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Ask HN: How to find an effective career coach?
94 points by djangovm on July 14, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 23 comments
After 11 years of development career as an individual contributor in some large companies, and team lead for start-up teams, I recently landed in a team-lead position in a company filled with hot political issues, backstabbing, favouritism, tremendous timeline pressures for modernization with little business benefit, executive/director level leaders who have no knowledge of internal working of the system, all experienced folks leaving after change in said execs/director, eccentricity at some levels, and so on. It is such a classic case of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon for me that threads like [1] and [2] resonate a great deal.

I do not want to turn away from this ecosystem for now mostly because I want to learn how to survive in such a political environment, and partly because if this modernization project gets delivered whenever it is, it will be a very good learning experience for me.

While official and unofficial mentorship is an option from inside the companies, I am not sure if I can cover softer issues like dealing with certain individuals in the mentorship session.

So, I wanted to ask you guys how can I find and approach an effective career coach or a mentor (potentially outside of my company). Any suggestions are more than welcome.


1. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17511850 2. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17510670

I would start with LinkedIn. They have a section called 'ProFinder' which has a huge number of listings for career coaches of all sorts.

I have been working with several people found here this year (for very different reasons than yours), and I have found some great help here.

That being said, as with everything on the Internet, you need to do some filtering. There is a fair amount of noise in this system, LinkedIn does a pretty good job of filtering out the scams and crooks, but you still need to make sure you find the person who is right for you.

Most of these people offer free 30 minute consultations. Get on Skype with them and ask them questions. Be honest with yourself about what you need and what they are saying. But also push back a little and challenge them. These people are selling a service and they will try to persuade you, but their talents and areas of expertise differ greatly.

I found one coach who was great at helping me rewrite my resume and LI profile, but really awful at helping me with active communications.

I suspect you will find many coaches who will tell you to quit and tell you how to find a new job (for a fee). But if you search, I think you will find someone who can help.

Good luck.

>I do not want to turn away from this ecosystem for now mostly because I want to learn how to survive in such a political environment, and partly because if this modernization project gets delivered whenever it is, it will be a very good learning experience for me.

Why do you want to learn how to survive in that type of environment? Do you plan on being in those types of environments for long afterward?

As for the modernization, is that an experience you could get by reading some books or by doing a side project?

Sorry that I have no advice to your actual question. It just seems like you are trying to adapt to a bad situation that maybe you don't need to actually deal with. You could go elsewhere. A career coach is a good option if you really want to climb the ladder at this company, and maybe if you want to get really down and dirty with the office politics. But to me it doesn't sound like that was your plan. It sounds like you're interested in the tech and you stumbled into an absolute mess of a company. Anyways I've heard Stealing the Corner Office is a good book on office politics.

No the OP, but I can give you some insight into why someone would want to stay in a difficult situation. It's a bit like playing a video game. If you are able to succeed in easier situations, sometimes it's useful to bump up the difficulty. For some people, there's a point in your career where you want to see if you can handle those hard challenges. Some people would prefer to find a niche working with people that they agree with, and where everything is set up really nicely. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but the "everything is set up really nicely" bit often requires someone with the skills that the OP seems to be seeking. Someone who is extremely versatile at that stuff can often turn bad situations into good ones -- which is good for everyone. It's also useful to know which situations are impossible to turn around and which situations are simply very difficult.

I had a similar situation to OP, abusive PM and I spent months trying to deal with it in a rational unemotional way but I failed and left Amazon, leaving a ~200k/year salary to the birds. I regret it insofar as I could have probably fought back more, lasted longer, if I had practiced stoicism and philosophies of emotional control of hostile externalities. I don't think the average "good person" can manage being a deflecting shield for bad actors and bad processes without suffering in their personal life. Would like to hear more thoughts in this thread..

Intentional bad actors are pretty much a no go for me, personally. If you are calm and collected you can often outmaneuver them politically, but as you say there can be a personal cost. I have been successful in the past in these kinds of situations. Usually bad actors have one or two ways to back stab you and they don't have a lot of patience if those one or two ways fail. The will hurt themselves more than they hurt you in the long run -- I tend to think of it as giving people enough rope to hang themselves, if they so choose. However, there are also some really canny people who are just out to screw you. If you enjoy drama, I suppose it might be an interesting challenge. I really don't, so if I find myself in that situation, I usually leave.

