No one governing organization of career coaches exists, which means anyone can wake up tomorrow and call themselves a career coach. To further confuse matters, several organizations offer credentialing programs for career coaches, with the National Career Development Association offering the most rigorous program of the bunch.
But just as good and bad doctors get their degrees from Harvard, the market is rife with both good and bad coaches who have credentials. That's where getting a referral from a friend or colleague comes in.
If no one you know can recommend a career coach (credentialed or otherwise), check your local newspaper's business events calendar. Coaches often lead job hunting workshops and networking events. Pick two or three free or low-cost events that look interesting and check out the Web sites of the coaches leading them. Bonus points if they have a blog or book you can peruse.
If you like what you see, go to those events, introduce yourself to the coaches, ask a couple of your top job-hunting questions and size up: Does this person sound knowledgeable about the job market? Is this someone you'd feel comfortable paying to mentor you? Or is a little voice inside of you screaming, "I need to get as far away as I can from this woo-woo quack"?
Such spelunking worked like a charm for Erica Hamilton of Stamford, Conn., a marketing manager who was laid off in May. Before hiring the career coach she's working with, Hamilton sniffed her out at a networking event.
"Seeing the career coach make a presentation allowed me to assess her coaching style before getting into the relationship," Hamilton said. "Because she was so available in the market, I knew what I was getting."
Once you have a coach in mind, ask to see his or her resume or CV if they don't list one on their Web site. Yes, 10 years experience working as a corporate recruiter in their former 9-to-5 life is impressive. But you also want a coach with extensive experience working with people in your field -- and industry and the references to prove it.
A reader of this column I'll call "Terry" learned this the hard way. A Seattle Web developer who works for the software industry, Terry has a high aptitude for all things digital. Unfortunately, the career coach he hired to help him find a new job in 2007 did not.
"Much of my coach's advice was best for paper applications, physical networking events, face-to-face meetings," Terry said. "We argued a while about search engine optimization of resume terms, having a generic resume permanently up on the Web and leveraging Twitter and other online networks. She learned a lot from me."
It's perfectly acceptable to ask a coach for a few unpaid minutes of their time to suss all this out before you reach for your wallet. In addition, you'll want to know if your coach prefers to meet in person, by phone, by e-mail, or a combination of all three. Like rates and experience level, these will vary among coaches.
You'll get the most bang for your buck if you enter into a coaching relationship with a specific goal in mind, be it revamping your resume so you can move from the nonprofit to corporate sector or learning how to better negotiate salary.