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Free or For A Fee, Advice Can Strengthen Your Career

What to look for in a Coach or Mentor

by Diane MooreDiane Moore, interviewing Mark Swartz and Judy Orr

 

Do you feel as though you're stuck in a career rut and going nowhere fast? A coach or mentor may be what you need to break out of the career doldrums.
Many people have heard of coaches and mentors, but are confused about the differences between the two and uncertain of how to go about finding either one.
"Mentors and coaches can both play an invaluable role in providing information, advice, and an objective perspective, and also act as a sounding board," explains Mark Swartz, a career coach who helps clients to become more successful with their current employer or explore other options if they are seeking a more satisfying career.
"It's important to understand the distinctions between coaches and mentors and what each can do for your career before you decide to work with either one."
A mentor is usually someone you admire and in whose footsteps you want to follow. "Mentors are willing to take you under their wing and give you advice and guidance, free of charge, often because they like you and see potential in you," says Swartz.
"Mentors will often open doors for you and introduce you to other people within their network. And they do this for the sheer satisfaction of helping you to grow and succeed."
A coach, on the other hand, is someone you hire for a fee to assist you with achieving a specific goal such as pursuing a new career path, developing a vital skill, or overcoming a work habit that may be interfering with your success.
"The coaching process is usually more clearly defined than a mentoring relationship," says Swartz, "and follows some sort of formal process that should lead to pre-determined results."
A coach will provide a structured process for exploring the issues that are important to the client. This may include using tools such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (which are fee-based) to help clients gain a better understanding of their strengths, weaknesses, and personality, so they can plan and manage their career more effectively in order to reach their long-term goals. Or the coach may use less formal methods that probe the client and lead to exploratory conversations.
Judy Orr, a certified professional coach with more than 20 years of experience in human resources, emphasizes the importance of finding a coach with the right credentials.
"Any coach you hire should be trained and certified so that you have confidence that they have the right expertise to help you," says Orr.
"Although anyone can call himself a coach, certified coaches are required to follow a strict set of ethics and to meet certain standards in their training."
While you may enter into a mentoring arrangement without a clear agreement about how long the relationship will last, a coaching relationship is usually established for a set period of time.
Orr says that most coaches would expect a client to commit to at least three months in order to see significant results. This is especially true in a job search or a career change.
"Fees charged by career coaches vary widely," she adds, "depending on the length of time you work together and the type of service you have asked for."
The process for finding a coach or mentor differs in that a mentor is often someone you already know - such as a more senior person in your company, or an experienced family member - whereas a coach is usually a professional who you haven't met before.
Mentoring relationships often emerge spontaneously after you have worked with someone, perhaps a boss or colleague, for a period of time, while coaches can be hired fairly quickly.
You may discover that the manager you admire as a role model is willing to meet with you on a regular basis to give you advice about succeeding in your chosen career and navigating around obstacles or challenges. That is what mentoring is all about. It also tends to be somewhat subjective, in that the person who mentors you might have their own perspectives or agendas they introduce. A trained coach will attempt to be more objective and ensure that your needs come first.
While you can find a coach by looking in the yellow pages under career consultants, Swartz says that a better approach is to ask people in your professional network for recommendations of coaches they know about or have worked with. Otherwise, you could try to work with someone who has a public profile and established reputation. Those who are published in their field, who speak in public often, and who are quoted in the media provide you with some assurance that they might well be doing something right. Not surprisingly they tend to come at a premium. Another way to locate coaches is through listings of coaching associations and organizations. Click here for some directories of coaches, mentors and career consultants in Canada -- or you can go to Web site of the International Coaching Federation, which provides listings of certified coaches.
"Interview prospective coaches carefully," recommends Swartz. Find out how long they have been in business, the type of clientele they work with, what type of services they offer, and how much they charge. Look for someone who has a track record of helping clients to achieve goals similar to yours.
Orr also suggests that you ask for references and says, "An experienced coach shouldn't have any trouble with putting you in touch with former clients so you can hear some first-hand testimonials about the coach's effectiveness."
Other suggestions for finding and making effective use of a coach or mentor include:
  • Look for a good fit. You should feel comfortable in communicating openly with your mentor or coach, and that your relationship provides a balance between supporting you and challenging you.
  • Watch out for practitioners who obligate you to pay a substantial amount up front before you have even had a first full meeting with them.
  • Talk to at least two different coaches before deciding on whom to spend your hard earned dollars. Don't be shy about letting each one know that you are speaking to several people before you make a decision. If one of them tries to give you a hard sell, consider hanging up the phone. Your choice should be made comfortably and unrushed.
  • Be clear about your goals. Enter a coaching or mentoring relationship with a realistic idea of what you want to accomplish by partnering with this person.
  • Be committed to the process. Use your coach or mentor's time wisely and follow through on recommended "homework" activities.
Implementing major career changes or accomplishing an important goal doesn't happen over night. But you may find that fulfilling your career dreams is easier, and perhaps even quicker, with the help of a good coach or mentor.

Tip of the week

If you would like to find a mentor, but don't know anyone in your immediate circle of business acquaintances who seems like a good prospect, check the "Find a Mentor" Web site at www.mentors.ca/findamentor.html. There you'll find a wide range of networks offering connections to mentors who are willing to be paired with a protege.

Diane Moore is editor of The Office Professional (www.protrain.com) and author of CareerAbility©: Skills Office Professionals Need to Succeed in the 21st Century.