Bad processes on the other hand are usually totally fixable. Learning the techniques to do that is super valuable. However, this is also kind of difficult because developing software is a lot more difficult than most of us believe. We really believe that we have the answer. Usually we are wrong. There are a lot of really passionate, caring people who bent on destroying their internal processes because the honestly believe they are going in the right direction. The most difficult thing to deal with is that we may be suffering from this delusion ourselves.

The most important thing, in my experience, is to get everyone marching in the same direction. Software development is a team activity -- processes that rely on a single developer, or an attitude of "protect us from the stupid people" will almost always be better of with getting rid of everyone except a single developer. But a mediocre team working well together will crush and single developer -- no matter how good they are.

With that in mind, you often have a situation were you have 5 people and they have 5 different directions in mind. Even assuming that one of them knows the right direction to go, if they all go off in their own direction you will fail. Having only one cross the finish line is failure -- they all have to cross the finish line. It's better to go together in any direction, even if it is wrong and then adjust course later. Trust me, it's hard enough trying to get people to work together at the same thing without having to convince them what the right thing is at the same time.

But to come full circle, this is where bad actors really throw a monkey wrench into the works. Almost always they have strong personal motivation to stick to one particular process (Could be complete delusion that there's is the "one true way", could be that they don't actually want people to succeed because it threatens their position, could be a million other things). If you can't arrange a situation where those people "self select" to not interfere, then it's probably not worth pursuing in my experience.

Not an answer to your question, but these two books contain information about (1) delivering outcomes that are valued by your bosses etc., and (2) dealing with sub-optimal situations.

Rise: 3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, and Liking Your Life https://g.co/kgs/XgaeZa

Stealing the Corner Office: The Winning Career Strategies They'll Never Teach You in Business School https://g.co/kgs/Z1AGwB

Any coach or therapist should be well versed in conflict resolution and would be able to explore why this environment triggers you.

Individually, I can recommend Nonviolent Communication. It's a great book that can help you communicate effectively. If the environment is this dysfunctional, then acquiring and using these skills might help you stand out and win the attention of other people who might be as tired of the games as you are.

And of course, you can always look for a new job that better suits you.

OP isn't looking to figure out why he's being triggered because he's not. He's also not looking for a better situation. He's looking to figure out how to turn around and thrive in dysfunctional situations because he believes it will be a useful skill in the future and he feels he doesn't have this skill yet.

Dysfunctional is a judgement. Labeling something as bad, wrong, dysfunctional, etc. is a good indicator of getting triggered. The problem rarely resides entirely externally. IMO, it's better for OP to explore their reaction to these conditions first since it probably won't be the last time they encounter them.

If you're actually in a dysfunctional environment, it's not being triggered to call a spade a spade. People are allowed to do that while keeping their cool and it's not impossible.

I’ve encountered many different organisations that have the same issues. Similar to yourself, I’ve challenged myself not only to survive but to thrive in this type of environment.

What really help was reading about human psychology, chanting and generally discussing this with other folk who have been or are in similar environments. Buddhist philosophy has also aided me tremendously in seeing things from a different perspective far deeper than the surface. In general, though the environment may be toxic, fundamentally we are all human beings with different goals, motivations and aspirations.

Happy to discuss with if you’d like.

I just watched the "Working with Weinstein" documentary yesterday. Many of these girls rationalized the sexual favors as "well I shouldn't be a prude.. Mind over matter." Yes, working in a toxic environment is possible and negative energy can be misdirected and deflected -- but ultimately, most people cannot do this. And we reinforce the environment, allowing it to thrive when it should be exterminated. I know the comparison is not direct in extremity, but the archetype of toxicity is there..


Certainly there are some instances where you should absolutely get out or even better, fight against the toxicity. It takes one person to stand up and be the voice and for the rest to follow.

I think it is time for you to take Massive Action to improve your political, persuasion, speech, conflict negotiation skills. I’ll Make some recommendations below after this monologue.

I worked in some very awful environments. My solution was historically to participate in what was going on and the ultimately become very upset and leave. Generally speaking, conflict is present everywhere but far worse in some environments and not possible to save.

You can either (a)attempt to clean the mess and make your new environment habitable or (b) keep your head down, ship your project and leave.

Your intent to do (a) is admirable and rare. If the culture has become toxic, attempting to survive is kind of like being a fish in a dirty fish tank. You can gasp for air and breathe your own poop in for some period of time but you are ultimately poisoning yourself by staying and the point of doing this isn’t clear.

