CHICAGO – As a single mother of three, Deborah Gaines was working long hours at corporate jobs, and she was having a hard time balancing her limited home life with her career.
"As the family breadwinner, I needed that corporate salary, but I also needed more flexibility than most corporate jobs allow," the New Jersey woman said.
So she turned to a life coach billed as a career transitions coach.
"My life coach led me to a very successful career as a consultant during those transitional years and then helped me re-purpose my skill set for my current field _ higher education," Gaines said. "I work hard now, but I don't travel 60 percent of the time, and the environment is much more collegial and flexible."
According to Harvard Business Review, coaching is a $1 billion-a-year industry, though it's not regulated. While the International Coach Federation offers an independent coaching certificate, and there are various schools that offer credentials, anyone can call themselves a coach, and many people and organizations are using their services.
A 2009 study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development found that 90 percent of organizations use coaching in some form.
That's because it could be a good financial investment, said Kathy Hankard, a Wisconsin-based certified financial planner.
"I feel that a career/life coach is worthwhile, especially if you find a good coach," Hankard said. "What is the point of being unhappy in your job, where you presumably spend much of your time?"
The cost of a life coach varies greatly by location and by the coaching structure, said Julie Melillo, a life coach in New York. She said that most coaches offer sessions that range in price from $100 to $300 per hour, but new coaches who are trying to build their portfolio or gain experience may charge less, while experienced coaches may charge more.
Some coaches have packages for which you pay one price for a number of sessions, with specific activities per session, or there are others who have you pay per hour and individualize everything, she said.
The key is to find the right coach.
"A good coach is always worth the investment, because they can help you move past roadblocks to faster success, which will pay off. Otherwise it's easy to let months and years pass by idling away and lacking clarity on what you should do next," Melillo said. "However, a not-so-good coach will be a waste of money and could also set a client back."
Gerry Fisher, a Baltimore-based life and career coach, agreed. He said that those looking for career counseling need to find a life coach who specializes in that field.
Fisher said that while any certified coach would be able to help someone through a career transition, it would be more difficult for a general life coach to help if that person was unhappy in his or her career but didn't know what to do instead.
"Unless the life coach has actually undergone a career transition, or unless the life coach specializes in helping people with this particular problem, then their ability to guide them in the visioning exercise is limited," said Fisher, who went through his own career transition.
He said investing in a life coach who helps clients through a career change is worth if for those who aren't naturally inclined to tackle a project like this on their own.
"Many people often find that they spend years thinking about making a change and never making it," Fisher said. "I can't tell you how many people I've worked with who never deal with this issue until they've been laid off, until their hand has been forced and they are thrown into crisis mode."
Most of the people who come to Fisher have no idea of a future career, and he helps them figure out how to combine what they've loved with skills they may have developed. He also offers them tools to research potential careers, with a strong emphasis placed on informational interviews.
Fisher also helps everyone develop specific visions of what they want their lives to be in the near future (six months out, one year out and five years out). He then helps them develop a plan for getting to that vision, and he works with them to prioritize and order their goals.
Some people, however, may have deeper issues such as constantly feeling inadequate, and these people would be better off seeing a psychologist to help them conquer these on their path to career change, as opposed to meeting with a life coach, said Lani Chin, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles.
"A life coach would be better suited for immediate help and would help someone be accountable for their daily job efforts," Chin said. "In comparison, a psychologist would help to address deeper issues such as chronic feelings of dissatisfaction or inadequacy. Often, feeling unhappy in a career could indicate deeper unhappiness in other parts of someone's life."
He also warned that it can be easy to get stuck in the fantasy that once you have your dream job, everything else in your life will fall into place.
"There is no one thing that is going to make anyone happy," Chin said. "However, work is a large part of most lives, so it's easy to think that if the job changes, everything will change."
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