Natalie Trice worked in PR for 18 years before she took time off to care for her family – but after eight months of staying home full-time she felt utterly lost.
‘I’d fallen out of love with PR and felt a bit demoralised,’ she explains. ‘I knew I didn’t want an all-consuming job but I needed to do something other than being a mother.’ Terrified of losing her identity, she sought advice from a professional and, within a matter of weeks, had secured a book deal.
The professional who changed Natalie’s fortunes was a career coach. FTSE 100 firms have used their services for decades, often to help train employees, but now others have started to consult them too – namely professional women over 35 who are at a crossroads or sluggish point in their career, and are determined to accelerate or reignite it after years of childcare.
Neela Bettridge, an executive coach, has in the past six months been flooded with requests from professional women in their 40s seeking career coaching. And earlier this year Penna consultancy, one of the UK’s leading firms in this field, which has coached nearly 30,000 individuals, reported a ‘sharp rise in women over 35 requesting career coaching in the last two years’.
Career coaches are also fast becoming a buzz topic at dinner parties among professional, career-minded women.
‘We dissected every aspect of my career and what I wanted,’ says Natalie. ‘I got homework assignments, tests and quizzes that my coach had created to further explore my passions. She asked me what was I tolerating, what I had accomplished, what I like about myself, what I enjoyed from my last job, which three things about my career I most wanted and would most like to change.
‘She made me think about things in a different way and challenged me. Writing was something we kept coming back to.’
Like many social trends, career coaching originated in America before finding its way to the UK in the 1970s, when British business leaders first began introducing US methods to their companies. Since then it has caught on in a big way – largely a result of growing stresses and the fast pace of modern working culture.
‘We’ve sped up our lives so much and are trying to pack in so much, women often become disillusioned with their careers,’ says Maria Arpa, author of Mindfulness at Work. ‘There’s no time to reflect. But that’s changing.’
Lord Davies’ report into women in the workplace, published in 2011, has also fuelled this trend and encouraged women to fulfil their potential. As Bev White, managing director of Penna Career Services, puts it, ‘[the report] encourages women to focus on their careers [so] the idea of coaching became less stigmatised’.
She adds, ‘Comfort can become complacency. You may love what you do, but what more could you have if you pushed yourself that little bit further? How can you really thrive in your workplace?’
So what exactly is a career coach, and do they really do anything beyond spelling out the obvious?
Those who swear by their services claim they can help you achieve anything from a healthy work-life balance, to acing a job interview, securing a promotion or adapting to a recent one. You can expect to pay between £150 and £500 an hour depending on the level of the coach’s experience and the course can last anything from an hour to 12 weeks.
Many of those who have sought help from a career coach did so after losing a job – and have never looked back. Rebecca Gwyn, 41, was made redundant in 2009 after six years of working in the City. She had already started feeling restless there and saw her redundancy as the perfect opportunity for a fresh start, so decided to set up her own business.
‘My last job was as a headhunter, finding business coaches for financial institutions and consultants like JP Morgan and Deloitte, so I already knew some fantastic coaches,’ says Rebecca. ‘I enlisted the help of one to guide my business and also to discuss my career trajectories and fears.
‘These are things that sound straightforward but having to verbalise them in so much detail is actually very difficult. The coach made me dissect so many aspects [of my career]. It was very hard but ultimately rewarding. On top of the business training I acquired a whole new skill set and eventually bought a company, Fake It Flowers, in 2013.’
Career coaches also play a valuable role in helping to manage work-related stress – which caused 440,000 people in the UK to become ill in 2015, according to the Government’s Health and Safety Executive. Gwendolyn Parkin, director of coaching company Integral Career, which works with The School of Life to offer career and life-coaching courses, says that part of the problem is that we are expected to switch off our emotions when we arrive at work, which can do more harm than good.
‘Monitor how you’re feeling all the time,’ she advises. ‘You need to understand what’s happening. Don’t cry in front of the boss, but don’t shut off your mind. Log what’s stressing you out and take action.’ Which is another thing the career coach can help with.
The problem, of course, is that anyone can call themselves a coach – and many do. So-called experts could do more harm than good, so there are bodies that regulate and supervise their coaches – among them, the International Coach Federation (ICF), Association for Coaching (AC) and the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC).
‘If you’re looking for a coach, make sure they are accredited by one of these bodies,’ advises Bev White. ‘Look at their experience and background and, in particular, testimonials. Ask people you know for recommendations. And have an initial consultation to outline your goals and see how your coach plans to get you there. The first thing you should establish is how well you get on with your coach and how well they understand you.’
Speaking to career coaches, the most common concern they encounter among women is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a lack of confidence in the workplace. Neela Bettridge often hears worries such as, ‘My leadership presence isn’t up to scratch’, ‘I don’t know what my next step is’, ‘I’m procrastinating’, ‘I want a new challenge’, and, ‘I don’t know how to network’.
She adds, ‘I’ve seen many robust professional women in their 40s who are anticipating a complete career change but are responsible for young children or elderly parents.
'I’ll make an honest appraisal of what it’s going to take, how flexible they are, how much time they can really give. We map out every step before figuring out how to get them there.’
Of course career-coaching isn’t for everyone, but Gwendolyn Parkin advises giving it some thought.
‘It’s so easy for a woman’s career to get sidelined in her 40s,’ she says. ‘Think of the time and effort you put into redoing your home and wardrobe. Could your career benefit from a makeover too?’
Natalie Trice is author of Cast Life - A Parent's Guide to DDH, published by Nell James, priced at £9.99