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How to Get the Most Value From a Career Counselor

Nov 17, 2014
Ideas

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach.

Many people consider career counselors a joke: "They give you B.S. tests that, in the end, always say you should be a funeral director or a forest ranger." While that's stretching it, career counselors are often less useful than they could be.

Choosing a career

The most likely reason you'd choose to see a career counselor is because you're still not sure what you want to be when you grow up even though you're already a grown-up. Alas, career counseling clients too often don't end up contentedly employed because:

  • No one career stands out.
  • Too many careers stand out.
  • Their goal is too popular. For example, they want to work in media, entertainment, or for the environment but so does half the continent. Career counselors' unofficial motto, "Do what you love and the money will follow," often ends up being untrue.
  • Their goal sounded good but once in the career, they dislike it because the field or particular job turned out different than the career counselor suggested it would be.

Part of the problem is that career counselors' main tools, career inventories, poorly predict how successful and happy you'll be in a given career. For example, the popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, administered to over 2.5 million people each year, severely lacks reliability, let alone predictive validity. Penn-Wharton Professor of Psychology, Adam Grant, in a Huffington Post review of the Myers-Briggs, concluded, "we all need to recognize that four letters [the Myers-Briggs' 16 categories each have four letters] don't do justice to anyone's identity. So leaders, consultants, counselors, coaches, and teachers, join me in delivering this message: MBTI, I'm breaking up with you."

Now in my 30th year as a career counselor and coach, despite honors and praise from most clients, I wonder whether helping people pick a career is a cost- and time-effective use of people's money and time. Do career counselors, especially paid ones, often-enough add sufficient value over what you might get by simply using software such as O*Net or Eureka, which inventory your skills and interests and then provide descriptions of matching careers, including training requirements, and supplementing that with some Googling and informational interviews?

Landing the job

Career counselors tend to be more effective in helping you land a job. They can teach the art of networking, how to create a good LinkedIn profile and how to write a good resume and cover letter. Indeed, some counselors cross the ethical line and write or so heavily edit your work that it more represents the counselor's writing, thinking and organizational skills than yours. Career counselors can prep you for interviews, helping you craft ideal answers for likely interview questions and videoing you to show you when you don't appear credible and winsome.

Even if the counselor doesn't write your resume and cover letter nor feed you model answers, much job-search coaching, despite its ubiquity, in my view, is unethical and inimical to the common good. The people willing to pay a job-search coach are disproportionately those who, on their own, failed to find decent employment, a pool that, on average, is less intelligent, less skilled, less motivated and/or more high-maintenance than the pool of people that get hired without paying a job coach. So when career counselors do the aforementioned packaging of a client, they're often making an applicant look superior to more worthy candidates. As I mentioned in a recent TIME article, that's, of course, unfair to the better candidates, especially to low-income ones that can't afford a job-search coach. That's also unfair to employers who thereby are deceived into hiring a worse employee than they otherwise would have hired. And that hurts all of us: The quality of the goods and services we receive is affected by the quality of people that get hired. There will always be a percentage of people who are unemployed. In an ideal world, they'd be the people who'd be the worst employees. But job-seeker packagers mitigate that. So, ironically, job-search coaching, which would seem to be a pro-social profession, may, overall, actually make the world worse.

Where a good career counselor or coach may most help

Most career counselors don't continue to work with you after you've landed a job. Ironically, that's when one is most likely to do the most good. Fortunately, some, by temperament and training, can help clients succeed on the job. You might want to hire someone to help you with one or more of these:

  • Onramping. The first 30 days are crucial. As they say, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. To onramp successfully, you must quickly learn that workplace's unspoken rules and culture, what to prioritize and the quality of work expected. You must develop relationships, especially with key people, who may or may not appear key on the organizational chart, for example, that veteran administrative assistant who has seen it all. Such skills are often not taught in college.
  • Communication. Many people think they're more effective communicators than they, in fact, are. For example, they may be unclear, or clear but lacking in emotional intelligence. They may be long-winded. Their speech and writing may too often embed anger.
  • Time management. Managing time and avoiding procrastination is key to career success but tough for many people.
  • Organization. No, you needn't be a neat freak but being functionally organized is important and, in some people, lacking.
  • Management and leadership. The art of supervising people and budgets requires much subtlety. Also, one must know how to develop processes that are detailed enough but not unduly constraining, and how to manage and lead more by inspiring than micromanaging.

Many career counselors and coaches, while rich in counseling skills, are lacking in these areas and might be wise to acquire them, whether via self-study, courses, and/or real-world experience as an employee of an organization.

The takeaway

If more career counselors and coaches focused on the sort of work proposed in the previous section, they could greatly improve our worklives, for our own betterment, employers', and society's.

Marty Nemko holds a Ph.D. specializing in education evaluation from U.C. Berkeley and subsequently taught there. He is the author of seven books and an award-winning career coach, writer, speaker and public radio host specializing in career/workplace issues and education reform. His writings and radio programs are archived on www.martynemko.com.


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