8 Things to Watch Out for When Choosing A Coach So You Don’t Get Scammed

When I left my last job, I hired a career coach. After a full and varied career in marketing, I wanted to finally hone in on my dream role. Ideally, I have just one to two full time roles left in me, so I want to be extremely intentional about this next phase.

Not counting my own companies, all the jobs I’ve ever had were not first choices. That’s not to say I didn’t learn an immense amount from each one, I definitely did. In fact, I probably never would have been a brand strategist if it weren’t for fate, but at this stage in my career, I wanted to be completely in the driver’s seat of that decision. It felt like it was time to get an outside perspective on how to do that from a coach.

The coaching field is no doubt saturated. It seems like everyone and their mother is a coach these days. You have twenty-somethings coaching us on how to become influencers, fifty-somethings coaching leadership, religious coaches with books and life plan journals, and productivity coaches with podcasts and mushroom teas. And everything in between. I had taken a creativity coaching course, a subspecialty that works with creative practitioners. After the course, I worked with a few amazing clients and even took a course on marketing a coaching business, but ultimately I ended up accepting a steady job.

Now that it was time for me to go out and find a coach, I wanted someone who would be able to see my work and the actions I’ve taken in my career with fresh eyes. Someone who could offer frank insight and tangible steps. I needed someone with gravitas and inside knowledge. I was committed, tuned in, and ready to be vulnerable. Five coaches and eight months later, I might be transforming and growing, but as for the role coaching played? It mostly left me $4000 poorer.

Here’s my coaching journey and what you can do to avoid my costly mistakes:

My ‘Goldilocks’ Coaching Search

The first person I talked to was a woman in my network who I felt like I knew but really didn’t know at all. Still, I was so excited that I’d made the decision to invest in coaching that I was immediately willing to fork over 15k after one call. To say that sounds absolutely nuts to me now would be putting it mildly.

We spoke on a Wednesday and I was going on my first post-pandemic long weekend on a Friday. When my bank would not transfer the full amount to her by Monday, she sent me an email telling me that she was rescinding her coaching offer. I was devastated. Dejected and rejected, I reached out to her to understand what had gone wrong and here’s what she said: Nothing. Nada. Zip. I never heard from her again. Ghosted.

I knew the tactic she was using, because it was taught to me in that course. Give them a limited time offer and be firm. In this case, she never mentioned it was ‘limited time’ but there you go. It felt a lot like preying on the vulnerability of someone putting their trust in you, and extremely irresponsible, but coaching is 100% unregulated and there is nothing you can do in this situation. I tried. I got in touch with the coaching board and they said they get these calls all the time but there’s nothing they can do. There’s no medical board or government body you can complain to. You just have to walk away.

The second coach I talked to was on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. She was full of empathy and kindness and deep listening. She gave me homework and asked to meet for free several times. When I asked her what coaching would cost, she dodged the question. Finally, she asked me to put a dollar amount on what I was worth and that would be the number I’d pay for coaching. From this directive, I was to equate my own value with what I would part with from my bank and give to her. This felt wrong, but again, I knew the tactic from the coaching course and advice found in multiple places. I asked her what her coaching approach was. She said that she had no specific approach. She thought 20k was fair.

As a storyteller for brands, I have a hard time with any service brand that does not have a well thought out approach and committed deliverables. Coaches do not have degrees in psychology and are not licensed therapists yet they cost significantly more than those professionals. And they don’t take insurance. It’s of my opinion that you should hold your coach to the same standard as any other business service and get a written road map of how they work and what they are delivering.

The third person I talked to, I was really excited about. She had great content and had started her relatively short career in a writers room. I am a writer and writing fiction in my own time, so I was interested in her perspective. And she went to Harvard. I’m not going to lie. Going to an Ivy League gave her immediate credibility in my eyes. I made a lot of assumptions about her work ethic and level of professionalism from her alma mater but for our first call, she was a no show and on the second, she seemed agitated and defensive. I found myself trying to impress her and prove my value to her. Not the other way around. I hung up feeling upset.

