--M.W., Summit, N.J.
A: First off, our experts commend you for taking charge of your career. "Most companies aren't managing careers today," says Bob Smith, an executive coach in Silicon Valley. "This person is taking responsibility for [his or her] own advancement."
Finding the right coach can be tricky, though. Anyone can assume the title of coach, since no license is required. The International Coach Federation (ICF), a member association for the industry, estimates that some 20,000 business coaches are dispensing advice to managers and executives. Since 1998, the ICF has offered certification to those who complete training at an accredited coaching school, and so far 500 people have earned this credential.
You can search for a coach at the ICF's Web site, www.coachfederation.org, or through other online resources. But the best way to find one is by asking around, just as you would when shopping for a good doctor or plumber. Approach colleagues whom you respect and ask if they've had coaching, Smith suggests.
SET CLEAR GOALS. Interview three or four coaches before choosing one, our experts advise. Find out how long they've been in the business -- at least a year or two is best -- and check their references. Experience in the corporate world is a must, says Bobbie Little, director of executive coaching at the Center for Executive Options, a division of outplacement consultancy Drake Beam Morin in New York. You want someone who knows how organizations tick and the political maneuverings that go on.
Explain to your potential coach what you want to accomplish -- a career switch, a promotion at your company, better time management, and so on -- and ask if the person has expertise in that area. "Buyer beware of a coach who claims to do it all," says Julie Johnson, an executive coach who has worked with senior managers at such companies as Aetna, Citigroup, and Ernst & Young.
If you think the chemistry is right between you and the coach, inquire about fees. Coaches charge anywhere from a couple hundred bucks to thousands of dollars a month for their services, which usually consist of one 45-minute phone conversation each week, plus emergency calls when necessary. (With fees like that, make them pay the phone bill.) In-person meetings are an option too.
WHAT'S THE PAYOFF? If the cost is too steep for you, consider asking your employer to pay for it. Before approaching your boss, though, assess whether the corporate culture is open to coaching. "In some organizations, [the thinking is:] 'If you need help, you're not one of us,'" Smith says. At Thomson Corp., chief executive Richard Harrington routinely tells his top executives that he has a coach, says Dick Sethi, vice-president for executive and leadership development at the information services company. "He wants to convey the message that learning is a journey."
With corporate budgets tight these days, however, be prepared to explain what your company stands to gain by paying for you to work with a coach. An opening line such as, "I want to learn how I can grow revenue with less resources" may help get your boss's attention.
Once you've lined up a coach, set clear objectives and a deadline to make them happen. A typical coaching engagement lasts about six to eight months, although some can stretch longer depending on your goals.
SECOND SWITCH? Earlier this year, Steven A. Marks hired coach Margaret Krigbaum when he left his job as chief information officer of a large law firm to join the executive team at Aspire.net, a startup in New York City that provides technical services to law firms. He and Krigbaum, a former attorney, talked weekly by phone about his transition from a corporate setting to an entrepreneurial one. Now that he has settled into his new role (he went from managing 60 people to 2), he's talking to Krigbaum about possibly switching careers, maybe into writing. "[Coaching] is as much about personal development as professional development," he says.
It's also about getting results. Find ways to measure whether the coach is paying off. For instance, say you want to fast-track your career at your company. Go to your boss, ask what you can do to gain more responsibility, then focus the coaching on those areas, suggests Sethi. Six months later, return to your boss and ask if your performance has improved.
One thing to keep in mind: A coach can't do the work for you. The coach's job is to "hold the mirror up and have you see things about yourself" that need improvement, says Little at the Center for Executive Options. It's up to you to break bad habits and form better ones.
Have a question about your career or workplace issues? E-mail us at email@example.com, or write to Ask Careers, Business Week Online, 6th Floor, 2 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information. Only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally. Questions may be edited for length and clarity. By Jennifer Gill in New York