right fit for YOU – the first time around.

Here’s an overview:

  1. Outdated advice

  2. No system

  3. No individual feedback

  4. Your emotions are an inconvenience

  5. Over-reliance on assessments

  6. No or few testimonials

  7. The “buy now” button

If you come across one of these red flags, it doesn’t mean that the coach in question is a bad seed; it just means you should proceed with caution to make sure you get the support and results that you want.

And one more thing: These red flags apply to any kind of career professional, whether they call themselves a coach, counselor, advisor, mentor, or something else. We won’t get hung up on what they call themselves; we want to focus on what they can help you do.

Let’s dive in.

1 | The career coach gives outdated advice

Most career coaching tools out there are were created for a past workplace and for the values of past workers.

If it were as cut and dry as:

  • Do what you’re good at

  • Be practical

  • Use your degree

  • Follow your passion

  • Start a heart-centered business

…you would have figured it out by now.

Now, you might just end up starting a heart-centered business or using your degree, but that advice alone won’t help you make the right career choice because there are so many other factors to consider and weigh.

If what you want is a modern-day, meaningful career, make sure you get help from someone who understands how to integrate who you are, how you want to live, and the money you want to earn into the career you choose. Anything less than that, and you’ll likely be shopping around for your second career coach soon.

2 | The career coach has no system

You might be shocked that some career professionals make it up as they go along.

You usually find this in the one-on-one coaching model. While one-on-one feedback is vital, there should also be an actual process that addresses your challenges in a structured, methodical way with the assurance that your efforts are leading to your desired results.


Some signs that there may not be a system are:

The Tour of Feelings

“Let’s feel our way through it” is not an uncommon approach in the coaching industry.

Your intuition and feelings are important, but don’t want to just feel your way through a change that is going to have profound and lasting consequences on you and your family. You need a plan.

Reinventing the Wheel

Similar to The Tour of Feelings, some coaches start from scratch (or close to it) each time they start working with a new client. This may be marketed as “getting one-on-one time,” but it can be an indication that the coach is still in their own discovery process about what works and what doesn’t. Translation: they could be using you as a guinea pig to figure that out.

It’s true that every service provider has to start somewhere, myself included, but that doesn’t mean that you want to be their learning curve. If you were choosing between hiring me circa 2011 and me now, I’d want you to go with me now!

The Lightning Strike

If the coach relies on questions like “What would you do if the money didn’t matter?” and “What did you love to do as a kid?” then they may not have a system.

I’m guessing you’ve already asked yourself these questions, anyway. These career parlor games hope to create a lightbulb moment that you use as a springboard for your entire career.

But what happens if lightning doesn’t strike? Or what if you don’t still want to be a ballerina-archeologist like you did when you were 7? You’re back on your own to figure things out.

One caveat:

You may have discovered that working with someone who has a tried and true system can be a bit of a double-edged sword.

The danger is that they can get their system so well-oiled that the most profitable thing for their business is to create a massive online course. That’s good for them, but then there can be so many participants that you don’t get the attention or feedback that you need. I’ll talk more about individual mentorship when we get to the next red flag, but when it comes to balancing having a system and getting individual support, I think about it like this:

Let’s say you want to learn to drive a car. There are certain things that anyone who wants to drive a car has to learn. First, you put your foot on the brake. Then, you put the key in the ignition and turn it. Next you check your mirrors, and then you put it in reverse. No matter who you are, you MUST take those steps to drive the car. That part is the same for everybody.

But what if you have an injured neck and can’t check the mirror? Or what if your legs are too short to reach the pedals? That’s when you need your teacher to help you figure out how you can still complete those steps while taking into account your personal challenges. It’s the same with career coaching.

You want a guide who knows the steps it takes to “drive the car” AND will be at your side to troubleshoot if your circumstances present unique challenges.

3 | The career coach offers no individual feedback

Some career courses provide helpful content, but no further substantial support. These are closer to information products than an actual coaching or mentor relationship. Don’t get caught waiting on a 2 hour Q&A call with hundreds of other people, fingers crossed that the admins will pick your question.

Make sure you get direct, consistent access to the coach or facilitator. Either a one-on-one or group format can work, provided that you’re able to regularly get your specific questions answered. After all, you are going through a major career transition and you hired them to help you walk through that.  

For something skills-based like updating your LinkedIn or writing a resume, you don’t need as much personal connection. But choosing a career is a big decision. You get tangled in your own thoughts, fall back into old patterns, make decisions from a place of fear, and irrationally talk yourself into and out of all kinds of stuff.

