What’s the difference between a career coach, consultant and mentor? And which one do YOU need?

So you want to fast track your career, but don’t know how. Learn the difference between a career coach, consultant and mentor – and how each one can help you.

If you’ve reached a difficult point in your career – you’ve been made redundant, are returning to work after a break, or don’t know how to take the next big step in your career – your friends and colleagues may recommend that you talk to a career consultant, career coach, mentor, career counsellor (or even a therapist!).

What’s the difference between a coach and a consultant?

But how can you tell the difference between them? And which one is right for you? To help you make the right choice, career management coach and author of Amazon bestseller Navigating Career Crossroads Jane Jackson explains what each one does.

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What’s a career consultant?

A career consultant is an expert who carries out a specific task in a business, usually by being “hands on”, and is responsible for delivering an agreed outcome for the client.  A consultant may be brought in for a short-term (or a long-term) project, whereas coaches and mentors are generally steady, ongoing engagements.

Your consultant will be an expert in your field, who is called on for professional or technical advice or opinions. They can be relied upon to understand your specific problems and present solutions.

Their skill is in their experience of ‘been there, done it’ so they can hit the ground running and find solutions for you.

What’s a career coach?

A career coach, according to the International Coach Federation is someone who ‘partners with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” The coach is the subject matter expert at coaching, and not necessarily the subject matter expert in YOUR field.

Coaches are usually engaged for specific periods of time, although they often have longer-term relationships with clients. Their skill is in questioning, listening, thought provoking and challenging whilst allowing YOU to own the outcome.

A coach will provide guidance and support which EMPOWERS YOU to take action. With coaching, it’s all about empowerment of the individual.

With pure coaching, the answers come from the client, not the coach. The coach asks powerful questions to get the coachee to reflect and draw answers from within themselves. Coaching helps executives to identify their self-limiting beliefs so they can find ways to overcome them

A coach is like a bus (hence the name coach!) Basically a coach takes you from where you are now (YOUR PRESENT STATE) to where you want to be (YOUR DESIRED STATE). A coach focuses on the future.

Unlike a therapist or counsellor, a coach is not concerned with WHY you are where you are, and HOW you got there, a coach focuses on the way FORWARD.

What’s a mentor?

A mentor is an expert who has broad, lengthy business experience, and may even have a fair amount of grey hair! This mentor can be from within the organisation or from the outside, perhaps in a similar industry. A mentor will show you how to do the task with the benefit of their own experience.

A mentor will be an experienced professional who will help less experienced professionals develop their careers and skill set by drawing upon their own knowledge and experience. Mentors will generally have no previous knowledge of or relationship with the mentee, as one of their roles is to provide a neutral sounding board whilst offering advice, direction and support based upon their own practical experience.

The role of the mentor is not to be hands on, nor to teach particular skills, but rather to listen and to understand the career being addressed, and then to guide the professional to make his or her own decisions and implement a plan – but only after a range of alternatives or “scenarios” have been explored, drawing on the mentor’s experience.

A mentor is a wise and trusted guide and advisor. The mentor is the teacher that shares their experience while bringing the “mentee” up the ranks.  A mentor also may share his or her networks and facilitate an introduction to someone who could assist the executive to learn more about a particular direction, job function or industry. A mentor can help the executive to understand the culture of an organisation and what to be mindful about.

What’s a career counsellor?

A career counsellor is a little tricker to define as the boundary between coaching and counselling is not defined by a set of absolute rules or terms.

In general, counsellors are trained to diagnose and help client with emotional problems, the past or some sort of dysfunction while coaches are not. Therapists are also trained to do this and can focus on what may be holding you back and why so you can overcome it and accept yourself for who you are.

How can each one help you?

To give you an example of how each can help you, let’s assume you wanted to be a professional cyclist. If you want to ride a bike really well, here are examples of what a consultant, a therapist, a mentor and a coach might do with you

How a consultant could help you

The consultant is an expert in bike riding. They’ve already mastered the bike riding process and figured out the most efficient way to do it. They will typically assess what you’ve been doing so far and provide you with a detailed plan on how to do it correctly, complete with a step-by-step process. You’ll pay them to provide you with “how to ride a bike” answers. They focus on the problem.

They may say, “First get on the bike, place your hands on the handlebars, keep one foot on the ground and the other one on the upper pedal, as you push forward and down on the top pedal, lift your other foot, shift your weight forward a little.”

How a therapist could help you

The therapist is most interested in why you are unable to ride a bike. What’s in your past, or childhood, that presents a barrier to your learning? They dig in there and work with you to fix it. They focus on why the problem is there.

They may ask, “Do you have a memory about a bike or cycling incident? Something that happened that might make you fearful of bikes? Let’s talk about it and find a way to let go of that fear …”

How a coach could help you

With the coach, there’s a lot of asking and not much telling. Coaches tend to coach successful individuals to be even more successful. They are your champions. Helping you achieve your goal of riding a bike well and becoming a real cyclist by asking thought provoking questions about your concerns and focusing on your strengths.

They work with you to tap into what you already know, and help you break through your limiting beliefs. A coach will run alongside of you holding the bike steady while you’re learning. They’re cheering you on every step of the way, and they let go of the bike when you’re ready to ride without help. A coach is focused on you and your success.

They may say, “What do YOU think you need to do to take your bike riding to the next level? What are you willing to do? What are the steps you are willing to take to improve your stamina, your balance, your competitive edge? When will you take action? I believe in you, you have it in you to make this a success.”

How a mentor could help you

A mentor is probably a great cyclist and has been riding a bike for quite some time. They are there to share what they know about the process. They want to see you be successful and are willing to spend time with you. This could be compared to learning by seeing. They most likely have had your problem too. They tell real stories to lead by example.

They might say, “ I’ve seen this happen before, what I’ve done to overcome this is …. Someone else I know experienced the same thing and this is what he did. Once you become proficient in this, you’ll need to talk this person or that person as they’ll be able to help you even more. I’ll introduce you as it’ll help to open some doors.”

Choose the right support for YOU

Now you know the difference between a career consultant, career coach, mentor, career counsellor and a therapist you’ll be able to ask the right questions to find someone who will be best suited to guide you forward in your career.

Jane Jackson is a career management coach and author of Amazon bestseller Navigating Career Crossroads. Her book takes you through all the essential steps to not only survive but THRIVE when changing direction.