My question relates to these firms that allege to provide an executive career coach who will work with you to help you attain higher positions with higher earnings within an average of 60-90 days. They will redo your resume and LinkedIn profile, create your executive presence, and help you develop your personal brand. (One offers an $800 “quick action package.”) Everyone can use coaching from time to time as we all have things to work on, but $5,000 seems to be a lot, particularly when one is out of work and searching for their next role. Your thoughts?

Nick’s Reply

career coachThere is an awful lot of marketing and, well, B.S. in what many of these firms are selling. It’s no accident that they throw a lot of implied promises at you very quickly and want their fee in advance.

There are some very good career coaches out there. Finding one that’s trustworthy and helpful is another story. The cost of entry to the coaching business is small, making it an easy rip-off of one degree or another. There are loads of “certifications” and questionable“credentials” that virtually anyone can buy to advertise coaching services.

How to find a good career coach

Let’s cut to the chase, then we’ll discuss some of the gotchas to look out for when you feel you need a career coach.

The best way to find a really good coach is through their happy clients. In other words, ignore the marketing. Talk with others in your field, and at your level of work, and ask what coach they’ve used and recommend. Ask why, exactly, they like the coach. Then consider whether the coach might address your specific needs.

But don’t sign up because you were solicited or even because your employer recommended a particular coaching service when they laid you off. Just like a personal referral is an excellent way to land a job, a trusted referral is how to find a good career coach.

The tip-offs

How can you spot a likely rip-off? Let’s look at the tip-offs in the promises they market for those big up-front fees:

  • Higher positions
  • Higher pay
  • 60-90 day time frames
  • Quick action package
  • Executive presence
  • Personal brand

Higher job and pay

Much of the time, coaching (including for executives) is all about finding and getting a better job and more pay. The simple truth is that there can be no guarantees about an outcome over which neither the coach nor the client have any real control. Only an employer can make a job offer (or offer a raise), and I’ve yet to meet the coach that controls job offers or raises.

Job hunting, at any level, is a daunting task and often a depressing experience. There are a lot of questionable services purporting to help you get a job because there are a lot of potential suckers desperate to avoid the hard work of getting a job.

Here’s the lesson:
Please — even if you’re not really a sucker — consider what it really means when someone claims they’ll get you a better job and more pay if you’ll pay them.

“Guaranteed!” 60 – 90 days or less!

Some of the best coaches I’ve known have taken upwards of a year to help a client get the job and compensation they want. Sometimes the agreed-upon objectives are never attained. That doesn’t mean the coach isn’t a good one. But it does explain why the bad ones want the money up front.

A good coach will never promise, or even imply, a time frame in which you will reach your goals (and definitely not 60-90 days!). To do so is dishonest simply because every client is different — and so are their goals. At most, all a coach can promise is that they will improve your knowledge, understanding and skills about your career development.

Here’s the lesson:
Claims and promises of a job are different from an ironclad, written money-back guarantee. Some windbags will charge you thousands up front and promise to continue coaching you “for as long as necessary.” That is, for as long as you can swallow their questionable advice. So if there’s a big fee up front, ask for a signed money-back guarantee to help you get ahead with a new job at the pay you expect.

Never pay a a career coach a big fee up front

Does a therapist charge $5,000 in advance to solve your emotional problems? Of course not! Because no one can actually control whether you will get a job for the pay you want, unsavory practitioners want a sizable fee in advance because the longer it takes you to meet your goals, the less satisfied you will be — and the more you will wish you hadn’t already paid all that money.

$5,000, $10,000 and higher in-advance fees are common. The justification is wrapped around a marketing trick: They’re not merely coaching you, they’re selling “a program” or “an engagement.” They want to lock you in — and that should also tip you off that the coaching will be canned, not customized for your needs.

It’s an old confidence game: Take the sucker’s money all at once, because by the time the “client” realizes what the game is, their money’s gone.

Here’s the lesson:
Pay as you go, or don’t do it. If the coach is good and you are happy with the progress, you are free to continue — just as you would with a therapist. This guarantees a stop-loss mechanism. If you find you’re not satisfied, you can terminate the relationship at any time without any further losses.

Quick action for a small added fee?

