What is a Career Coach and Who Needs One?

Photo: Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

The latest trend in career coaching caught my attention. Working with company-provided coaching or leadership coaching, along with personally hiring an executive or career coach is much more common than it was in the past.

There are a number of different types of coaches.

The coaching industry is growing fast. According to Harvard Business Review research by Jack Zenger, CEO of a leadership development consultancy, more is needed. The average age managers receive leadership training is 42. This means the first time-managers, age 30-40 are lacking the necessary leadership skills while holding positions in senior leadership and middle-management.

At the same time, I’ve noticed a number of respected colleagues and senior leaders entering this important profession to fill the void.


My goal was to write a simple post about the value of coaching for people who work at companies, want to advance in their careers, or are in between jobs. The task seemed straightforward until I started reading definitions and researching the topic.

Having worked with a business coach in recent years, I was excited to explore and share about this important topic from a firsthand experience.

See? I said business coach, not career coach. She helped me narrow my focus and make progress on launching my book and business. Yet my relationship with her was similar to that of a career coach.

I never worked with a career coach, and wish I had experienced this type of guide, when making important decisions. As the heroine of my own journey, I would have enjoyed meeting with a Yoda coach just like Luke Skywalker did in the Star Wars movies.

Beyond the Yoda and guide comparison, I had many questions about coaches.

What are the Different Types of Coaches?

As I tried to answer the question regarding types of coaches, I learned people search for these definitions frequently.

The following types of coaches are the most frequently searched: career coach, personal coach, life coach, and executive coach. Information about mentors is the most heavily search related to careers.


As I researched the definitions, the descriptions varied, depending on the organization. And many of the definitions looked similar, indicating there is potential overlap in what is accomplished by different categories of coaches.

The coaching industry could benefit from standardized definitions, yet I also understand coaching relationships are as unique as the individuals engaged in the relationship.

Certifications and certification processes for these coaching credentials are extensive and will be covered in a future post.

So let’s delve into the definitions and provide some context.

1 What is a Coach?


According to the ICF, the International Coach Federation, a non-profit dedicated to professional coaching, coaching is defined as:

Partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.

It is important to note, these categories of coaching do not include therapy, consulting, mentoring, or training. And as any professional/certified coach will tell you, it is not about imparting knowledge. Rather, it is about working with an individual to improve her performance in a particular area.

2 What is a Mentor?


According to Oprah, “A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself.” To add to terminology confusion, mentoring and coaching are often used as synonyms. Oprah’s lovely quote could also describe a coaching experience.

Mentorship originated in ancient times. The word Mentor in Homer’s The Odyssey, was used to describe the trusted friend of Odysseus, the King of Ithaca. Mentor offered friendship and counsel for Odysseus.

Mentorship Definition:

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, a mentor is a trusted counselor or guide.

Yet, this definition is not enough. Mentors are often people with more experience in your specific role or industry who can answer specific questions and can serve as a guide because they have been there.

Mentors are successful, exhibit professional behavior and can add needed support when it comes to career navigation and development questions. Some mentors offer knowledge and expertise and rely on the questions of their mentees to guide the conversation.

And speaking of Oprah, Barbara Walters mentored Oprah. As Oprah once told Barbara, “Had there not been you, there never would have been me.” Another well-known mentor-mentee relationship is Warren Buffet and Bill Gates.

Some corporations develop structured programs to match mentors and mentees. These programs are typically set up for people who work within that company.

In my book Activate your Agile Career, I refer to a feedback squad of situational mentors, reverse mentors (mentors younger than you with specific skills), and subject matter experts. For those of you who don’t have a mentor, don’t worry about the official version of a mentor. You can start by asking someone for help or by helping someone as a mentor.

3 What is a Career Coach?

A number of articles about career coaching suggest this type of professional helps their clients with career planning and the tools needed to effectively navigate their career.

Furthermore, many people hire a career coach when they want to make an important decision. “Should I stay with this role, or should I seek opportunities elsewhere?” is a sample decision.


According to The Muse, an authority site for careers, a coach may help you with career planning, resume building, and motivation. Similar to Oprah’s earlier description of a mentor, a career coach is also described as someone who can see more than you can see inside yourself.

See what I mean? Overlap!

Similar to the relationship with a mentor, you need to know what you want to accomplish, and a coach can provide unbiased feedback.

Definition of Career Coach:

Because there are no dictionary definitions for this exact phrase, I searched for succinct descriptions. Here is one from Planet Expat:

The goal of career coaching is to empower professionals by helping them make informed decisions about their trajectory. It’s a solution-based approach to career decisions.

Although the definition does not outline specifics like The Muse does regarding planning and tools, the process description relates to career navigation and decision-making.

Selfgrowth.com, an online self-improvement community, defines career coaching as:

A career coach is a person that has been trained in helping other people develop their career goals. Even if you are unsure your career goals, a career coach will work closely with you in order to help you determine where you would like your career to go and to develop a plan for achieving those goals.

And finally, Linkedin is a visible authority in the career coaching space. A search within LinkedIn states there are currently thousands of job openings for both company- and agency-based coaches.

With over 800 million LinkedIn users, and LinkedIn’s reputation as a professional development learning center, we will see more of LinkedIn’s career support behavior in the future.

