What Is A Career Coach? (And How To Tell If You Need One)

by | Career Growth, Finding A Job

“I want to be a career coach when I grow up!” is a phrase I’ve yet to hear. Instead, I’m often asked, “What’s a career coach, and how can I tell if I need one?”

In fact, the month before I left my full-time university job to dedicate 100% of my energy to CaffeinatedKyle.com, I renewed my contract for another 12 months because I didn’t think running a successful career coaching business could be a reality. Fortunately, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Fast forward several years, and I’m now not only a career coach but also a trusted confidant to some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley and high tech.

Some of the questions I’ve been asked most along my career coaching journey include: “What is a career coach?” “What does a career coach do?” and “How do I know if I know if I need a career coach?”

Here are answers to these and other common career coach questions:

What is a career coach?

Let’s start with that first question, what is a career coach?

Although each practitioner will have their own definition, most will agree that a career coach helps you optimize your career. This often looks like identifying your career options and goals, uncovering your strengths and skills, and navigating a modern-day job search and interview process.

Some career coaches also support professionals in new job onboarding, manager effectiveness, communication, and related topics once they’re in their desired role.

To put it simply, a career coach is someone who supports you in working more efficiently and effectively toward your career goals.

Note: Career coaches are sometimes also referred to as job search coaches, career consultants, and career counselors, although the last title is often reserved for those with a degree in career counseling.

What does a career coach do?

So, what exactly does a career coach do? While it depends on the coach, their philosophy, and the specific methodologies they use, as well as the types of clients they serve, career coaches most often work one-on-one or in group settings to guide people toward their professional and personal goals.

Importantly, not all coaches are created equal. Newer coaches, particularly those who focus on resume writing and job search strategy, tend to focus much of their efforts on giving tips and advice. Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach to coaching, it positions the coach as the expert, rather than the client.

I believe that you, the coachee, are the expert in your career and story, and that my role as a coach is to guide you through the process of self-discovery, help you repackage your story, and achieve what often feels impossible.

In other words, my primary role as a coach is to ask the most powerful, provocative questions I can in order to help you reach your goals, while your role as a coachee is to serve as the expert in your background and experience. Together, we uncover insights you wouldn’t have found any other way.

My single “rule” when working with clients is that “I don’t know” isn’t an answer, as I believe you have every answer within you, and that my role as a coach is to create a space for you to find the information you need. This is how clients achieve what they never imagined was possible.

How does career coaching work?

Because deep coaching is an interactive process, don’t expect to accomplish your goals in a single session.

Unless you’re working on an acute topic, such as preparing for a last-minute interview, most career coaching engagements take place over a series of sessions that span multiple weeks or months.

The first session often begins by identifying and clarifying your goals for career coaching, determining how you will mutually measure success, and developing a roadmap for your future work together.

Then, you’ll make progress toward your goals during each subsequent session. Through the process of working with a career coach, you can expect to:

  • Identify your short-term and long-term career goals.
  • Uncover answers to your career questions.
  • Be challenged on your assumptions.
  • Receive support and guidance.

Again, please remember that every career coach is distinct in their processes and approach. An experienced practitioner should tailor their methods, at least in part, to your goals, needs, and learning style.

Many career coaches will also assign you activities to complete between sessions (I completed my doctorate in higher education, so I like to refer to this between-session work as “homework”). Additionally, some coaches choose to provide additional resources, such as articles and videos, to deepen your learnings.

What do I discuss with a career coach?

You get to choose what topics you cover in each coaching session. That said, there are several common career coaching topics. People often reach out to career coaches when they need support in one or more of the following areas:

This list is merely a jumping-off point, and certainly not exhaustive, as the topics you cover with your career coach should be customized to your specific areas of focus and goals.

As the coachee, you’re in the driver’s seat and get to ultimately choose the topics you cover—and don’t cover—during your sessions.

A quick note: There are a lot of similarities between career coaching and mental health therapy, and while the two often complement one another (many of my career coaching clients see a mental health therapist in tandem), the two are distinct.

What’s the role of assessments in career coaching?

Kyle Elliott Strengths Finder Report

Kyle Elliott Strong Interest Inventory Report

Many coaches, including myself, harness the power of leadership and career assessments to help you better understand yourself and your strengths.

