Should You Hire a Life Coach?

Paying for specialized advice can give your career a boost.

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When Mary Knebel, a 30-something in Washington, D.C., was laid off from her corporate job a few years ago, she wasn't sure whether she wanted to find a new one or follow her dream of launching her own website. To help figure it out, she hired Kimberly Wilson, a yoga teacher, author, and businesswoman who offers one-on-one mentoring sessions for $150 per hour. "[Wilson] was helpful in giving me the confidence to go forward and say, 'This is possible,'" says Knebel.

[See 50 Ways to Improve Your Finances in 2012.]

Knebel is one of a growing number of professionals hiring coaches to help them achieve their dreams. Whether it's to find a new wardrobe for a job search or to get business advice for a new venture, people often turn to coaches during times of transition. "The primary reason is that they're not achieving their goals in the workplace, and they want some help to position themselves for upward mobility," says Lois Frankel, author of Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office. One growth area has been among people affected by layoffs. "We're finding that as people get laid off, they're trying to figure out why were they laid off and not someone else," Frankel adds.

The most common goal is to earn more money, says Bill Dueease, founder and president of Fort Myers, Fla.-based Coach Connection, which helps connect clients with coaches. "With people getting laid off and saying, 'I don't want to get back in the rat race,' that's the perfect time to hire a coach," he says.

All coaches are not created equal, however. Frankel warns that when it comes to business coaching, it's important to make sure the coach has specialized expertise and experience. She recommends looking for people who have 20-plus years of experience working inside a corporation, masters degrees or higher, or a certification from the International Coach Federation. According to a recent survey by Harvard Business Review, the median cost for one hour of coaching is $500, but it can range from $200 to $3,500.

That warning also goes for life coaching, which is sometimes called "personal coaching." "It's not regulated, so everyone can call themselves a coach. Maybe 50 percent of the time, they are not providing coaching," Dueease says. Websites like his FindYourCoach.com, which has screened thousands of coaches, can make sure people find trained coaches.

Getting started. For business coaching, the first step is to give the client feedback about how others perceive them. "A seasoned coach can usually sit with someone for an hour and figure out why they're not getting promoted," says Frankel.

[See Should You Hire a Money Coach?]

Frankel once coached a manager who was surprised to hear that his employees felt he didn't care about them. To fix that problem, Frankel recommended that he hold more staff meetings, offer personal development in the form of guest speakers, meet one-on-one with staff at least once a quarter, and walk around the office more for casual chats. Frankel calls that last technique MBWA, or managing by walking around.

Another client, an information technology professional, tended to talk too much in meetings and dominate the conversation. Frankel suggested that he never speak first in a meeting and that when he did speak, it should be to comment on what others had already said. That way, says Frankel, he learned how to become an active listener.

Life coaching, says Dueease, usually starts with a conversation about who the client is and what his preferences are. "The coach asks questions about you to get you to open up and reveal things that you've never revealed before," he says. The coach might start by asking what the client thought about when he first woke up in the morning, for example. "You discover what all of your passions are, and what the self-imposed obstacles are," Dueease adds.

[See our list of the 50 Best Careers.]

Before Kimberly Wilson meets with clients, she asks them to fill out a questionnaire about their goals and vision statement. She says the women she works with often want to grow or start a business, but they feel stuck. A mentoring session can help them see what they need to do to move to the next step, she says.