Research Paper By Africa Hands
(Career and Transition Coach, UNITED STATES)
There was a question in the discussion forum of the International Coach Academy about whether career coaching is indeed a coaching niche. This is something I was personally pondering because working with clients on their career was a niche I wanted to pursue in my coaching practice. After spending time browsing the websites of career coaches, the array of services offered was clear – job search, transition and career change coaching, interview preparation, resume writing and review, personal presentation or style coaching for the job, and assessments. This was a good start. I wanted to offer several of these services to clients. What was missing was the theory, the guiding framework that each coach would use with each client when walking the client through these services.
In coach training, we discuss several theories that inform the coaching profession including cognitive behavioral therapy, appreciative inquiry, neuro-linguistic processing, emotional intelligence, and mindfulness, to name a few. Surely this niche called “career coaching” had one or two guiding theories or frameworks that could be used to form the basis of my career coaching practice. This paper offers an introduction to career development theories with the goal of inspiring coaches to learn more about the theories discussed, and encourages coaches to reflect on which theories resonate and can be put into practice with career coaching clients.
According to Hazen and Steckler in the book The Complete Handbook of Coaching, career coaching has five main goals:
- Choosing work
- Moving up in a profession, job or organization
- Moving out of a form of work or organization by choice
- Finding work after job loss
- Planning for the end of paid work and into retirement.1
The coaching process will differ with each goal, with each client, and is sometimes dependent on the coach’s guiding theory, if operating from one distinct theory. After reading about each theory you may find one or two that resonate. This is great! You have a baseline theory to explore and imbed into your career coaching practice. However, keep in mind that awareness of several theories will serve you well in your coaching work, giving you flexibility to dip into the theory and any related activities and assessments as needed by the client since coaching is client-led and client-centered. You may, of course,
specialize in one theory and market your career coaching practice accordingly, attracting clients who align with the theory just as you would as a coach specializing in neuro-linguistic processing.
Career development theories may be divided into categories such as trait-and-factor theory, learning theory, and transition theory. This paper will describe theories in each category, however please note that there are many other theories available. Use the questions in appendix 1 to reflect on the theory or theories that resonate with you and that may inform your work and client population.
This category of theory is similar to many personality assessments used in psychology because theories in this group “seek to describe individual differences in personality types.”2 John L. Holland is a well-known trait-and-factor theorist with his Vocational Choice Theory, which contends that people and environments can be described by a combination of two or more of six types, and people are most satisfied in work environments that match their personality type. Holland’s six personality and environment types are as follows3:
- Realistic – people who prefer ordered and systematic mechanical activities and enjoy working with things rather than people. Related jobs are automobile mechanic, electrician, and farmer.
- Investigative – people with mathematical or scientific ability who are observant and analytical. Preferred occupations are psychologist, scientist, and actuary.
- Artistic – people who are expressive, imaginative, and non-conforming. People in this group may enjoy work as a composer, fashion designer, or public relations representative.
- Social – people who enjoy working with others in training or development roles, or who prefer to be in service to others, or those who are interested in helping others with their problems. Obvious job matches for this type are social worker, nurse, and teacher. Note that the social type is not the same as socializing. Some people in this type enjoy working with others but still consider themselves introverts.
- Enterprising – people in this personality type prefer leadership roles, positions that persuade others, or work to attain some sort of gain such as real estate agents, salespeople, and attorneys.
- Conventional – people are orderly, prefer clearly defined work duties, and like to maintain routine in their work. Possible careers include accountant, computer programmer, and proofreader.
Clients learn their Holland code by taking the Self-Directed Search assessment available online at http://www.self-directed-search.com/ for $9.95. Holland developed the first Self-Directed Search assessment in 1971, and it has since been revised four times. 4 Coaches work with clients to reflect on the resulting two or three letter code (based on the personality types above) and careers that share the same code. Some questions to consider with clients are:
- In what way does the code fit or not fit the client?
- Are the jobs associated with the Holland code of interest to the client?
- Are the client’s dream jobs related to their personal Holland code? Is there a match or mismatch?
- What hobbies or extracurricular activities match the client’s code?
- In what ways can the client find fulfillment outside of work using the code?
The comprehensive report generated after taking the Self-Directed Search assessment will serve as talking points for client and coach (helping the client learn about herself), and a basis for which to discuss previous and current occupational and educational interests and choices. The report may be useful to the client in attaining one of the five career coaching goals. The report uses language that supports the explorative nature of the assessment, for example “What occupations might interest me?” and “What fields of study might interest me?” This helps the client understand that the results are suggestions for further exploration; the client is not expected to lock herself into an occupation based on the results. The report can be used when it is time for the client to create action, perhaps choosing one occupation for further exploration through online research, informational interviews, and reading trade publications related to the occupation.
