I had a career coach. I got the coach the day after a meeting where I was the only woman and the only person under thirty. My boss said, “You need more polish. You need a career coach.” I thought, “Great, my boss is going to pay to help me to fit in with the 50-year-old men at the top of my corporate ladder.”
The coach asked me a slew of seemingly innocuous questions about myself, and then she trailed me at the office for a few days. Her conclusion: I needed to act more professionally. I was surprised — I had read every book I could find on managing one's image at work. I wore earrings because all the women in Fortune magazine's 50-most-powerful-women list wear earrings. I kept my hands folded on the table in the same way that experts on news television do. I was surprised that I had missed something.
The coach gave me a list of things to change. When I walked, for example, I walked “high”, with a bounce, and didn't give off a sense of being grounded. She told me to look at the CEO: “He has a deliberate, grounded walk — no bounce. It instills confidence.” She told me I smiled too much. “It's a common problem for women,” she told me. “Women want to establish rapport by smiling, but men interpret a lot of smiles as either nervous or giddy.”
Lest she say that I also needed to work on accepting criticism, I thanked her for her help. After weeks of practice — and her trailing me the whole way — I made the changes. The coach collected her thousands of dollars in fees and left with a feeling of accomplishment.
But she left me feeling like a fake. I wanted to go back to regular me, but my boss kept telling me how much more professional I was, and I didn't want to disappoint the guy who was responsible for my next raise.
I started losing sleep, falling victim to my overactive imagination where my direct reports go out to lunch and talk about how fake I am, then they stop listening to me, and my office becomes Mutiny on the Bounty with an ending where I walk the plank to unemployment.
So I did what most people do when they can't sleep for months: I went to a psychologist. And it took the psychologist about twenty minutes to help me realize that I was uncomfortable with the level of authority I held. I had moved up the ladder very fast. I was managing a team of people much older than I was. My smiles and my bounce belied my discomfort.
I worked with the psychologist to feel more comfortable with my own authority, and after a few months, the solid gait and serious face came naturally to me. I didn't have to project a fake image because the image I was supposed to project — authority — felt right to me.
My psychologist helped a lot, but a psychologist is likely to miss the quirks of corporate life (after all, she has built a career by avoiding the corporate ladder). And the career coach is likely to miss the psychology driving you to do what you do. So if you find that your career coach makes recommendations that are hard to handle, hire a psychologist. After all, the more people who are helping you to get what you want in your career, the more likely you are to get it. And your money spent will come back to you later, as you gain more self-knowlege in and out of the workplace.