5 qualities to look for in an IT career coach

Is your IT career stuck in neutral? An insightful coach can help you shift your professional life back into top gear.

5 qualities to look for in an IT career coach
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Athletes have coaches. So do actors, singers and other performers. Politicians also have coaches, generally described as "advisors" or "counselors."

Given the fact that coaches play an important role in so many different occupations, it makes perfect sense for IT professionals to have someone who can help them polish their abilities and move forward in their careers.

"We often get stuck in our careers, wondering how to get to the next level," says John Garvens, an IT career coach who works with Salesforce professionals. "A solid IT career coach can help you better understand yourself and your career and how to get the two into better alignment."

A coach provides consultative advice and can guide an IT professional to the next step of his or her career, suggests Sami Ahmed, co-founder of recruiting firm Hunt Club. "A career coach can definitely help you understand the game, and help you get where you want to be," he explains.

Since IT career coaching isn't directly regulated by any government or professional body, just about anyone can slap together a website and begin soliciting students. To ensure that you get the guidance you need, and not a lesson in how to waste time and money, look for an IT career coach possessing these five key attributes.

1. Comes highly recommended

Connecting with a career coach begins with locating and screening suitable candidates. "You shouldn't have to look too far to find a good one," says Harj Taggar, CEO of job research and recruiting company Triplebyte. "Go through your own network and ask other friends who work in the industry for recommendations and referral," he advises.

Ahmed agrees. "You could go find a ton of career coaches on Google, but getting a referral and finding someone in your network makes the most sense and will make for a more fruitful relationship," he says.

Your current employer's human resources department may also be able to supply suitable leads. "The HR department can be a very good source, since they are utilizing coaches all the time," says Bob Hewes, senior partner at training and coaching firm Camden Consulting Group. "Another source is colleagues that have worked with coaches before."

Poking around on the web is yet another way to find top-tier coaches, or at least those with a dedicated following. "You can find coaches giving amazing advice on Quora, Reddit and other sites where people go to have their questions answered," Garvens says. "The cream rises to the top in those cases."

2. Knows IT and has leadership experience

It's important to screen for career coaches who are aligned with your professional needs as well as immediate and long-term goals. "They should know your profession and be someone who can speak the language of your industry," Ahmed advises. If a coach has an IT industry background, he or she can get you to where you want to be quicker than somebody who doesn't understand the industry, he explains. "They’ll bring up industry-specific examples, identify industry issues and opportunities, and ultimately help you see your situation more clearly."

A coach should also have a solid understanding of current in-demand skills and encourage his or her clients to brush up on the specific abilities that will help boost their careers. "A coach should have great data on market compensation and help you negotiate to get the package you want," Taggar states. "A coach can't make decisions for you, but should be able to create a decision-making framework that provides clarity and confidence."

Michael Cauley, performance coaching program director at Lipscomb University, suggests looking for a coach with senior-level leadership experience. Certification in some type of 360 assessment program is also beneficial, he notes. "If the coach doesn't have experience in IT, they need to be able to demonstrate a high level of learning agility in organizational systems," he adds. Cauley also recommends using a coach who has been certified by the International Coach Federation (ICF), a non-profit organization dedicated to professional coaching. As of April 2017, the ICF claims approximately 30,000 members in 140 countries.

3. Offers a realistic strategy and goals

One of the biggest mistakes executives and managers make about their careers is believing they can figure out everything for themselves, Garvens says. "Getting an alternative perspective can often highlight opportunities or glaring issues you might miss on your own," he explains. "For example, how many times in your life have you been told you had food on your face, and how many of those times did you know you had food on your face?"

Don’t settle for a coach who makes you feel comfortable with your current level of development. "Find a coach who will challenge you to explore the gap between who you are now and who you want to become," advises Cindy Hosea, associate director of graduate career services at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. Commit the time and energy necessary to engage in the coaching process and be honest with yourself and your coach, she says. "Be willing to own your career, make courageous choices, test assumptions and enjoy the journey to become the best version of yourself."

Ahmed notes that many IT professionals misunderstand the coach's role. "The biggest misconception is thinking that a career coach is a recruiter," he observes. "A coach’s role isn't to open up the doors and get you that job, but to get you up to a level where you’re prepared to get it."

Taggar warns, however, that it's important not to become overly-dependent on a coach's advice. "It's important to remember they are only guides who can provide you with information to think about and process," he says. "Only you can make the decision that's best for you."

4. Can commit to a regular, yet flexible meeting schedule

As a customer, you have the right to set a meeting schedule that blends well with your everyday business and personal demands while also receiving quality instruction and support. Garvens believes that it's best to spend time with an IT career coach every week or two. "You should walk away from your session with a better understanding of what you need to do to get where you want to go," he suggests. "Each session should include an assessment of your homework from the previous session as well as homework due by the next session."

Cauley prefers a flexible arrangement that evolves over time. "I like six-to-nine-month engagements meeting weekly for the first four sessions and every two weeks thereafter," he notes.

"My coaching contracts are for a minimum of six sessions, 30 to 60 minutes long, every two to four weeks," Hosea says. In a typical coaching relationship, the client brings a specific topic or goal they want to work on, such as leadership, communication, or emotional intelligence, she notes. "The coach holds the client accountable for growth in that area.”

Hewes believes that many IT professionals wait too long before engaging a coach. "It's kind of like working with a financial advisor: We think we should know how to do it ourselves, so we wait and wait," he observes.

5. Doesn't overcharge

How much is a career coach worth? Nobody really seems to know, including many career coaches. "Executive coaches vary in the amount they charge for services, depending on their level of experience," Hosea says. "You can find a high-quality, ICF-certified coach in the range of $3,000 for three months."

Garvens notes that while prices vary, clients typically get what they pay for. "Most IT career coaches range between $100 to $300 per hour, depending on the level of the client and the type of work being done," he explains. What matters more, he suggests, is whether the IT career coach can get you where you want to go. "Good IT career coaches will pay for themselves in spades," he adds.

The takeaway

A coach can help an IT professional identify specific career development objectives and then assemble a plan for reaching those goals. "A coach can work with you on any or all of three stages: assessment, action planning and implementation," Hewes says. "Expert coaches have a wealth of experience in figuring out what goals should be, interpreting feedback, using their experience in developing a tailored plan and using all kinds of strategies to help you implement goals."

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

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