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Exploring the career path of a career coach

If you're looking for a career change and more independence, you might consider becoming an IT career coach. Here's what the job requirements are, along with the employment outlook and insight from coaches on how to succeed on this career path.

With offices in Manhattan and London, former IT manager Steve Bohler had every right to be thrilled with his career track at IT consultancy Morgan Stanley. But he wasn't.

"I was constantly hating my career," said Bohler, who's now a career coach in Cooperstown, NY.

His dissatisfaction didn't come from a lack of IT aptitude. He'd earned his undergraduate degree in computer science and, in a matter of six years, worked his way up the ranks from help desk analyst to programmer to project manager to, finally, business unit liaison. Clearly, the work challenged him. He detested, however, constantly putting out fires and "being a slave to others," he said.

So in 1992, he quit IT management and embarked on a path that ultimately led him to career coaching—a growing profession with a potential for six-figure incomes. Here is an in-depth look at the role of a career coach, as well as what this career path offers those who choose it.

A preboom career path
Though figures from the U.S. Department of Labor don't track the career coach profession, experts in the field claim it's in a preboom stage. They point to a number of books, associations, and a proliferation of certifications as evidence of its gaining momentum.

Career coaches, unlike career counselors, do not do psychological evaluations and therapy. They’re professionals who help people navigate career searches or plot a new, long-term course for career transition.

Career coaching is a growing profession due to the increasing number of people needing assistance due to layoffs, job unhappiness, and changing career goals.

Just a small minority of career coaches works in outplacement firms, such as DBM, or smaller companies, such as R.L. Stevens & Associates, Inc. The vast majority are entrepreneurs, according to Wendy Enelow, founder of Career Masters Institute. The Institute has 500 members and bridges the various career industry workers, such as resume writers, career counselors, corporate HR, and people specializing in military and government career transitions, among others.

Earning potential outlook
As career coaching is largely entrepreneurial, the earning potential can be somewhat spotty. Most career coaches make between $35,000 to $65,000 a year, according to Enelow. But if busy coaches work strictly with executives, they might pull six figures.

Minneapolis-based "life skills coach" Barbara Van Deinse, who stepped into coaching after 16 years of corporate management for diverse industries, such as technology, telecom, and financial services, said most coaches strive to have 15 to 25 clients on three-month retainers at any given time.

As for professional rates, they're all over the map. Coaches may charge anywhere between nothing (for pro-bono work) to $1,000-an-hour for corporate executives, with the vast majority of coaches shooting for about $100 an hour.

What the role requires
While the earnings have potential to be in line with an IT manager's existing salary, the work of a career coach certainly has familiar aspects for experienced managers as well.

"You get a glimmer of [what the career coach role is like] as a manager," said Van Deinse. Managers frequently coach employees, for instance, on what training they should pursue in order to move up the career ladder.

But the manager usually has a vested interest in seeing the employee do things the manager's way. Professional coaches, on the other hand, are neutral guides using various tools, including assessments, guided dialogue, and exercises designed to draw forth the client's own inspiration.

The coaching typically happens over the telephone with each meeting designed with a specific objective in mind.

In order to succeed, coaches have to convey to their clients that they value them. However, coaching isn’t necessarily a “soft” profession. "Coaching is not lovey-dovey. I used to only work with top executives and for them it was very straightforward," noted Enelow. Coaches also have to be good motivators and communicators with keen insights into the dynamics at work in people's lives—things that may cause them to succeed or fail. Some of these coaching traits are innate, while others can be acquired.

Training for coaches
When Bohler embarked on his coaching career in 1992, he said he devoured every book he could on the topic. He later attained a license to administer assessment tests for the Rockport Institute, but later dropped it in favor of the methodology from The Whole Person Technology program from The Highlands Company. The Atlanta company’s philosophy promotes “the power of the individual to create change,” and its 70 staffers work a variety of clients, from Fortune 100 to college career programs.

Enelow chose another path, gradually picking up a list of credentials that now follow her name—including Certified Professional Resume Writer (CPRW), offered by The Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches, and Job and Career Transition Coach (JCTC), a three-day course offered by coaching pioneer, Dick Knowdell.

Van Deinse, on the other hand, evaluated the Coaches Training Institute, Coachville, and Results Now Professional Coaching before settling on the latter due to its structured methodology for coaching. "They teach you a framework so you can replicate success from one client to the next,” explained Van Deinse.

While the time commitment for getting credentialed doesn’t compare to that of an MBA or the like, it can certainly test one's commitment to a new career path. Van Deinse, for instance, took a 12-week distance-learning course that required a weekly two-and-a-half-hour class. The course required heavy reading and homework, as well as weekly role-playing practice with another classmate. She also signed up for a 12-week session with her own coach.

“Completely to my surprise, I came up with three enormous goals that I would never have set on my own," Van Deinse said about her first session. "It was so impressive to me, and I think I've been really good at setting goals for myself." The remainder of the sessions involved setting strategies for achieving her objectives.

Career pluses and minuses
While self-discovery is often a positive side effect of becoming a career coach, it can also be a negative, as solitude creates its own form of cabin fever from lack of face-to-face interactions.

"Sometimes it's nice to feel part of a team and see people," said Bohler, who has managed to build social time into his day. "I have to make an effort to go out and to build a trip to the gym in my schedule," he said.

Career coaches also have to be fairly risk tolerant. While this might be less of an issue for people who've been downsized several times, financial security can still be shaky if the coach has a slow month or two in terms of client appointments. Self-marketing is a constant task for all independent career coaches.

That's why Bohler recommends having a diversified source of income through part-time gigs at counseling departments with schools, universities, or outplacement firms. Bohler has also used his own technology expertise to create an online program for career concerns called The Oxford Program, which generates its own income.

Along with being flexible and diversified, career coaches need to be a bit thick-skinned, too. Inevitably, a client creates unrealistic expectations for the coaching sessions.

"A lot of people are looking to a career coach to almost save their lives," said Bohler. These people want the coach to hand them a career that meets their salary expectations, requires no additional education, and will fulfill their emotional needs. When the coach can't deliver—and nor is it the coach's responsibility to do so—clients sometimes get nasty. Coaches say they avoid this by setting up clear expectations from the get-go.

Yet despite all the challenges, all the coaches interviewed for this article said the work continues to be personally rewarding as they guide people toward happiness.

Having made a career transition himself, from a high-paid techie consultant to a career coach, Bohler said it was the right move.

“It is like night and day. One day you feel like you have a 10,000-pound rock weighing you down, and you live for the weekends and your vacations. Now, I'm living more according to my nature."
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