Ever get that feeling that things aren’t quite right? Sometimes it is a nebulous sense that something is missing, or an obvious problem like conflict with employees, or rumors of pending layoffs. More than ever, those of us who work among wires and keyboards are aware that life can change in the blink of an eye, whether we like it or not.

No matter what has got you feeling off-balance, it’s not a good idea to ignore that feeling while it eats at you, eventually affecting both your life and your work. Take charge of the situation. There are many ways to do this, including self-help books, psychotherapy, support groups, and even assertiveness classes if the situation warrants it.

But what if you’re not quite sure what is wrong or what you need to do? You may need a guide outside the pages of a book or a clinic. This article introduces you to one option: a professional career coach.

Consider a coach
Professional coaches are not some new-age fad. For example, both competitive swimmers and opera singers have coaches. It is not a big stretch to imagine that someone in the tech world might benefit from a coach.

Several major issues seem to drive computer programmers, IT managers, and CIOs to seek coaching. Laura Young of Wellspring Associates states that her technical clients tend to arrive exhausted with burnout; they’re often considering transitioning into a new career. Also, Judy Feld, president-elect of the International Coach Federation, finds her clients often require a combination of a better work/life balance and lower job-related stress levels; they can accomplish both goals by improving their nontechnical skills.

Unfortunately, most of us are familiar with burnout. We work crazy hours, rarely leave our work behind when we go home, and live under tremendous pressure to meet unrealistic deadlines and profit margins. No wonder so many technical professionals find themselves yearning for greener pastures, dreaming of the luxury of heading out on the open road in an eighteen-wheeler or going to cooking school to be pastry chefs.

So, rather than just dream, some people take the plunge and hire a coach to help them find their way. They use the guidance to help decide where they really want to take their lives, both personally and professionally, and try to formulate a plan.

Making their situations even worse, many tech folks seeking to move to new careers recently have ended up caught in the latest dot-com craze, the power downsize. Having a coach at this point put them a step ahead: A coach can help you sidestep the anger and blame that comes with a bad situation, and spot the opportunities that might have opened in the meantime.

What is important?
As Young said, “A strong coach can help keep you pointed toward True North in the toughest of times. It’s really important that one have a coach that feels trustworthy, strong, and capable of hearing you fully in even the most complex of situations.” To help her clients determine where their lives reflect and don’t reflect their values, Young assigns a bit of homework, as coaches are prone to do: You must envision a Martian following you as you go through your life for a couple of weeks, and after these two weeks, the Martian will write an essay on who you are and what is important to you.

What would the essay say? Probably little or nothing about what you truly value. Feld points out that to “get the most out of working with a coach, a person must be motivated to get into action and make some changes. Not stand still.” She also assigns homework, but in the form of “risk-free experiments,” where clients try on new approaches and ideas; the clients discover that some work better than their old approaches, and even those that aren’t wild successes don’t bring the world crashing down around them.

One problem all coaches face is the self-sabotaging client. People often do not realize they are purposely putting up barriers that cause failure. This problem can waste a lot of hard-earned cash and cause a lot of frustration. Sabotage comes in many forms. Maybe you tell yourself that you want change, but you can’t seem to pull yourself out of the status quo. Or you’re worried that your coach will think you’re weak or foolish if you tell her the whole truth; so you hold back key information that might help her truly understand the situation. You must be completely open and honest with both your coach and yourself, and always be on the lookout for traces of self-sabotage.

Suggestions from the pros
I asked both Young and Feld what they would do if they got to be fairy godmothers for a day and visit everyone in our industry. When I handed Young the magic wand, she imparted the following gems of wisdom:

  • You’re not just a brain with feet. Get away from your desk for lunch; move, stretch, and talk.
  • Make your life as big as needed—whatever is necessary to make it interesting.
  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket (and she’s not just talking money-wise). Build up reserves of knowledge, money, friendship, help, and love to help you through tough times.
  • You are responsible for making your life, not your employer. Work is not life.
  • Love what you do.

And I would add the addendum: Do what you love. When I passed Feld the fairy godmother costume, she shared these wise words:

  • Take the time to get to know yourself: your behavioral style, personality type, talents, skills, and habits. The more you understand about yourself, the better you can learn to deal with others.
  • Take an interest in how the people around you view the world and their own styles, types, talents, skills, and habits. Not only will this information help you integrate with the teams above, beside, and below you, but you may just find that the workplace starts to naturally run a bit smoother.
  • Create a more balanced and fulfilling life for yourself. You’ll be happier and healthier for it, and who knows, it might spill over.

The choice is yours
If you’re one of those people who always knows exactly what you want to do and charges off to do it, coaching may not be for you. But if you are at a point in your life where something has to change, a coach can be the difference between sleepless nights and a more comfortable, focused approach. Not all change is bad. Sometimes we just need a hand to get through it.