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Free or For A Fee, Advice Can Bolster Your Career Mark Swartz, M.B.A. M.Ed.

About the Author

Mark Swartz, MBA, M.Ed., is Canada's Career Activist. His insights reach millions yearly as the Career Advisor, as author of the best seller "Get Wired, You're Hired," also as a professional speaker and coach on career/work issues. A former Toronto Star careers columnist, Mark's advice is forthright and practical. For Canada's biggest directory of free career articles, and for personalized coaching, please visit

What to look for in a Coach or Mentor Feel as though you're stuck in a career rut and going nowhere fast? A coach or mentor may be just what you need to break out of your doldrums. Most people know about coaches and mentors, but may be confused about the differences between the two and uncertain of how to go about finding either one.

Mentors and coaches can both play an invaluable role for you, though it's important to understand the distinctions between what each can do for your career before you decide to work with either one. In each case what you'll receive, at a minimum, is information, advice, perspective, and a sounding board.

The Mentor Route A mentor is usually someone you admire and in whose footsteps you want to follow. They may be an employee in your firm or in another organization altogether. Often it is someone you already know - such as a more senior staff member or an experienced family member. They provide their words of wisdom for free. In fact, the word ''Mentor'' essentially means ''wise advisor,'' and is the name of a character from the ancient Greek epic The Odyssey, by Homer (no, not that guy on The Simpsons).

Working with a good mentor is like having your own guardian angel. They can help you steer through rough waters and into smoother sailing at work. And they typically do this for the sheer satisfaction of helping you to grow and succeed. Mentoring relationships often emerge after you have worked with someone, perhaps a boss or colleague, for a period of time, for instance after having worked together on a particularly challenging project. You may discover that the person you admire as a role model is willing to share their knowledge and experience with you on a more regular basis.

Professional Coaches A coach, on the other hand, is someone you hire for a fee to assist you with achieving a specific goal, such as pursuing a new career path, developing a vital skill, or overcoming a work habit that may be interfering with your success. The coaching process is usually more clearly defined than a mentoring relationship, and follows some sort of formal process that should lead to results that are agreed to in advance.

When working with a career coach, their toolkit may include assessment inventories such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to help clients gain a better understanding of their strengths, weaknesses, and personality. This can help people plan and manage their careers more effectively in order to reach their long-term goals. Or the coach may use less formal methods that probe the client and lead to exploratory conversations. However coaching is not therapy, unless your practitioner happens to be licensed as such (which is not generally the case).

The coach you choose should have an appropriate mixture of credentials, experience, and a style you're comfortable with. Just because a practitioner has a Masters degree or Ph.D. doesn't mean you'll enjoy working with them. Conversely, there are some excellent coaches who have few academic credentials but lifetimes of hands on experience that you can benefit from. In any case, make certain that your coach follows a set of ethics and informs you of their approach and policies.

Another difference between mentoring and coaching is that while you may enter into a mentoring arrangement without a clear agreement about how long the relationship will last, a coaching relationship is usually established for a set period of time, with a payment schedule that follows suit.

Finding a Mentor If you'd like to find a mentor, but don't know anyone in your immediate circle of business acquaintances or family who seems like a good prospect, check the ''Find a Mentor'' Web site. There you'll find a wide range of networks offering connections to mentors who are willing to be paired with a protégé. Another route is to contact your college or university and ask if they have Alumni mentoring programs in place. Later on, be sure to volunteer as a mentor to someone else when you have a chance to do so. You'll both learn a great deal in the process.

Choosing a Coach While you can locate a coach by looking in the Yellow Pages under career consultants, a better way is to ask people in your professional network for recommendations of coaches they know about or have worked with. Otherwise, you could try to work with someone who has a public profile and established reputation. Those who are published in their field, who speak in public often, and who are quoted in the media, provide you with a measure of assurance that they might well be doing something right. Not surprisingly they tend to come at a premium. Another way to locate coaches is through listings of coaching associations and organizations. See below for several directories of coaches/career consultants in Canada.

Don't be shy about asking how long a coach has been in business, the type of clientele they work with, what type of services they offer, and how much they charge. Look for someone who has a track record of helping clients to achieve goals similar to yours. And if in doubt, ask for references. Watch out for practitioners who obligate you to pay a substantial amount up front before you have even had a first full meeting with them. And consider talking to at least two different coaches before deciding on whom to spend your hard earned dollars. Don't be shy about letting each one know that you are speaking to several people before you make a decision. If one of them tries to give you a hard sell, hanging up the phone. Your choice should be made comfortably and unrushed.

Making It Work Regardless of whether you opt for a coach or a mentor, here are some guidelines that will smooth things along:
  • Look for a good fit. You should feel comfortable in communicating openly, and that your relationship provides a balance between supporting you and challenging you.
  • Provide feedback. Let the person know if their methods are meeting your needs, or if something is missing.
  • Be honest with yourself first. One of the keys to benefiting from a coach or mentor is to be forthright about your own strengths and weaknesses, goals and disposition. You can't expect the practitioner to be psychic.
Your decision of who to proceed with will depend on numerous factors: costs, availability, convenience, etc. Keep in mind that mentors tend to be somewhat subjective, in that the person who agrees to guide you might have their own agenda--especially if it is someone in your company. Whereas a trained coach will attempt to be more objective and ensure that your needs come first. Plus you don't have to be on your best behaviour with a coach; they take you as you are. And confidentiality is generally assured.

Fine tuning your career or accomplishing an important goal doesn't happen over night. But you may find that boosting your trajectory or fulfilling your career dreams is easier, and perhaps quicker, with the help of a good coach or mentor. In either case, best of luck as you pursue your own professional odyssey.

Sites Where You Can Locate a Career Coach Career Professionals Canada: A growing list of career coaches, resume writers and related resources in Canada.

ACPI Find An Expert: From the Association of Career Professionals International. Choose someone to speak to locally or internationally.

Career Management Alliance: This is a listing of career coaches and resume writers who have been accredited by the Career Management Alliance. Type in ''Canada'' in the ''country'' field and the click on ''Search''.

Find a Coach From Anywhere: Visit the International Coach Federation. They offer an independent system to match coaches with clients. Once on their site, click on ''Find a Coach''. The site is also accessible by phone, by contacting 1-888-236-9262 (toll free). Or check out CoachU and select by geography and type of coaching needed.

Search For a Career Advisor: Use the Contact Point search program or browse through their listings.

Yellow Pages: Of course, you could always try the good old fashioned way. Not the most discriminating method to use, but at least doing it online makes it faster and easier. Once at the main page, type in ''career counselling'' or ''resume'' in the field for Category. Then choose your city and province.

Note: If money is a significant concern, consider using your employer's EAP (Employee Assistance Program) for some initial counselling--if available (check your employee manual or intranet site).

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