This one is a dead giveaway. If I could get employers to make quicker job offers for an extra $800 I’d be a genius! There are no geniuses in the career coaching business, just a lot of very frustrated, and thus gullible, job seekers. Everyone’s in a hurry and someone’s glad to charge an extra fee because you’re eager to pay it.

Executive presence and personal brand

Find me an employer that includes these requirements in a job description and I’ll be glad to charge you oh, another $800 for a nice, starched white shirt to wear to interviews and for a cute logo you can stamp on your resume and forehead.

Gimme a break. Desperate job seekers call for fatter fees and fancy terms for “great reputation” — which no one can sell you!

Virtually all of what career coaches deliver is available free online or at your local library. Nonetheless, you still might want help, especially to address specific hurdles and challenges. Ask around. What coach do respected people in your field vouch for? Discuss what the deliverables are and understand the important distinctions between advertising and guarantees. Pay as you go, and monitor progress closely.

Good help really is hard to find. Don’t make me ask, “You paid HOW MUCH for career coaching?”

How much have you paid to hire a career coach? Did you pay up-front or as-you-go? What was the outcome? What’s your advice to this reader? Did you ever get burned? What would you do differently?

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  1. Thank you so much for posting this. I have spent probably $1200 for a coach and I quit halfway through the course. I’m not sure if it was boredom or just not working because it was extra.

    I paid 600 I think for someone local who wasn’t a very good help prior to Covid and maybe 200 to get my resume done and then I recieved free resume help through The Rise scholarship which proved there wasn’t much wrong with my resume to begin with.

    I’m upskilling with Google Project Management certification class I’m in and I have done informational interviews with around 70 people by email, phone and video since October 2020 and I’m still struggling to pivot into Employer Branding/Recruitment Marketing, Internal Communications or Customer Engagement in Detroit, Michigan, hybrid or remote.

    I even reply back to people who are trying to pitch me something what I’m looking for in my next job. I figure they can read it and hopefully understand my situation, do nothing or maybe know of an opportunity but I doubt the last part because they are salespeople.

    This is really long but it has been a long job search.

    • @Jamie: Services that purport to “review your resume” then sell you a “re-write” have been sued after their clients found out there was nothing wrong with the original document. In some cases, clients bought the revised version and submitted it back to the same service for yet another review — only to be advised it needed to be re-written!

      Education is a far better investment.

      • I totally agree but much like funeral services, Estate law and job search stress they prey on people most of the time in their weakest scariest momemts of their lives.

        I wish I could have some of the money I spent since I am broke and still UNDERemployed since November 2020.

        My pivot isn’t going as smoothly as I wish it did.

  2. Nick’s very blog is an excellent example of what you can find online for free.

    Having said that, if it’s about paid coaching, what I’ve seen work is software development bootcamps where they’ll teach you the skills needed to get an entry-level job, and in the last months they add a bit career coaching so you know how to sell your skills. Their payment setup also ensures their motivations are aligned with yours: many of those bootcamps don’t ask for payment upfront, but instead they ask for a fraction of your future salary until you can pay back the cost of the bootcamp. This keeps them honest. If you win, they win; if you don’t, they don’t.

    But circling back to this blog, the coaching given in those bootcamps, while very good and practical, isn’t better than what I’ve learned just reading Nick’s blog. I share it with every person who seems lost trying to find a job, trying to switch careers, or even trying to hire. That’s my coaching :-)

    • @Pentalis: Thanks for your kind words. Glad you find ATH helpful enough that you recommend it to others. As others have noted, the better kind of coaching is training and education. Nobody hires you for your “job hunting skills.” They hire you for your work skills!

  3. Nick makes some excellent points here. Running my own search business in the Tech Sales Sector I provide career support and coaching (Resume/CV help as well) for my candidates for free. I actually like helping them and feel everyone in search and recruitment has a duty to help their candidates in these areas. From my own perspective I would rather discuss roles with them that fit their career aspirations, so exploring what they want to do – and are suited for – has mutual benefits.

    • @Richard: Thanks for pointing out a way to judge headhunters. A good headhunter will want to get to know you well enough that they could write your resume pretty much from scratch — then they’ll do it. It’s something I’ve done all through my career. Good for you.

