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.


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23 replies
  1. Paula G
    Paula G says:

    While I agree there is a time and a place for a coach versus a psychologist, I wonder in this instance if the coach only looked at your outward behavior instead of looking at you as a whole person.

    As a coach myself, I often ask clients questions about how they are feeling about their careers and what it means to be authentic or not, comfortable in your own skin, or not. If you can’t be YOU, then in my book, no amount of outward success is going to make you happy. Sounds to me like this coach could’ve dug a little deeper into the PERSON not just the position and behavior.

  2. Rahul
    Rahul says:

    Why did you, or does one, need either? Seems to me that the situation you described and solved with help from these two was something you could just as well have solved by staying true to yourself. Which is good advice in any situation, anyway.

    * * * * * *

    I see your point, Rahul.

     I think, though, that figuring out who we want to be is a lifelong process, and who we want to be changes at different times in our lives. Our core doesn’t change, but lots of other things change. Getting outside input can help to make this process less bumpy.

    Also, sometimes, in worklife, we find ourselves in situations we have been wanting, but are not acutally prepared for. Many times it’s smart to get outside help to speed up what is normally a slow and organic process of settling in.

    One more way of thinking about this: The more people you have giving you input, the better. Someone you pay is different than someone you don’t. We can all benefit from both types. (Especially when you can get your company to pay for the training :)


  3. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    I guess I have the best of both world, I am working with a leadership coach who, by profession, is a psychologist. She is awesome and my once per quarter or so time with her is just the boost or the slight “point in the right direction” I sometimes need.

  4. Steven
    Steven says:

    I am a dedicated reader and it amuses me that for every carefully written post on how to improve yourself with the aim to become more effective at your career, some one will comment something to the effect of “just be yourself”.

    I would think that the title “Brazen Careerist” would be enough of a hint.

    Given a cirmcumstance where you are, for example, a member of a three person team, and everyone is perfoming well, and everyone is qualified, if there is a person who is interested in self-improvment and focuses on things like how they present themselves – don’t you think hey have a better chance at promotions?

    I say, let the other two hypotheical team members “be themselves” in thier way. I enjoy creating myself and improving and for me that *is* “being myself”.

  5. Recruiting Animal
    Recruiting Animal says:

    Good story but you know that, to some extent, you are advising us to seek help from advisors who are so myopic that they can’t recognize their own limitations. You seem to have had a good psychologist; you’re lucky.

    But I think that someone who is comfortable with himself at any level has a certain presence which is simply due to being relaxed. Not serious and not grave. You don’t look grave in your picture. What happened to that?

    * * * * *

    Maybe I give this advice because I, too, am so myopic that I don’t recognize my own limitations :)

  6. Working Girl
    Working Girl says:

    Nice story. It’s always seemed to me that we have two choices in how to behave in a corporate setting.

    1. Play their game.

    2. Make them play yours.

    First one “safe” but ultimately soul-destroying. Second one honest but risky.

    The good news is that with time you will do more and more of the second one. The first one you will eventually forget.

    Seeking further counsel was also a very smart idea, Penelope. Sometimes I wonder about the wisdom of taking too much advice from “career coaches.” Depends on which one, of course. But there’s an awful lot of buzzwords and facile suggestions out there.

  7. Rambler
    Rambler says:

    I have never thought about fitting in, Or something like, Do I project my authority, or more importantly do I appear/behave as knowledgable as I am, I am not saying I appear/behave under or over the level. What I am trying to say is. I never thought over those lines. Do you really think that matters in corporate? Does it also matter in technical jobs? or are we going for overkill, worrying about something that might not matter.

    * * * * * *

    It matters for everyone. I am not sure why technical people think they are exceptions to the networking rule. I think it might be becuase they hate networking more than other types of people.

    But no one is an exception to the rule. Everyone needs to network in order to get fun, interesting work. Each of us is smart in our work, each of us has talents. Each of us must rely on networking in order to place ourselves in context in the world and be understood for what we can contribute.