Personally speaking, I use a broad range of psychological tools that have been rigorously tested, including the CliftonStrengths® assessment, the MBTI® assessment, and the Strong Interest Inventory.

I then blend these assessments with my doctorate in higher education (adult education) and my reputation for asking powerful coaching questions to help clients get unstuck, own their fabulousness, and achieve what they never imagined was possible.

Remember: Every coach has a different process, so each one’s approach to assessments will vary. If you decide to work with one coach, you’ll need to find a practitioner who aligns with you and your career ambitions.

Additionally, some coaches choose to serve in a consultant or advisor capacity, while others prefer to act more like a mentor or guide.

How do I know if I need a career coach?

Okay, so how do you know if you need a career coach?

One of the biggest indicators that it might be time to work with a coach is feeling stuck or overwhelmed by your job search. A professional can support you in developing a clear path forward.

Another time it makes sense to work with a career coach is when you’re navigating change and want a sounding board or second perspective. This might look like switching job functions, trying to break into a new industry, returning to work after a gap in employment, or stepping into a higher-level role).

If you’re struggling with confidence or Imposter Syndrome, you may also wish to work with a career coach who specializes in supporting you through the process of internalizing your career accomplishments.

I break down each of the signs in this article as well as explain when you might want to hold off on the process of investing in a coach.

While no one needs a career coach, if you have a career, you can likely benefit from a career coach.

Oh, and if you’re simply curious about how career coaching works, it doesn’t hurt to reach out to a coach and learn more about the process, either. A vast majority of coaches offer prospective clients a free consultation or chemistry call as a no-obligation opportunity for you to see whether you’re a mutual fit and get your questions answered.

[Read: Top Career Coaches: How To Find The Best Career Coach In A Sea Of Options]

What are the benefits of career coaching?

One of my absolute favorite parts of being a career coach is watching my clients achieve what they initially thought was impossible.

With this said, some of the potential outcomes of career coaching include:

Notably, I disagree with a lot of my fellow practitioners when it comes to the accountability aspect of working with a career coach, as you can be held accountable by a family member, friend, or mentor without investing in a coach.

I believe the true value of working with a high-level coach comes from the new perspective and incredible insights you receive throughout the partnership and journey.

Now, at the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide how you will benefit from the career coaching experience, as you’re the one ultimately responsible for your success.

How do I get the most out of career coaching?

One way to get the most out of career coaching is to be clear with your goals for the journey as well as how you’ll measure success through the process.

It’s also important to find a career coach who aligns with your needs, priorities, and working style, and who is, of course, someone you can trust.

It can also be helpful to find a career coach who deeply understands your particular industry, as you can gain access to the connections they’ve built over the years. I find one of the greatest benefits my coaching clients receive is my ability to tap into my vast network of tech industry insiders.

Additional Career Coaching Resources

Below are additional articles I’ve authored on how to find a career coach online, the cost of career coaching, and questions to ask when speaking with potential career coaches. I also share resources on how to vet potential “top career coach” lists you may find online and how to avoid online career coach scams, which are on the rise.

How To Find A Career Coach Online

What Is The Cost Of Career Coaching? 

Three Questions To Ask When Looking For A Career Coach

How To Vet Top Career Coach And Professional Resume Writer Lists (And The Coaches Themselves) 

How To Avoid Online Coaching Scams

Please feel free to contact me if you have any additional questions about what a career coach does and how to tell when you need one.

About Dr. Kyle Elliott

About Dr. Kyle Elliott

Dr. Kyle Elliott is the founder and career coach behind CaffeinatedKyle.com. His expertise is in Silicon Valley and high-tech. As a result of working with Dr. Elliott, senior managers and executives have landed jobs at Meta, Amazon, Google, and nearly every other tech giant you can imagine.

A trusted career expert, Dr. Elliott’s words have been featured on Business Insider, CNBC, CNN, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, Fortune, Harvard Business Review, and The New York Times, among dozens of other leading publications. He has been recognized as a Best Career & Interview Coach, Best Resume Writer for Silicon Valley/Tech Managers & Executives, and LinkedIn Top Voice (the platform’s highest honor).

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