The fourth person I spoke to had great content, a program, and a mission but she didn’t do video calls. Her policy was phone calls that lasted a strict thirty minutes every two weeks. That wasn’t going to work for me, so we parted ways. In coaching marketing tactics, strict boundaries are one of the tactics of being seriously taken, and in a way, I get it. Isn’t that why a lot of coaches get out of corporate jobs to become coaches? Aren’t they also advocating for their clients to also put down firm boundaries? Still, that amount of distance and inflexibility seems antithetical to the connection necessary to a highly personalized coaching experience.

Fifth’s a charm? Or was it? I was worn out by now and just picked the next person that came my way. I chose my coach because she had a management consulting background and purportedly worked off a program she designed for career coaching that would last 6 weeks. She was a lot younger and had no marketing background but at this point, I was just ready to get going. Plus the financial commitment was a lot easier to stomach.

$4k later, I had 3 (helpful) print outs and two valuable 45 minute calls. For all the rest of the calls, I struggled to get feedback beyond ‘keep up the good work.’ This coach also tried to dissuade me from joining a reputable network I was excitedly to join saying it was a waste of money. This was patently bad advice that I luckily ignored. Private networking groups have turned out to be the single most important aspect of my career journey, a topic for another article. Meanwhile, my coach’s social media was a steady stream of new content that took seemed to take far more effort than she’d ever given to me one on one.

When I was considering coaching creativity I told my father about it and explained at length what I would be doing to support people according to the coaching lessons I’d learned.

My father said “Oh yeah, I know what that is, that’s been around a long time. Do you know what we used to call those people? Friends”

I laughed. It’s true that friendship used to fill a lot of the role of coaches. My father was a coach to his friends and knew his friends came through for him in the same way.

That’s not to say that coaching has no value. I have heard from a lot of people they’ve had great experiences and it has brought them immeasurable value but I think caution is in order as the mental health and coaching sectors grow and become populated with people looking for an easier way to work. There is an element of snake oil salesman in the coaching industry and there are things you should watch out for.

Before you hand over your hard-earned cash, ask hard questions and don’t forget to trust your gut.

Here Is A Checklist of Coaching Red Flags

  1. If you’re getting coached for career goals, make sure you hire someone who understands your industry. If you are looking for a way to communicate your accomplishments in a language that resonates with your sector, this is extremely helpful.

  2. If you feel like you are being shamed into spending more than you have, you probably are being manipulated. You don’t have to prove your value to anyone. Least of all someone you are hiring.

  3. Watch out for shallow credentials and shallow work and life experience. There is no course a coach can take to make up for that.

  4. Watch out for sloppy mistakes. If they don’t read about you or do a deep dive into your background, they are not fully showing up.

  5. Watch out for more effort being put into their own social media content and self promotion than effort into actually helping clients.

  6. If they keep sending you to reams of ‘free content’ instead of giving you personalized answers and advice, get out.

  7. Watch out if they try to turn your concerns about their work or unmet coaching objectives back onto you. Beware the use of psychobabble to gaslight you or challenge your perception of your own experience. You can still be receptive to input while being firm in your self knowledge and intuition. Remember that.

  8. Some coaches are as much as 20k or more but only offer 45 minutes every 2 weeks. You do the math. Does this sound right to you? What client or boss have you ever had who asked that little of you? If a coach is more interested in passive income streams than doing the work to help you one on one, that’s not the one.

Coaches should be able to teach you about new approaches and new thinking, not just pat you on the back or use psychobabble to address real concerns that need tangible approaches. If a coach makes you feel bad or doesn’t respond to your concerns about your coaching experience with the accountability they are asking of you, walk away.

All that said, coaching experiences can be amazing and in principle, I think it’s a great field that hopefully will one day be regulated with accountability measures that protect clients. I just started working with someone as more of a short term advisor and I can tell she’s personally invested in my success. It’s been a very different experience and right for me at this time.

There are good coaches out there with real credentials. Do have faith but never forget to protect yourself and trust your inner voice.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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