  8. Sia
    Sia says:

    Well my question is “who can be a career coach?” some of my friends have been in the business for 20 years but still they are so wrong when it comes to giving me career advices

    * * * * * *
    Each person we know is good at something. The trick to getting coaching from friends is to understand what areas a friend gives good advice in. No one gives good advice in all areas but everyone gives good advice in some area.


  9. Rahul
    Rahul says:

    In response to Stephen: I work at a company where being yourself is regarded more highly than whether you spend all your time making yourself presentable. Perhaps that is why I have this opinion. Still, I respect people who (dogmatically) pursue self-improvement, because those people are always trying to reach a self-extending goal, and that’s also good advice.

    In response to Penelope: Given that I’ve never paid anyone to give me advice, maybe I’m ignorant of the experience. Certainly having someone to listen to is a valuable thing (your other post about having friends outside of work and love comes to mind). At the same time, I’ve never considered paying for advice, because I have plenty of mentors around me. So although I don’t know what I’m missing, perhaps it’s not so bad if I don’t feel like I’m missing something in the first place.

  10. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    The career coach was not telling P. to be someone else but to adapt her body cues to align with the style of her job. It doesn’t mean to be grave–just not a bouncy, pro-volleyball player in the boardroom. Just like you wear a suit to a meeting, instead of workout clothes.

    The career coach P. hired was only there for a few days –not long enough to really get at the core issue that drove P. to the therapist. If she’d had a longer term coaching situation, I suspect it would have come up.

    I had a career coach for about 8 months and we stopped b/c I was hitting a wall that she couldn’t take me over. It was clear to both of us that I should see a therapist.

    I recommend both to people all the time…you need to have some self-awareness to know what will serve you best and each professional (when they are good) will tell you when they can’t or shouldn’t help you any more.

  11. Lea
    Lea says:

    My experience seems to be the reverse of what others here are saying: My therapist was the one who recommended that I see a career coach. By the time the issue of my career came up, I’d been working with my therapist off and on for five years. During the first 4.5 years, we had never talked about my career, because I had it well in hand. (It was perhaps the only thing I had that firm a grasp on, but that’s another story.) Once we’d had a few sessions about my frustration with my newspaper job and my confusion about what to do next, my therapist sent me to the career coach with the instruction to come back once the coach and I were finished.

    I met with my coach probably six or seven times in a five-month period. I took an interest test to see where my interests and skills matched up, to provide a rough map of what to do next. We determined that I needed to transition to a job that involved writing and editing — my strongest skill set — in order for me to keep earning 75 percent of my newspaper salary. (Which I needed in order to pay the bills.) The coach also helped me create a career-changing resume, revamped my approach to cover letters, and advised me on how to handle interview questions.

    All in all, I would never have landed a non-newspaper job without the help of my career coach. I didn’t land the job for another seven months after we stopped meeting, but I had ceased my job hunt for about five of those months, so that wasn’t her. All of the advice she gave me got me noticed by the CEO of an advertising agency, and I left newspapers to become the CEOs assistant. My therapist was very happy for me. :)

  12. Heather Mundell
    Heather Mundell says:

    I’ve enjoyed everyone’s interesting comments.

    Seems to me another kind of support person that could have been helpful would have been a mentor. Most people I know in corporations would kill for a good mentor (or six). In fact, most people I know outside of corporations would like more mentors as well!

    * * * * * *

    Yes, good point, Heather.  All three types of people can add a lot of dimension to how we think about ourselves and our careers.


  13. Lea
    Lea says:

    I’ve been lucky enough to have the same mentor since I was 19. (I’m now 33.) Problem is, my mentor couldn’t help me change careers, because her experience is in the field I wanted to leave. That’s where a career coach can really help.

    * * * * * *
    This is also a good example of why we each need more than one mentor. Way more. We each need a little team of mentors.

  14. Mark
    Mark says:

    Good reading. There’s an online service that combines the best of both worlds – http://www.careerdna.net – based on the work of Dr. Brian Schwartz, a long-time career coach and psychologist.

    By discovering your type and then matching skils to jobs, he’s got a good track record of helping folks find the career that’s right for them.

