Aug. 26, 2010— -- A Denver-based marketing executive I'll call "Neil" recently blew five figures on a career management firm that proved far longer on promises than results.
The firm promised to create a targeted job search plan for Neil and shop his resume around -- essentially, to network and job hunt on his behalf. Instead, all Neil got was a hole in his retirement account where $12,000 used to be.
"My return on my investment was six calls from recruiters and no meetings at all with any companies," a "horribly embarrassed" Neil said of the six months he worked with the career management firm. "Not a single, actual, live call with 'We have a job we need to fill' during that time. It's an expensive lesson, but it's one well-learned."
I've said it before, but it bears repeating: not all career coaches and career management firms are created equal. Although many are worth every penny their clients pay them, many others are incompetent, dishonest or -- worse -- a combination of both.
So how do you ensure the coach or coaching firm you choose isn't a dud? And what's the best way to work with a coach you do hire?
It's not enough to check how long a career coach you're thinking of hiring has been in business, what their former clients think of them and how they acquired their coaching experience (the job doesn't require a license or credentials, which means there are few barriers to entry). You also need to comparison shop.
If you're never worked with a career coach, speaking with at least three before hiring one is a must, said J.T. O'Donnell, a career strategist and workplace consultant based in North Hampton, N.H. Any coach worth his or her salt should be able to spare a few minutes to answer -- free of charge -- your preliminary questions about how their process works, when and how you should expect to communicate with them, what results you can expect and the type of clients they work with best.
"As a coach, we all know our coaching styles are different and that not every person is a good candidate for our services," said O'Donnell, who runs the career advice blog CAREEREALISM. "A greedy or inexperienced coach will find it more difficult to answer the above questions honestly and thoroughly."
Neil, the marketing executive who wasted $12,000 on a bogus career management firm, learned the hard way that the only one who can score a job for you is you. (The firm he hired told him, "There's no reason you shouldn't have multiple job offers within 90 days of us getting started.")
"No career coach or consultant can guarantee you a job," said Katherine Simmons, CEO of NETSHARE, a job search site for executives. "It would be like asking your personal trainer to lift the weights for you. You have to do all the heavy lifting in order to be successful. Anyone who offers to make it easy is conning you."
Of course, the inept and bogus coaches of the bunch aren't entirely to blame here. Clients who mistake their coach for a quick ticket to Jobville, instead of the career mentor or guide that they are, share some of the responsibility. And as Simmons points out, the more desperate we are to find a new job, the more our judgment goes out the window.
"It's human nature to seek the easy answers," Simmons said. "Unfortunately, there are no short cuts in an effective job search."
If a doctor says you have six weeks to live, you get a second opinion and maybe do a little online research of your own. That's also how it should it be if a coach tells you to quit your job without a Plan B, or to invest your life savings in an unproven business model or to otherwise take a flying leap off a 3,000-foot cliff.
Sadly, I've heard far too many stories of flighty coaches telling naïve clients, "Leap, and the net will appear," and those naïve clients complying without so much as batting an eye. Sure, that sentiment makes a great bumper sticker. But if you leap before you look and that magic net is suddenly nowhere to be found, you could be making a tragic mistake.
"If your coach is not actively talking about and helping you look at the potential risks of any and all behaviors, fire them," said Karissa Thacker, a management psychologist based in Rehoboth Beach, Del. "Helping people learn to manage risk is a fundamental part of being a coach."
In other words, talk to friends, family, financial advisors, trusted colleagues, industry experts and those who've taken the same leap you're considering -- before you reach the point of no return.
"Never put your fate in the hands of one person's opinion" said Janet Scarborough Civitelli, a psychologist and career coach based in Sugar Land, Texas. "Good career coaches won't be offended if you do this. In fact, they will recommend it, especially if the stakes are high in terms of time, energy, money or emotional well-being."
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michelle Goodman is a freelance writer and former cubicle dweller. Her books include "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube." Follow her at @anti9to5guide.