  4. My RIF exit package included executive placement assistance from Lee Hech Harrison (LHH). I was told this was a $5,000 ‘perk’. In all honesty it was a perk. LHH walked me through a lot of exercises that developed my resume, marketing plan, mock interviews with video feedback. I really enjoyed the weekly meeting with peers where we data dumped our week, good and bad and shared statistics on our search. My personal coach was accessible and brutally honest with me. The LHH process yielded me a new career within about six weeks. I stayed at the company for 10 years before moving on.

  5. @Paul: Glad you had a good experience. It sounds like that was quite a while ago?

    • @ Nick: Yes, I was unexpectedly RIF’d 9/10/01. Next day was 9/11 tragedy. Vivid recall of every moment.

  6. First to Paul’s response LHH is a good recognizable company Right Management is another one. But neither of them typically take on “individual” clients. They are retained by a corporation toassist laid off employees.

    I have only see 2 or 3 resumes written by others in my career that are any good. Most people don’t know how to write a resume. They focus on objectives, skills and duties Who cares I want to see what you are going to bring me, accomplishments. Also a resume never gets you hired.

    I have done some careers coaching fir 25 years. I focus on job search, interviewing, picking the right profession etc. I will do resume suggestions but this usually takes no longer than 5 minutes.

    Those large companies that about retail outplacement are frauds.

    There are certified coaching programs but they cover all coaching disciplines and are a lot longer than a day and a certificate.

    I am a retired recruiter. I believe good recruiters bring something extra to the table because of our experience with hiring authorities

  7. Hi Nick! This is an important topic, and I appreciate how (as always) you cut through the bullshit and provide people with honest, practical advice that works.

    There’s something important that’s missing from your article and the comments, however. What you and most of the commenters are describing isn’t coaching at all. It’s advising, mentoring, and/or consulting.

    Professionals who “improve your knowledge, understanding and skills about your career development” are consulting and mentoring — not coaching. Professionals that help clients “find and get a better job and more pay” may be coaching, or they’re more likely advising.

    Professional coaches facilitate a client’s self-discovery through provocative questions, insightful observations, and invitation to action. Professional coaches don’t advise, mentor, or consult. We don’t tell or teach. To be fair, we may do this elsewhere, but not in the coaching space. The work that professional coaches do is closer to therapy than what’s described. In fact, one of my favorite clients calls me his “work therapist”!

    Professional coaches partner with clients on a myriad of topics including leadership, communication, stress management, confidence, clarity, emotional intelligence, influence, and decision-making — including decisions about the what, why, and how of a job search. Some of us professional coaches working in the borderlands of the field even work with clients on trauma and deeper issues.

    This may sound like school marmy nitpicking on semantics, but it’s not. This distinction matters because — to your point — as the coaching industry became more popular (read: lucrative), it became more accessible but the quality also declined. Just a few years ago, certification required over 125 hours of rigorous training over 6-12 months and hundreds more hours of study and supervised practice. To your point, today there are a ton of programs out there and many of them are neither good, nor reputable. Also, the U.S. professional coaching field has insisted on staying unregulated, meaning there is no control over who calls themselves a “coach”, whereas someone who claims to be a “therapist” without the proper training and license can face legal action.

    The result is three-fold: (1) the field of professional coaching gets a bad rep overall, (2) uneducated consumers come to coaching with inappropriate expectations, and (3) people think they’ve experienced the power of coaching — when they haven’t.

    Finally, while there are multiple certifications out there of vastly varying quality, there *aren’t* multiple credentials. This is good news for your readers. There’s really only one credentialing body — the International Coaching Federation, or ICF (there’s also the EMCC, but they’re smaller and limited to Europe). The ICF issues three levels of credentials — ACC, PCC, and MCC – for which a coach becomes eligible *after* certification. Earning a credential requires multiple documented coaching hours and clients, 10 hours of mentor coaching, successful passing of an exam, adherence to a code of ethics, and required continuing education credits. Credentials are good for 3 years.

    So on top of your excellent no-bullshit advice about not signing on with professionals or programs with high up-front price tags and impossible promises, I’d love to see your readers become more savvy about discerning between true professional coaches and advisors/mentors/consultants! To that end, your readers can search for professional coaches who offer (true) career coaching on the ICF “find a coach” website. I recommend working with PCC or MCC level coaches.

    Thanks again for your voice of sanity, and I hope this long comment was useful and illuminating!