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Reflections on My Life as Career Coach

Implications for helping professionals and their clients.

Marty Nemko
Source: Marty Nemko
  • One career coach reflects on lessons learned, including the centrality of a counselor's ethics and the importance of truly understanding a range of careers.
  • The client base includes many who need help with motivation, and those who will end up self-employed, making these key arenas in which to hone one's coaching skills.
  • Counselors themselves should be self-starters, emotionally stable and willing to broaden their own skill-sets.

I’m in my 36th year as a career and personal coach, and I've had the privilege (that's not just a cliche, it's true) of helping more than 6,000 clients navigate a central part of their life.

Perhaps it's time to share some candid reflections in hope they might be helpful not just to career counselors and coaches but to other helping professionals as well as to clients.

A few observations on ethics

I want to start with ethics. The older I get, the more central I am finding ethics to be. I’ve been a little disappointed in myself for not fully walking my talk about career counselor ethics. On these pages, I’ve wondered about the ethics of career counselors' making their clients look like better candidates for a job than they are. And I've been critical of hired guns who write their clients’ resume—I view that as no more ethical than a parent writing their child’s college application essay. I haven't done the latter but have helped job candidates prepare for interviews, including suggesting compelling answers. I don't do that for the money. It's mainly because it’s hard to say no, and perhaps because I rationalize, “It’s not that big a deal.” I'm not really sure I understand why I do it; I only know it's true.

One more ethical issue: There’s temptation to encourage a private-practice client to schedule a next session, even if not really needed. Here, I believe I'm on solid ground. At the end of each session, I honestly describe the extent to which I believe a next session is appropriate. If anything, I err on the side of not pushing for another session to ensure that my ethics are solid. A related point, I consider it unethical for counselors to offer only packages of multiple sessions. Progress and compatibility vary in ways that often cannot be anticipated, so I believe that the only ethical pricing is per-session.

On a more positive note, I feel good about helping people choose a career and make the most of their work life, and more often than I would have anticipated, their romantic life and parenting—career often bleeds into the personal. Over the decades, I've spent more and more time learning about and helping clients with such issues.

I do think that career coaching requires much more expertise than many coaches have. Many are nice people with a bent toward marketing themselves, but they don't know enough about the world of work.

Work-world expertise that makes for an effective career counselor

  • Understanding a range of careers, not just their existence but the not-obvious but central abilities required. These often are subjective and thus rarely find their way into authoritative articles and books.

For example, the physician who doesn’t burn out needs to balance caring with a thick skin in the face of death and intractable disease, a tolerance for inordinate paperwork, the humility to recognize that despite the long, expensive, sometimes boring training, because medicine is still in its adolescence and the field is rapidly changing, there's much they don’t know, and the overwhelmed health care system means that even if the doc knows what to do, errors in the health care chain and bureaucratic delays cause excess morbidity and mortality. Even pre-COVID, 150,000 patients die unnecessarily every year in hospitals alone because of medical errors, the third leading cause of death! As a result, many doctors try to transfer out of clinical practice into management, patient review, etc.

It’s tough for a career counselor or client to discover such information by reading or in an informational interview. I’ve learned such things from confidential discussions with thousands of clients, and because I’ve chosen to specialize in just a few fields: physicians, attorneys, executives, and educators, I know more of those fields' subtleties than I would had I been a generalist.

  • Knowing what it takes to succeed at a high level in the real-world workplace: people management, project management, running meetings, public speaking, diversity and inclusion issues, stress management, time management, and procrastination.
  • Understanding what it takes to succeed in self-employment. Career counselors, especially those in private practice, tend to attract many clients who have difficulty getting hired, so they often consider self-employment. It's especially important to understand how to help people who aren't natural entrepreneurs to maximize their likelihood of success: under-the-radar, low-investment viable niches, the art of minimizing costs while remaining ethical, etc.
  • In any specialty, being a counselor demands the ineffable but central ability to motivate people to move forward, something on which I’d give myself only a B. Even at this late point in my career, I think about and occasionally even ask clients whether they have a suggestion for how I might be more helpful in unlocking their motivation.
  • You must be a responsible self-starter. No one will make you prepare for each session, take notes after, stay current, and, in private practice, spend time on marketing, which alas, in the beginning at least, is usually necessary.
  • You must be emotionally stable. People don’t pay a coach or counselor because they or their situation are easy. Disproportionately, they procrastinate, are long-winded, emotionally sensitive, not as rational as you’d wish, etc. And all of them won't share your values. Unless a person’s values violate your ethics (I have turned-down prospective clients who work in the tobacco and the surprisingly dangerous cannabis industries), you need the emotional restraint to put aside, for example, your political perspectives, and help the client achieve their goals.
  • It’s important to go beyond your clinical work. That broadens your expertise and keeps you from burning out. For example, writing this blog and public speaking solidify and expand my knowledge and allow me to share it. Also, I have been a consultant to organizations, which provides a reality check—If I spent all my time in the bubble of my counseling office, it would be easy to forget how complex things are in the real world.

Would I become a career coach/counselor if I were starting over? I’m not sure. I love the autonomy, feel pretty good about the ethics, appreciate the peaceful work environment, and that almost all my clients find me helpful. But as any helping professional knows, change often occurs slowly. I’m fast-paced and wonder if I might have made a bigger contribution as an in-and-out consultant to organizations that I believed in, or even doing something completely different, for example, full-time writer or even genetics researcher.

So, dear reader, whether helping professional or client, as I am wont to ask at the end of sessions and talks, is there at least one thing you want to remember from today’s session?

I read this aloud on YouTube.