If you’re looking for a career coach, I’d encourage you to do your homework and shop around. Coaching is an investment of time, money, and effort. As is the case when starting any important new business relationship, doing your due diligence up front is a critical and necessary step to creating the most fruitful partnership possible, one that works hard for you and ultimately allows you to achieve the results you desire.

Personally, although I’m a coach myself, I’ve also hired coaches as a client, and I’ve had both good and bad experiences. Working with a great coach enabled me to gain clarity on where I wanted to take my career, feel motivated to take immediate, meaningful actions, and amass the confidence necessary to make some bold moves in my life. Working with a bad coach was not only a complete waste of time but also an incredibly frustrating and unproductive process.

To find a coach who can help you make the greatest strides forward in your career, I’d recommend you consider at least the following 5 factors. I’ve created this list based on those clients of mine who seem to get the most out of our coaching relationship and my own experiences as a client when hiring a coach. I’ve also included a few questions you can ask your prospective coach.

1) Positioning along the coaching-advising continuum

Although I’ve entitled this article with the word “coaching,” you will need to make a decision about where you want to operate as a client along the spectrum between directive “consulting” and more open-ended “coaching.” At its core, and according to the purist definition of coaching put out by the International Coaching Federation (ICF) the ICF Code of Ethics, coaches are supposed to operate within a non-agenda driven, open-ended question centric process to help people discover their own solutions. Consultants on the other hand, are typically paid to provide concrete professional guidance, based on expert knowledge or seasoned experience related to the topic at hand.

Part of this is just semantics, and you’ll hear people use the terms coaching and consulting interchangeably, but you should be aware of the nuances between questioning and exploring (coaching) vs. guiding and advising (consulting).

As a client, you have a decision to make about the type of professional assistance you’re seeking. Different “coaches” operate along different points on this spectrum. For example, as a career consultant myself, I tend to tilt more toward advising and guiding, although I do mix in my professional coaching techniques too. Think about whether you’re seeking practical, expert-based guidance and/or more open-ended discovery. Then, pick your coach/consultant accordingly.

Questions to ask your career coach during an initial consultation include:

  • Do you operate more as a coach, consultant, or both?
  • If you supplement your coaching with guidance, in what areas do your clients seek your concrete advice?
  • Are you more practical & concrete or idealistic & abstract in your approach?

2) Professional qualifications

For a long time, I went back and forth on the usefulness of professional qualifications in the coaching industry, especially since there seem to be so many variations of credentials out there and a proliferation of certificates and “accreditation” processes. However, in a field that’s not as tightly regulated as other professional, skill-based sectors like finance, medicine, and law, working with a professional credentialed coach provides you with a quality standard, stamp of approval, and assurance that the individual who claims to be coaching you has actually gone through a rigorous, professional training to bring you best-in-class coaching that goes beyond what other mentors in your life can provide.

I’d strongly recommend you work with a coach that has a professional certification from the International Coach Federation (ICF) or one their Accredited Coach Training Programs. Common credentials include ACC (Associate Certified Coach) (I received this), PCC (Professional Certified Coach), or CPCC (Co-Active Professional Certified Coach) awarded by the Co-Active Training Institute (formerly known as the Coaches Training Institute), the oldest and largest ICF accredited coach training program in the world. Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is another well-known, reputable path of coach training. This article briefly outlines the differences between ICF and NLP.

Questions to ask your prospective coach include:

  • Have you completed a professional coach training? How does this influence your approach?
  • Is the school where you completed training an Accredited Coach Training Program?
  • Which professional coaching certification do you hold?

3) Ability to offer fresh perspective

When you work with the right coach, you should feel pushed, challenged, and extended beyond your status quo. You should not feel like you’re having a “normal” conversation like one you might have with your friends or family members. The whole point of coaching is to help you reach beyond your comfort zone, and this happens when you’re working with a coach who explores the topics you’re stuck on in a fresh manner, coming at it from a totally different perspective.

Questions to ask yourself include:

  • Will this coach be constructively candid with me?
  • Can this coach provide me with a unique, fresh perspective?
  • Does this coach have the confidence to challenge me?

4) Relevant background

Trust is central to any coaching relationship. In order to get the most out of it, you need to be 100% confident in the coach’s acumen and capability. After all, you’re entrusting this individual with very personal information, and you’ll likely be working through exercises and discussions that should push you beyond your comfort zone with the intention of enabling major transformation in your life. Many coaches began their careers outside of the coaching industry, and their professional & personal backgrounds will certainly have either an indirect or direct impact on their approach to coaching, their worldview, and their perspectives they bring to the coaching.

You get to define what “relevant” means to you. For example, working with a coach who has had a parallel experience to yours allows the discussion to reach a very deep level due to the rich empathy and insight that only comes through that direct experience and understanding. However, working with someone who has a completely different set of experiences may be most relevant to you because you’re in need of a new way of approaching your issue. Whatever you decide, a coach’s professional & personal background is something you should consider.

Questions to ask yourself include:

  • Does this coach have a background and credentials I fully respect?
  • Do the coach’s experiences allow him/her to provide unique value?
  • Does this coach’s professional experiences equip them with the helpful lens I’m seeking?

5) Strong Fit

Chemistry is also hugely important because coaching is all about being able to explore ideas together. The strength of the coaching is directly related to the strength of your relationship and trust in this relationship. With this in mind, one of the most important criterion when selecting a coach is finding someone with whom you feel a strong, positive rapport. While this may seem obvious, it’s one of those softer considerations that can often be overlooked as something less concrete and therefore less important. I’d strongly encourage you to find a coach with whom you feel comfortable, with whom you “click,” someone who fully allows you to be yourself. Trust your gut here.

Questions to ask yourself include:

  • Does this coach “get” where I’m coming from?
  • Does this coach have the capacity to effectively empathise with my situation?
  • Do I feel a positive, productive connection with this coach?

While other factors also exist to select the best coach for you, these five are critical. Most coaches offer free consultations prior to kicking off paid sessions to ensure the fit is solid. This consultation is the perfect time for you to probe a bit on these topics to ensure you’re making the right choice for your career, your life, and your goals. You should also ask to see their testimonials (mine are here), or you can even request to speak with one of their former clients, which some prospective clients have requested from me.

If you’re still learning about coaching more broadly and haven’t yet gotten to the coach selection part of your process, I’d encourage you to peruse:

If you have any further questions about coaching, feel free to contact me or learn more about my Career Consulting services.

Learn about Joseph’s Career Consulting Services

I’d welcome your feedback and additional ideas on what factors you feel matter the most when establishing a coach/client relationship. Good luck.

Updated May 2022

About Joseph Liu

Joseph Liu helps aspiring professionals relaunch their careers to do work that matters. As a keynote speaker, career & personal branding consultant, and host of the Career Relaunch podcast, his passion is helping people gain the clarity, confidence, and courage to pursue truly meaningful careers. Having gone through three major career changes himself, he now shares insights from building & relaunching global consumer brands to empower professionals and business owners to build & relaunch their personal brands.

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