I have a mentor, a boss and a therapist. Do I need a career coach, too?

In a recent post, I talked about executive and career coaching — what it is, and how to determine whether it can help you. I also shared when NOT to hire a coach (hint: it has a lot to do with how ready you are to be introspective). Today’s post goes one step further – I help distinguish the benefits of career coaching from other resources both inside and outside of work.

Many clients I meet with are incredibly introspective, and make great use of the many resources around them. They have wide and deep networks; they are always learning from others, especially mentors (official and unofficial); they choose managers and friends who inspire them; they also are actively seeking out some sort of mental health therapy.

You might wonder, then, why they’re also seeking out an executive or career coach — or said more simply, how coaching is different from all these other resources.

Let’s take each of these comparisons one by one.

Coach vs. Therapist

The easiest way to view the difference between therapy and coaching is to understand that therapists help you by looking backward, while coaches help you by looking forward.

A therapist is a licensed healthcare professional who helps you review the aspects of your past that have affected you profoundly – past experiences, traumas, relationships, family dynamics, achievements etc. — all of which influence who you are today. Those past experience inform, to a great extent, your current behavior, relationships, and thought patterns. A therapist will help you understand and adjust the most problematic of these, focusing on their origins in your past history.

In contrast, a coach focuses primarily on who you are today and who you’d like to become. Your coach will help you identify your biggest, most fulfilling goals across all aspects of your life, and the strengths, passions and values that are your best assets in achieving them. The coach will also help identify likely roadblocks that you’ll bump up against along the way, as well as draw up mitigation plans to address those roadblocks. Finally, the best coaches will guide you as you begin to walk along your new path, monitoring progress, helping adjust your goals along the way, and identifying new roadblocks as you encounter them.

Both therapists and coaches can help you address behaviors, patterns or relationships in your life that you’re not satisfied with, but a therapist does so by reaching back into your past, while a coach helps you reach forward toward your biggest, most aspirational goals.

Coach vs. Mentor

I’m the biggest proponent of mentors – everyone needs at least one! I have collected quite a few over the years, across each role, company and industry in which I’ve worked, and many have gone on to become dear friends of mine. Mentors are essential to career success and happiness — but they complement executive/career coaches rather than act interchangeably.

Mentors are important for so many reasons:

  • Mentors are inspirational — mentors are chosen by their mentees because they are inspirational; they challenge their mentee in some way. Perhaps they’ve overcome a difficult obstacle, risen through the ranks quickly, or taken on an incredibly large role. They help show mentees what’s possible.

  • Mentors are advocates — mentors stand up for you when you need it, help you claim your seat at the table, and bring up your name when the company is looking for strong leaders to take on big roles.

  • Mentors share experience and advice — mentors are typically much more senior than their mentees; mentor meetings are often spent story-telling or giving advice.

  • Mentors are typically function-specific — mentees often chose mentors in the same (or similar) company, the same (or similar) industry, and the same (or similar) role. This helps with networking, opportunity-seeking, etc.

However, here is where coaches are different from mentors:

  • Coaches are focused solely on you, not on themselves — while coaches do have broad and deep knowledge and experience, they are trained to listen. They’re focused on you, and will typically spend more than 50% of your session listening to get to know you deeply.

  • Coaches guide, they don’t prescribe — mentors often go straight to prescriptive advice; coaches will guide you to find the solution yourself (but they do provide helpful tools and frameworks to get there).

  • Typically function agnostic — coaches come from many different walks of life, and are not usually specific to any industry, function, or company. There are niche coaches, but this is more the exception than the rule.

My advice: if you’re a senior manager or above, you need both!

Coach vs. Boss

A great manager will not only provide direction, feedback and guidance on your day-to-day work, but she will also act as a champion for you, giving you opportunities as you grow. The best managers go further still: they help you manage your career aspirations, giving you stretch assignments that begin building a path to your next big set of goals, even if that means someday leaving their team.

Even if you have the “world’s best boss,” though, you may still find yourself needing a coach. Compared to managers, coaches are neutral third parties whose only intentions are to help you be your best self. Coaches do not administer performance evaluations, and things you say in confidence cannot negatively impact your career. This is important — research shows that putting things into words has a significant therapeutic effect (especially when they’re your biggest unsaid worries/concerns). In addition, any progress measurement during coaching is generally done alongside your coach based on goals you’ve set for yourself. Coaches do not have expectations of you — they help you set expectations for yourself. A coaching relationship permits you to be your whole, authentic self without any of the traditional risks you associate with a managerial relationship.

Coaches complement great managers. If you have a manager who isn’t ideal, having a coach is even more crucial.

What’s been your experience? Have you had one (or more) of these relationships, and if so, do these comparisons ring true for you? Share your story in the comments section!

Working with an executive coach – especially one trained by an ICF-accredited institution – can be transformative. Haven Coaching helps you go from feeling adrift to finding your path.

If you think executive coaching could be right for you, book a no-risk, free 20 minute consultation by clicking here.

Still have questions? Contact me at mariel@havencoaching.com.

Haven Coaching