Albert Bandura’s social learning theory with its emphasis on modeling and positive reinforcement is the foundation for the career development theory proposed by John Krumboltz. Krumboltz’s number one proposition is that the goal of career counselors [and coaches] is “to help clients learn to take actions to achieve more satisfying career and personal lives.”5 This learning happens through instrumental learning or positive reinforcement – experiences that result in positive outcomes for the client – and associative learning or modeling – learning from the experiences and outcomes of others who serve as role models.
During the coaching relationship, coach and client (keeping the client’s goal in mind), brainstorm actions that the client could take towards the goal, which in turn serve as instrumental learning experiences. For a client looking for a job these action steps may include creating a list of interesting job titles, researching job descriptions, talking to one person with the job title of interest, and reading professional publications related to the job. The client takes small steps to learn about the desired job, learning whether or not the job fits and is still of interest. The client may learn that the job is not as interesting as thought, which may seem like a negative experience for the client, but the process of taking steps to learn is where positive reinforcement occurs. The client will be open to continue taking steps to learn about other careers without suffering truly harmful results. Along the way the client will find occupations of interest and can move on to exploring the jobs in more detail.
Learning theory works well with clients who are open-minded and willing to learn from new experiences, who see value in experimentation, and who have the luxury of time to do exploration. There may be clients for whom learning theory and related activities are appropriate but who need more immediate assistance finding employment. Also straight-forward, conventional clients may not want to engage in the learning process and may prefer the job matching aspects of trait-and-factor theory.
Transition theory focuses on the time when change is occurring. One of the first transition theorists is Nancy Schlossberg who defines transition as an event or non-event that results in a change in roles, daily routines, or personal relationships.6
An event may be getting a job promotion. Alternately, a non-event can be not getting a job promotion one had hoped for. To Schlossberg, transition involves four parts: situation, self, support, and strategy. These four parts, described below, make up Schlossberg’s 4S model.
The situation is what triggered the transition. Coaches can help clients discuss the situation by asking questions such as:
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how severe is the situation?
- How permanent is the situation?
- What else is happening at the same time as the transition?
The inner strength of the client is the focus of self, which explores the client’s ability to cope with the transition and the client’s perceived locus of control over the situation. Coaches can ask clients:
- What control do you have over the situation?
- Have you managed a similar transition?
- What is your outlook on life in general?
When working with clients on transition, be it career related or otherwise, it is a useful practice to openly explore the client’s support system because support is important to the client’s ability to cope and move through the transition. Clients with low levels of support or perceptions of no support may become stagnant, wallowing in their situation without taking advantage of available support networks. Coaches can explore support systems through these questions:
- Who do you usually turn to for support?
- Are there agencies in your community that come to mind when thinking about your situation?
- What would stop you from seeking support from family, friends, or community agencies?
The fourth part of the model, strategy, is the action stage where client and coach develop a plan to move through the transition. Ideally, in parts one through three the client has had an opportunity to reflect openly about the transition and enters the strategy stage open and willing to take action. Coaches can engage the client through questions like:
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how ready are you to take action based on what you have learned in steps one through three?
- What alternatives can move you out of the situation?
- What is one step that you think you are ready to take? How can you break that into smaller steps?
When working with clients the career coach uses the 4S model to frame discussion, if the client is willing to engage in the exercise. There is no prescribed time period for the 4S model; coach and client can work through each step individually, or it can be assigned as homework for the client and discussed over the course of the coaching relationship. The 4S model can help clients gain awareness about the transition and break the action plan to move out of transition into orderly, manageable steps so as not to overwhelm the client.
The three career development theories described here are a starting point. Other career development theories include developmental theory popularized by Donald Super and social cognitive career theory by Robert Lent, Steven Brown, and Gail Hackett. The career development theory you choose will be based on your worldview and your own career development experiences. You may choose to focus on one theory to further develop your career coaching niche, or draw on several depending on the needs of the client.
Through the process of learning about different career development theories I now believe that career coaching can be a niche – one that draws on research-based theories with related assessments and activities that have been in practice for decades. Having this theoretical insight will make my career coaching work stronger because I have definitive sources to consult and a community of practitioners who also value the use of theory in career development work.
Bruce Hazen and Nicole A. Steckler, “Career Coaching,” in The Complete Handbook of Coaching, ed. Elaine Cox, Tatiana Bachkirova, and David Clutterbuck (London, UK: SAGE Publications, Ltd., 2011), 311-323.
Barbara H. Suddarth and David M. Reile, eds., Facilitating Career Development: An Instructional Program for Career Development Facilitators and Other Career Development Providers (Broken Arrow, OK: National Career Development Association, 2012), 3-9.
Robert C. Reardon and Melissa A. Messer, eds. Self-Directed Search Report (Lutz, FL: PAR, Inc., 2014).
John D. Krumboltz, “The Happenstance Learning Theory,” Journal of Career Assessment 17 (2009): 135-154.
Suddarth and Reile.
Appendix 1 – Reflection questions for career coaches
For each theory reflect on:
- The premise or proposition of the theory
- What resonates?
- What does not resonate?
- For which clients can you use the theory and related assessments and activities?
- What are some additional resources to learn more about the theory?