The ability to get personalized feedback and guidance from your source of support is not just nice; it’s necessary.

4 |  The career coach is inconvenienced by your emotions

I was surprised to hear from clients that career counselors they had worked with seemed flummoxed and inconvenienced when the clients became afraid, doubtful, or sad during some part of the process.

It sure would be more convenient if you were just a collection of skills on a Excel spreadsheet, but you’re a person. Career change is highly emotional, just like any transformation or major life event, on par with a death in the family, moving to a new area, or leaving the cocoon of college for the real world.

That doesn’t mean that you’ll be hysterical, but all the feelings you’ve already encountered in your quest to find the right career, like fear, self-doubt, loss of hope, imposter complex, low confidence, and guilt are a predictable and normal part of this kind of change.

Whoever you work with should be prepared for the emotional aspect of career change and have the skillset to help you work through it.

5  | The career coach over-relies on assessment results

This industry is plagued with assessment tests.

You know the ones I mean – the Myers-Briggs, StrengthsFinder, and Enneagram style multiple-choice tests that spit out “The Answer” for you. If a coach puts too much weight on these tests and their results, stay away.

Don’t get me wrong, tests like this have their place and can provide some useful insight, but no test can capture ALL of you, just like an IQ test cannot quantify the full range and depth of you as a person.

Besides that, what happens if you don’t like the career options the test says are right for you? You’re stuck without alternatives.

Look for a coach who treats assessment tools with a grain of salt and doesn’t rely on them as their system.

6 |  The career coach has no or few testimonials on their website

If a coach as no or few testimonials, it may mean that they’ve worked with no or few clients. Not what you’re after!

You want to work with an experienced professional, and testimonials, case studies, or client success stories demonstrate that this isn’t their first rodeo.

Keep in mind that not all testimonials are created equal.

You may see social proof from their peers or mentors singing their praises. This is a character reference (which can tell you something), but it’s not a client testimonial.

You may see testimonials from clients that refer to a different service than the one you need. If you’re trying to figure out what career to choose and the testimonials are all about a networking workshop the coach taught or a resume-in-a-weekend product they offer, then you still don’t have all the information you need.

You want to know that the coach has a strong track record of helping clients with challenges like yours get the same kind of outcomes that you want.

7 | The career coach uses a Buy Now button

A “Buy Now” button on a coach’s website should be cause for concern.

Having that button means they will work with anyone who shows up with a credit card. There is no application process, consultation, or opportunity to find out what you need and if they can help you. And there needs to be.

Your career coach needs to takes the time to learn about you and your situation so they can discern if they can solve your particular problem, and be confident they can work well with YOU.

This step is also necessary to make sure you like, trust, and can communicate well with THEM.

And one more thing about the Buy Now button: if there is a group aspect to working with the coach, the community of people you’ll learn with will be self-selected. When the only gatekeeper is the price, the quality of people in the group is not ensured and you may not be surrounded by the support you so need and deserve.

Work with someone who is willing to invest in making sure that you’re a good fit.

Here’s one bonus career coaching red flag:

The coach doesn’t solve the problem you have

It can be easy to get sucked into someone’s brand and marketing and want to be a part of what they’ve created. Just make sure you look deeper before you leap.

You can hire the best coach in the world, but if they don’t routinely solve the problem you have, then they’re not the right expert for you. After all, you wouldn’t take your car to an award-winning bike shop for repairs.

To make sure it’s the right fit, your potential coach should be able to describe the problem you have in great detail. While listening, you should find yourself nodding your head and maybe even feeling relieved because they get it. They get you.

The next thing you need to see is evidence that they know how to solve that issue. This can be done through reading their testimonials and identifying with both the before and the afters described there.

You see, testimonials are often structured in a before-and-after narrative. “Before I worked with Susan, I was frustrated with my boss…After working with Susan, I know how to communicate well.” Do the “before” parts of the story sound like your situation now? Do the “after” parts of the story sound like the outcome you want? If you can identify with the stories in the testimonials, that’s an indication that you’ve found a good fit.

Don’t get sucked into a brand or a vibe; make sure the coach can help you solve the problems you have.

Conclusion

Working with a career coach or other professional can be a fast, effective, and rewarding way to get off the career change hamster wheel and into a career that you’ll truly love.

When you’re ready to choose a career coach, just make sure to reference these red flags so you can choose the right coach on the first try.

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