Career coaches: When are they worth their salt?

November 6, 2012, 2:32 PM UTC

FORTUNE — When William Cui first became a management consultant, he was ready to sell his home in Delaware and put all his belongings in storage. No use owning property when he’d be traveling all over the world for the foreseeable future, right?

But his career coach stopped him from packing everything away. “She said, ‘You need to have somewhere to call home to tie you back to who you are,’ ” recalls Cui, who is now 33 and a senior manager in Cognizant’s business consulting practice. “When you’re traveling and living an interesting life that most people would be jealous of — you’re living in fancy hotels, traveling around the world, and doing exciting things — a lot of us end up losing ourselves.”

Cui says he has remained grounded by having a home where he could unpack his suitcase and make a bowl of noodles for dinner, even just for an overnight between trips. And his career coach has helped him with much bigger issues as well, most notably when he was weighing job offers from consulting firms McKinsey & Co. and Booz & Co. With her coaching, he realized the mentoring at Booz rather than the sink-or-swim McKinsey model would help him more in the long-run.

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Cui is hardly alone in relying on a coach for general career advice, as distinct from help with job hunting. A survey by the International Coaching Federation found that there were 47,500 professional coaches worldwide this year, up from 30,000 just five years ago. And nearly 60% of coaches surveyed said they’d experienced an increase in clients during the previous year.

But as the industry has grown, so have concerns that some coaches don’t have the credentials or experience needed to truly help their clients, given that the profession isn’t regulated in the way that psychology, social work, or even accounting are. Career coaching may not be quite as prone to hucksters as life coaching is, but there’s still the potential for exploitation, harm, or simply a waste of time and money.

“There are a lot of people out there who are doing it without experience or credentials,” says Ben Dattner, an organizational psychologist, executive coach, and author of The Blame Game. “They’re cultivating dependency and using … mind tricks to win and get clients without actually helping.”

Given the hype surrounding coaching, it seems an opportune time to look closely at four big pitfalls of career coaches:

You don’t have a “coachable issue” 

It’s critical to know why you are working with a career coach, often called an executive coach. Perhaps you feel stuck in your career and need help getting to the next level — or maybe you are deciding whether to change course. You might be dealing with a specific challenge, whether it’s a new leadership role or a skill that you haven’t quite mastered.
“Coming into a coaching relationship, it’s so important to be clear about why you’re there,” says Janice Smith, Ernst & Young’s Americas coaching leader, based in Denver, Co.

Smith herself worked with an executive coach when she was moving into her current position. She says she wanted to find her leadership voice and style. Through the process, she realized that one of her unwritten rules was, “Don’t let anyone down,” an impossible standard that not only would exhaust Smith but wouldn’t make sense given the volume of new requests being made of her. She worked with a coach on saying no to requests strategically and in a way that pointed the requester in a positive direction.

“For me, it was replacing that rule of not letting anyone down with, ‘I’m going to preserve relationships,’ ” Smith says, noting that the goal of the coaching engagement may not always be clear in the very first meeting. “Sometimes you come to a coaching relationship with a goal and through the coaching conversation you discover there’s another goal at play.”

Another tip: don’t hire a career coach if you really should be seeing a therapist. “If you’re depressed, it’s unlikely an executive coach is going to help you,” Dattner says. “If you’re under severe stress because of work-family issues or preoccupied with a situation at home, not getting enough sunlight, eating well, exercise, those bigger life things get in the way of straightforward, simple coaching.”

You’re with the wrong coach

Given the growth of coaching in general, and executive coaching specifically, it can be hard to find the right one in a sea of available options. Ideally, you’ll get a recommendation from someone you trust, but even then, the right coach for your friend may not be the right one for you.

“I believe you should feel a connection with your coach from the first conversation,” says Michael Melcher, a partner at Next Step Partners, a coaching and leadership development firm based in San Francisco and New York.

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Look for a combination of a behavioral science background, such as psychology or social work, and real-world career experience, ideally in your industry or with your demographic (i.e. new MBA or executive woman).

Your goals should also dictate the kind of coach you seek. “If you need to build your emotional intelligence, you should use a psychologist. If you want to present more effectively, talk to a communications expert,” says Bill Berman, a New York-based corporate psychologist who does executive coaching and team development.

Be wary of someone who tries to manipulate or use mind games, like asking for a $20,000 up-front commitment and when you demur, accusing you of not being committed to the process.

Seek out a coach who is part of a community of coaches or has a mentor to rely upon; not only will that person have a reputation to uphold, she’ll have someone to turn to for advice and consultation.

Your ground rules are unclear

Another kiss of death is to be working with a coach without clear ground rules, payment expectations, and an expected timeframe. “You probably want a coach who can send you a contract so it’s clearly specified what they are going to do and what the parameters of confidentiality are,” Dattner says.

Especially with a coach you first meet through your employer’s benefits or professional development resources, you should be explicit about whether this is a relationship just between you and the coach, or one that includes your supervisor or the human resources department.

Remember, you are not revealing a fatal weakness by seeking coaching. If there’s an area where you need to improve, your colleagues most likely are aware of the problem. “People get very self-conscious about anyone knowing that they’re getting help. The skill deficit is not a secret to anybody but them,” Berman says.

It’s healthy to have an expectation for the length of the coaching engagement, such as six months or 12 months. “It’s a bridge; it’s not a lifetime retainer,” Melcher says. “Even if you keep on with your coach, there should be new issues.”

You can’t or won’t put in the necessary work

Just as with a nutrition or fitness coach, you have to expect to do significant work yourself to achieve your goals. The coach is a partner, not a caretaker.

“The coachee has a responsibility to help drive this relationship,” says Linda Mercurio, a Washington D.C.-area coach who specializes in female lawyers and accountants.

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Mercurio sometimes meets with people who want a simple road map to a promotion, and who back out of coaching once they realize the work they’ll need to do first in understanding themselves, their skills, accomplishments, failures, relationships, and goals — and then sticking to a new course with a coach. Lasting change takes time and effort, after all.

“If you want any change to happen on the outside, something must shift within you,” says Henna Inam, an Atlanta-based coach who works with a lot of executive women. “If you just address the behaviors, people revert back to old behaviors under stress.”