What is a career coach? And why do professional services firms have them?
A “career coach” is the professional services firm’s answer to a line manager.
There is an entire industry around “coaching”, but here I’m just talking about the person that is responsible for performance management and development of staff in professional services. It’s a funny title and it’s had many names before (“Manager”, “Counseling Manager”), but the core idea remains the same. In professional services you are always bouncing around projects and working with different people, so who actually knows what you’ve done? And who can you talk to about how you’re going (if you’re happy, being challenged, or ready for something new)?
A career coach is supposed to bridge this gap both for the individual and for the firm. They are there to stay close to the individual, be their confidant and advocate, as well as help senior leaders assess individuals at a given level come performance management time.
What do you really do?
With my coachees, I spend a lot of time working with them on how to get promoted. I’m not proud that this is the focal point of most of our conversations (I would love to talk more about genuine opportunities to learn) but let’s be honest, progression is something that most people in professional services crave. The system (i.e. remuneration, praise) is built around levels that you get promoted through every 2-3 years and it creates this obsession with getting to the next level. I spend most of my time helping them figure out what types of skills they need to demonstrate (i.e. competence), on what types of projects (i.e. experience), with which people (i.e. visibility) before the next performance review.
With the senior leaders, I discuss how my coachees are going and compare them with other individuals in the practice. Most of this happens around performance review time - the crazy time where people are jockeying for a finite set of promotions and how you compare against your peers really matters. The performance review process includes a lot of evidence and data (e.g. chargeable hours, utilisation, project ratings, client feedback) but the “narrative” (aka how you tell the story of that person and their progress) still plays a huge role and that’s where a coach becomes really important.
What is the biggest misconception about the role?
First, that all coaches are more or less the same. Second, the more senior your career coach, the better.
Career coaches get a bit of a guidebook when they get their first coachee - how many times you should catch up with them, what questions you should ask, which templates you should fill out. Some coaches simply tick the boxes. They do the catch ups, they fill in the template and they’re done. Coaching is time consuming and always on top of their day-to-day client responsibilities. Other coaches absolutely love this part of their job (hi!). They form a strong connection with their coachees and feel responsible for them getting the most out of their projects and getting rewarded for their work. It’s like chalk and cheese when you get to performance reviews - some coaches have a polished story to tell (and have already pre-met with the most important people), others clearly have not done their due diligence, at worst, some don’t even show up.
On seniority… they’re on the right track but what you want is influence, not seniority. They are not the same. Influence means that the people that make the final calls will listen to this person, they trust them. High influence gives you multiple advantages: access to better projects (they will know about them first), better feedback (they can find out what managers actually think about your strengths and weaknesses and help you get in front of them), better outcomes at performance reviews (if you provide the performance, they will land the ‘story’). Seniority itself is a double-edged sword - yes, senior people in general have more influence (but not always!) but also less time to get to know you and less headspace to dedicate to your career.
Why do most people get into this role?
Most people have to take on career coachees as a rite of passage through the “Manager” level of a professional services firm. From here, you end up with three types of coaches:
- Those that were forced to do it (...you can tell). These are the bare minimum coaches. If it’s a firm that allows you to choose or change coaches periodically, these people are left with few coachees (the only ones that stay just don’t care enough to change or think it will hurt their feelings)
- Those who are committed and put a lot of effort into coaching. These people attract coachees and will usually be pushing the limit of how many you can have. They put more effort in than they get rewarded for (being a great coach is strangely undervalued vs. selling work) but they do it anyway.
- Those that say they love coaching because it’s good for their brand, but they actually don’t care. Beware these ones… they are the ones that say all the right things and then ditch the performance review that your promotion was riding on because they ‘had an urgent client meeting’. The telltale sign for these ones is very limited guidance or help getting the opportunities you need throughout the year, then a mad scurry at performance review time because that is when their performance as a coach is most visible.
What did you least expect in this role?
How much effort people put in throughout the year on their projects, only to short change their preparation for performance reviews.