  15. Wendy Perkins
    Wendy Perkins says:

    I have had neither career coach nor shrink, but find that changing jobs has been my norm over the past two decades. To thine own self be true. Keep changing along with the changing world around us. Meditate, pray, and stay true to your desires and goals. I have enjoyed work overseas to destinations I wanted to go to as a child, learned new skills such as authoring and publishing a book which took me into the airwaves of 350 talkradio and TV shows and feature stories in major newspapers, professional speaking, creating workshops, and finally, meeting a variety of people worldwide in non traditional fields.

  16. M. Mazri
    M. Mazri says:

    Good grief! Like, just anyone is going to hire a psychologist to help them with their career. What salary level are we talking about here? CEO’s making a $1 million a year? What kinds of jobs require the creation of such an “image”? How many employees really want to develop “images”? Has anyone other than this writer ever known a psychologist to be good for anything? Look at the research data? There is practically no evidence that a psychologist has ever done anything useful. To find out for sure, as I have done, you have to search for and be able to interpret data from rigorously controlled scientific studies. Apparently, this is a skill few writers have. The writer of this article has her head in the sand, or somewhere.

  17. jess
    jess says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post and could relate to much of what you felt. It is nice of you to open up and share, I felt like it was very candid and helpful.

  18. acesullivan1
    acesullivan1 says:

    This is better than most of your columns.
    I’m glad the psychologist helped you but that so-called career coach should have to refund their pay for not having gotten to the same point. Talking about body language and image is important, but again it comes down to real leadership and management skills. Things they don’t teach formally in college but maybe should.

  19. Steven
    Steven says:

    While I’m still low on the totem here at my current place of employment (i.e. not management) I may be in left field here with what follows.

    Shouldn’t respect be something learned and earned? I’ve read enough to know you are a well thought out and capable person, respect that. It’s always good to be introspective to a degree, but changing your cadence while walking? Get out of here.

    Aside from a Career Coach, couldn’t you associate a lack of respect to:
    1. maybe classic sexism in the work place
    2. potentially age-ism
    3. self confidence (the world is what you think it is)

    Frankly, I don’t think I’d respect you more because you walk ungrounded. I’d certainly like you more if you went to bat for me over a work place problem or if you helped me become a better employee.

    Anyway, thanks for the insight into the other half. (management/employee relations)

  20. Rita Ashley
    Rita Ashley says:

    Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Not all coaches are superficial, not all shrinks are career-attuned. I am a job search coach and I have rarely worked with an executive who knew what questions to ask of me or where they needed support on their work persona. It requires that I listen with a third ear and watch with a third eye. We use the focus of a job search to discover the “real” issues. Are they passive aggressive? Are they an appeaser, too negative or do they talk too much? These things are revealed by behavior. And if the challenges don’t disolve with a a change in behavors, then a shrink is recommended. And by the way, the feelings you describe are not the soul property of woman; many men feel the same way for the same reasons.

  21. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    Penelope, I think sometimes people need neither. They need a third type of person – a mentor. A very different animal from both a coach and a psychologist, but immensely more personally focused on one and tuned both to the person and the environment. Mentors are usually unpaid which sharpens the mind greatly for them and for the protégé (“mentee” as many insist on calling this person).

    I have had and continue to have a few mentors with whom I bounce ideas and whose critique, feedback, suggestions and advice all help me tremendously. That said a pre-requisite to all these is a great degree of self-awareness, so that one can evaluate all advice critically.

  22. Diana Maus
    Diana Maus says:

    @Penelope, you are GOOD at opening cans of worms!

    @Steven “It requires that I listen with a third ear and watch with a third eye.” That’s exactly what a good analyst does, sees you from angles you can’t see yourself and despite some arguments to the otherwise, analysts serve us well in understanding the damage done to us by parents and education. Only then are we free to take what we need and leave the rest, whether it be mentoring (mine was bad but I didn’t know it yet), coaching (mine was ok but formulaic) or making it up as we go along (a high-risk proposition for all but those who had a well-tended childhood).

    @Rambler “Do you really think that matters in corporate? Does it also matter in technical jobs?” Unfortunately, yes. As a professional technical artist, my evaluations were 5 pages of scale of 1-5 rated questions about just how well I “fit in” and played the game their way. Ugh.

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