The economy is currently at full employment. In this situation I would most advice getting out. You are never going to have an easier time finding a better paying job someplace else. Chances are we are headed into some sort of financial meltdown due to China, trade war, China retaliating against the United States tech sector, one or more countries leaving the Euro and the final deflation of our current bubble due to lack of interest rates.

If you don’t like where you are, it may become much harder to find a better job in the next year in which case - You get to breathe in your own poop for several years for no real gain to your own mental health.

If you are really sticking to it and mastering communication, psychology, politics and persuasion I recommend:

Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson

Never Split The Difference by Chris Voss

The Political Brain by Drew Weston

Influence by Robert Cialdini

Words That Work by Frank Luntz

Pre-Suasion by Robert Cialdini

Win Bigly by Scott Adams

Radical Honesty by Brad Blanton

I just bought this book but haven’t yet read it -

Radical Candor by Kim Scott

My recommendation to you is not to take the route of dishonesty, back stabbing, lying, deceit.

Do. Not. Participate.

Be the person who is ridiculously truthful. Draw clear barriers and IMMEDIATELY and POLITELY call out transgressions you see.

Awful behavior within the organization is like weeds growing in your yard. You must not tolerate a single weed. When you see someone doing or saying something (especially if they are being deceitful and you see through what they are doing), Call Them On It.

Nothing will suppress bullshit like pointing it out and making it clear that you see what is going on and would prefer it otherwise.

That is my lesson in my life. When I ultimately decided to be truthful it created this halo around me which melted all bullshit, zapped it like a bug zapper.

And don’t engage in shit talking other people.

Engaging in shitty behavior within a company is like farting in a submarine. There is no escape, no one is going anywhere, everyone is exposed to the toxic stink including you. There can be zero farting in the submarine before the culture can be fixed.


Do. Not. Participate.

I don't think this can be emphasized enough. I've worked in toxic environments, and one guy once told it to me like this: you want to be careful of workplaces where people advance due to politics instead of merit. The problem is that your environment influences you and shapes you. You need to be constantly self-aware and make sure that your toxic environment doesn't make you into a toxic person.

But even if you don't participate, you likely will interact with a lot of narcissistic/sociopathic people. Natural self-selection dictates that good people will leave toxic environments and bad people will stay (or even be attracted to them). That in itself will be painful. Most advice I've seen about dealing with narcissistic/sociopathic people is to minimize your interaction with them because it's near impossible for them to change or even be self-aware of their shortcomings. And you are actively seeking to interact with them. Yes, it's an assumption that your org has a lot of these types, but I'd wager the assumption has a high probability of being true. Functional (as opposed to dysfunctional) orgs tend not to let such types get their way.

Know that if you stay, there is a psychological toll either way. You either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain. Be careful that neither happens to you. If you emerge on the other side a more effective person, good for you. But good luck. It's not an easy ride. I benefited from the experience, but I'm not sure how much was worth it. In the end, it was easier to disengage myself rather than try to get really good at dealing with it.

This is so important. If you are a person of integrity, do not give an inch to the sociopaths who delight in backstabbing, the liars who have excuses for every failure, the gossips who constantly badmouth colleagues, the cheaters who create new problems at the drop of a hat, the manipulators who want to use you for their career path, the incompetents who claim the achievements of others, and so on.

Our life is precious and limited. Don't compromise your values. Don't compromise your virtues.

To add to the parent poster's advice of looking for somewhere else and not participte (which will take huge efforts and sacrifices), in the same lines of reasoning that we are what you eat, that we are the sum of our habits, we also eventually become our working persona.

If you don't like the behaviours and ethos of the people around you, ask yourself if you're OK to become like that, because you will, and not just in your work but it will become part of your personality, who you are, and how you behave with your friends and family.

Also, life's too short to spend half of your waking time in a toxic environment.

I was fishing through the comments to see if someone else had mentioned PlatoHQ. I joined a few months ago, and it's been amazing for me.

If you're looking for a career coach I recommend Andi Fenster: https://www.linkedin.com/in/andifenster/

I work with a leadership coach who works from the framework of DiSC (one of the personality tests). We meet every other week, set goals, work through problems, etc.

I hired her when I was in a similar situation and had friends recommend her.

You can read some articles on psychopathy, e.g. in Harpers magazine, but this kind of knowledge comes with a hefty price of professional deformation. Please don't adjust.

This site has pretty detailed bios of their coaches. https://www.ace-up.com

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