I get it… if you perform really well on all your projects throughout the year, put your hand up for the extra practice development work and training, everyone will see that and have to make sure you are rewarded, right? Unfortunately it’s not that simple. There are so, so many people to review, the sessions are a marathon (3+ hours per grade) and people are human so they get tired and lose focus. If it’s your turn to be discussed and your coach can’t succinctly land the key points about your performance, it can be really easy to be lost in the crowd.
This isn’t really a secret, so it surprises me how little effort many people put into preparing for their performance reviews. I think people like to believe that good performance simply speaks for itself, but that is naive. You have to remember that there are hundreds of people being assessed at the same time and if you make it too cognitively difficult for people to recall the key points of your promotion case… they won’t. I have seen many people not get their promotion, or become a ‘borderline’ promotion because they just hadn’t nailed their narrative with their coach beforehand or collected the evidence that would have made their case a slam dunk.
What’s the most frustrating part of the role?
The most frustrating thing is when coachees expect to be staffed on the ‘best’ projects all of the time. It is hard to help them build a diverse, valuable skillset when they only want to do the glamorous stuff.
Usually it is because they don’t understand the professional services business - i.e. there are always going to be a mix of projects that the firm takes on, they can’t all be the sexiest. What they also miss is that if you don’t have a wide variety of projects, especially early in your career, you stunt your own skill development and limit your options later in your career.
What would only other people who do your role know about it?
You are more bought into coachees that own their own career and it impacts outcomes at performance reviews.
I know this sounds unfair at first glance, but the reality of a coaching relationship is that it is a two-way street. When a coachee turns up to catch-ups with insightful questions and we have a great conversation, I am energized by it. That coachee is at the front of my mind when I hear about new projects coming up. When a coachee seems to be going through the motions or waiting for me to drive the conversation about their career, I’m less engaged. I’m sorry, but I’m only human.
The same goes for performance reviews. Some coachees proactively gather the evidence you need, preempting what the feedback might be and so you spend the time together creating the narrative. Others you have to chase for just the bare minimum information to make sure they are fairly assessed. Even when you are trying to be as fair as you can, you are more bought into the careers of the people who invest in themselves and it shows when it comes to speaking at performance reviews.
What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you as a coach?
This is equal parts funny and appalling…
I was at a quarterly dinner to catch up with everyone at my same level in our practice. We were catching up on our projects, performance reviews coming up, and of course, the people coming and going from the practice (the churn rate in professional services means there is always news).
One of my peers said: “I can’t believe it’s Geoff’s last week next week”. Geoff was a Director who had been in the practice for a number of years
Another peer looks confused and asks: “What do you mean?”
The peer replies: “He’s leaving, he’s going to another firm but he won’t say which one”
The now concerned-looking peer says: “What… he didn’t tell me? He’s my coach.”
The idea that everyone can know someone is leaving and they didn’t even bother to tell their coachees is just insane. It just goes to show that Geoff was one of those people who was just in for themselves and didn’t actually care.
What advice do you have for people choosing a career coach?
Don’t just go with, or stay with, who you are allocated to - choose the best coach you can.
When people join a practice, they generally get allocated a career coach who is a couple of levels more senior and has relevant experience to help the coachee navigate the practice they have joined. It’s good to have one from the get-go, but after 6 months you should be thinking about who is the best fit for you. Choosing the best coach depends on what your needs are, but here are some things to look for:
- Access to opportunities: Are they well plugged into the pipeline of projects coming in? Are they involved in specific industries or types of projects that you are interested in getting staffed on?
- Influence in the practice: Are they well respected by senior members of the practice? Are they seen as a good judge of talent / technical skill? (these people tend to be made the head of major training programs or always be staffed on high profile projects)
- Passion for coaching: Do they regularly catch up with their existing coachees? Do their existing coachees say that they feel supported consistently throughout the year (not just at review time)?
Before you go: I have interviewed 500+ professionals, surveyed thousands more, and I am always probing for their best tips, tricks and hacks to get ahead. There are five that stand out above the rest and you can get them right now by joining my free email list. You won’t find these ideas anywhere else.