The Limits of Career Coaching

It’s a hot new trend. Five years ago, you almost never heard about it. Now it’s everywhere you look. It’s called “coaching” and it takes various forms. Sometimes it’s life coaching, sometimes it’s career coaching, but whatever it is, people are leaving their jobs left and right, hanging out their own shingles as coaches. Some of them have undergone a “spiritual conversion” and they want to help others make that conversion, too. Others just got frustrated in their careers, and are hoping they can teach others to do what they couldn’t. Regardless of how a particular coach arrived in the business, I am happy to see coaching become more popular. I’m a big fan of things that help us improve ourselves personally and professionally.

One popular form of coaching helps you move ahead in your professional life by identifying what you do well, and encouraging you to do more of it, while correcting the negative traits that hold you back. This approach forms the basis of a popular book, Marshall Goldsmith’s “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.” According to the author, 70 percent of the executives he coaches move up because of what he teaches them. That’s a pretty impressive result.

Over the past few years however, demand for coaching has exploded and thousands of people have piled into the business with little or no training. The profession is going through a “Wild West” stage, where there’s rapid growth, but little regulation. We are still in the early stages of defining what a coach is, and at this point all you really need to do in order to be a coach is to call yourself one. As a result, I see many coaches who have no training in psychology, but act like counselors. I also see many psychologists who have no experience in the business world, but claim they can help their clients’ careers. There’s a huge gap between the two, and I predict the future is bright for those who combine real-world, corporate experience with formal education in psychology. When people like that start becoming coaches, the profession’s reputation is bound to improve. In the meantime, coaching will continue to be a crazy world, where serious, experienced, credentialed coaches watch as a flood of newbies muddy their profession’s reputation.

There is a common danger in the profession, which is that clients tend to develop unrealistic expectations of their coaches. Even the best coach won’t know everything. He will be able to guide you up to a certain extent, but no matter how knowledgeable he is about your business, he is still removed from its day-to-day realities. The things he recommends won’t always be the right things to do. When Marshall Goldsmith says 70 percent of his clients follow his advice and move up because of it, and the other 30 percent don’t, maybe it’s not because the clients were lazy, maybe it’s because the advice was wrong. If even the best coaches might be missing the mark so often, what can we expect from an untrained newbie?

What people often forget when they seek out a coach is that there’s one important ingredient in success that no coach can create for you, and that’s luck. We like to believe the world around us is in our control. Coaching actually reinforces that belief by suggesting you can reach the top if you just learn the right skills. But people at the top didn’t get there just because they did everything right. They got there because they were lucky, too.

So like the book says, what got you here won’t get you there, and in order to get there, you’ll need to change some things about yourself. But if you still don’t get where you want to go, remember that sometimes you can learn, relearn, and change everything about yourself an infinite number of times, but all you’ll get is exhausted, because it’s not always about you. You never have as much control over the world as you might think, and even the best coach in the world will never get you past that.

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