Coach/Mentor/Therapist: A Hard Call to Make

Career coaches now make up 40% of all types of professional instructors. Find out if you need a career coach or another kind of support.

Published: Oct 11, 2019

When Sara Young Wang meets with a new client, she first explains the kinds of problems that she, as a career coach, can address. Figuring out what you want to do next in your career? Check. Maneuvering for a promotion? Check. Feeling down about your role? Well, that depends. Based on the client's needs, she may be able to help or may point the person to, say, a therapist.

At a time when the line between work and personal life has all but disappeared, and technology continues to disrupt nearly every industry out there, more people are seeking career advice. According to the International Coach Federation, the percentage of coaches who focus on leadership and careers has climbed to 40%, up from 33% in 2012. But it often isn't clear to people whether they need the help of a career coach, life coach, consultant, therapist, or mentor.

While a therapist might be able to indirectly help you in your career, they're more focused on helping your overall emotional growth.

While there's plenty of overlap between all of these helpers-and no harm in seeking assistance from a variety of them at the same time-it pays to know some of the main attributes of each type. Here are some things to keep in mind.

A career coach can help you chart a course forward with a focus on skills and values.

Generally, you want to go to a career coach when you're looking for guidance on how to get ahead or change jobs, feel lost about what kind of work you want to do, or find yourself struggling to land or keep a job. A good coach can "help you build the necessary skills so you can solve your own problems," says Gabrielle Bill, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. They want to understand what drives and motivates you, explore your strengths and weaknesses, and help you set goals as you prime yourself for career growth. Career coaches can also help with practical skills, such as practicing mock interviews, improving your resume, or working through workplace politics. They generally won't put you in touch with specific job opportunities or employer contacts; their focus is on helping you develop the skills and confidence to help you long term.

A therapist can help get to the core of your mental, physical, and emotional struggles.

If you're down for reasons beyond just your career, or suffering in a way that's taking a toll on your physical, mental, or emotional health, you're better off seeing a clinically trained mental-health expert. While a therapist might be able to indirectly help you in your career, they're more focused on helping your overall emotional growth. Much of their focus tends to be on the past: they might dig into your childhood and explore your conscious and subconscious behaviors in an attempt to understand your present behavior. Therapy sometimes can be less goal directed and forward looking, Wang says.

A consultant can offer you tactical, industry-specific solutions to help in the short term.

Imagine you're a politician. You might have a consultant look at an upcoming speech to evaluate whether it will connect with the audience, or ask their advice on whether your answer in a debate was viewed favorably. The same goes for career consultants-they provide guidance on specific problems that you're facing in the short term and can be particularly useful within certain sectors where they have knowledge of data or assessments. Where they aren't as skilled is in doing a more holistic assessment of your talents and values.

A life coach can help you uncover meaning.

Many certified life coaches identify as career coaches and vice versa, as both are focused on unearthing the skills and values that can help people lead more meaningful lives. People also approach life coaches when they have a personal or professional goal in mind-say, writing a novel-and need someone to hold them accountable for it. Life coaches can also help people when they're feeling confused about what it might take to find meaning in their lives. The main thing to remember about working with a life coach is that they're not clinically trained and aren't equipped to treat serious issues such as depression or bipolar disorder.

A mentor can offer specific job guidance based on personal experience.

Unlike the other types of helpers on this list, a mentor isn't someone you pay-typically they're someone in your industry whom you've built a relationship with. Because of their experience in your field, a mentor can provide valuable industry knowledge and may even be able to recommend specific job contacts. But they're not likely to dive into your psyche to help you figure out if this is the career for you. A mentor might suggest specific roles you should apply for or moves you should make in order to improve your standing in the organization. Many times they know it will help because they've done it themselves, Bill says.

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