4 What is a Personal Coach? or What is a Life Coach?

Life and personal coaching categories are synonyms according to marketresearch.com. The size of this market is growing fast. In the U.S., this market is over $1B annually. Other sources say the global market size is $2B.

The personal and life coaching services are a subset of the $9.9B self-improvement or personal development industry. Self-improvement services include relationships, weight loss, exercise, spirituality, and Far Eastern topics.

Personal Coach Definition:

According to selfgrowth.com, the online self-improvement community, defines personal coaching as:

Personal Coaching is a relationship which is designed and defined in a relationship agreement between a client and a coach. It is based on the client’s expressed interests, goals, and objectives.


Personal Coaching is a term generally used in the fields of business, executive, life, dating and career coaching to differentiate the coaching process from the more popular connotation of sports coaching.

Life Coach Definition:

And, as defined by lifecoaching.com.

Life coaching is a profession that is profoundly different from consulting, mentoring, advice, therapy, or counseling. The coaching process addresses specific personal projects, business successes, general conditions and transitions in the client’s personal life, relationships or profession by examining what is going on right now, discovering what your obstacles or challenges might be, and choosing a course of action to make your life be what you want it to be.


Tony Robbins is a famous, popular life coach who has built a small empire by helping people identify goals and then helping them grow. While his client roster reflects the rich and famous, he also fills stadiums with regular people who want to hear his message.

His definition is simple:

A results life coach is someone who helps you identify your goals and develop an actionable plan to achieve them.

Life coaching addresses how business affects your personal life and includes topics like how to reduce stress or create boundaries in your work life.

5 What is an Executive Coach?

This is the area where coaches can earn a substantial income. I did not mention the average salary for many other types of coaches, but you can do a few quick searches to see for yourself.

If you coach CEOs or significant senior leaders, you know a great deal about business, performance, and human behavior. And you’ve had successful outcomes with people who will vouch for your wisdom, discretion, and guidance.

Also, the expenses are paid for by the corporation. Companies, boards, and shareholders support these budgets for their highly valued executives. As clients, CEOs of visible corporations fall into this category.

The executive coaches I know have backgrounds in psychology, HR, and often have Ph.Ds in areas like Organizational Development, Management, Behavioral Psychology, Human Behavior, among others.

One of the most well-known coaches in the world is Marshall Goldsmith. He is the leading expert in his field and has worked with well over 150 CEOs of major corporations.

Another executive coach I have had the pleasure of knowing is Jody Michael, who wrote the foreword to my book. She runs an impressive coaching business while serving leaders across the country.

Executive Coach Definition:


This definition is from the College of Executive Coaching. They have a program certified by the ICF, the International Coach Federation. For the sake of our discussion here, leadership coaching is a subset of executive coaching.

Executive coaching is a professional relationship between a trained coach and a client (who may be an individual or a group) with the goal to enhance the client’s leadership or management performance and development.

This definition adds more detail:

Executive Coaching is a company-sponsored perk for top high potential employees. It is a customized and holistic development process that provides deep behavioral insights intended to accelerate an executive’s business results and effectiveness as a leader. This coaching is based on a collaborative relationship among the executive, his/her boss, his/her human resources manager, and an executive coach.” Source: Karol Wasylyshyn

6 What is a Leadership Coach?

The two phrases, executive coaching and leadership coaching, are often seen together.

I call out leadership separately in this post because it is a term used frequently in business as its own term. As a subset of executive coaching, it is often made available to other levels of the organization. How else would companies develop the next layer of leaders?

Training can be sponsored by the organization, offered in groups, with potential access one on one coaching. Which makes it part training and part coaching. This training equips senior leaders with coaching skills within the organization, so they can function as coaches to their departments and teams.

Leadership Coach Definition:

The best definition I could find was on a leadership coaching business site:

Leadership coaching is an individualized process that builds a leader’s capability to achieve short- and long-term organizational goals. Coaching is personalized, customized, usually conducted one-on-one for a defined period of time and with a specific business purpose in mind.

When I read this definition, I experienced description overlap between other coach definitions.

I felt that way again when a popular career site Fairygodboss.com created an article stating why leadership coaching is essential to your career development.

It’s an informative article highlighting that you can pursue this type of coaching independently, or through your organization. In this context, it feels a lot like career coaching, with an emphasis on leadership.

In Summary: Identify Your Coaching Needs Before You Choose

From the mentee or coachee perspective, there is much overlap in what services coaches offer. That is what makes it difficult to choose.

The following diagram sums up the way that coaching methods and disciplines start to blur from a user perspective.

four-circles-and-wavy-line-showing-overlap-career-executive-personal-life-leadership-coaching-with-mentorship-weaving through
User point of view: There is a perceived level of overlap in the coaching services

So, we started with one question, “what is a career coach?” And ended up with a glossary of coaching definitions to help in your search for a Yoda career guide.

As you can see, coaches exist to serve different needs. However, it is up to you as an individual or organization to define your goals. There is a “buyer beware” mentality, especially if you don’t do the research.

We can all benefit from deeper self-awareness, so we can understand what motivates us, and create an action plan to get there.

Just curious, what type of coach looks most interesting to you?


Marti Konstant

Marti Konstant is a workplace futurist with an agile mindset. She is a career growth analyst, author, speaker, personal brand architect, and founder of the Agile Careerist Project™. What started out as a quest to fine-tune her evolving career sparked a research project, a book, and workshops, where future of work and career agility are central themes.

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