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The idea of a career coach sounds good. For a fee, an experienced person will help you develop and enact a professional, goal-oriented plan – like a fitness trainer for business.

Depending on what you think, a career coach may not be much more than a mentor you pay to see. In some cases, you may find invaluable step-by-step advice from a coach. In other cases, a mentor in your field who can provide richer insights may be what you really want.

So, what’s the difference between these two and how do you determine if you want the help of either one of them?

Related: Why It’s Important to Have a Coach in Business and Life

Coaches and mentors help in different ways.

Career coaches and mentors both provide you with experience, insights and ideas. However, they often serve very different purposes. Career coaches most commonly work with individuals hoping to make some kind of career change. They act more like guidance counselors and accountability partners to help professionals achieve changes they want to see in their careers. A coach may not actually have personal experience in your field and may not deliver insights into what you can expect in a new career role.

Mentors, on the other hand, are more likely to be industry, employer or role specific. They have personal experience in climbing the job ladder and can deliver insights into career-specific challenges and opportunities. A mentor, like a career coach, can help you identify an appropriate career path and help you outline milestones along the way, but they may be best if you like the field you’re in and aren’t looking to change it. If you’re intent on making a major career alteration, a mentor isn’t a guarantee you’ll get the guidance you seek. 

Ultimately, these two types of helpers are either used for different situations or provide very different things. Before you decide against a costly career coach in favor of a “free” mentoring program – or stick with a career coach because you think you’ll get what you pay for – consider what you really need at this point in your career.

Related: Some People Have a Therapist. I Have a Business Coach.

The costs and benefits of professional guidance.

If you work with a career coach, you will likely pay an upfront and out-of-pocket fee for coaching services. Prices vary widely from around $100 to several hundred dollars a month, depending on the coach’s unique capabilities and track record. Some work exclusively with senior level professionals while others help people at varying points on the spectrum. Initial consultations are generally free, and I highly recommend taking advantage of them if you think career coaching may be a good fit.

Related: The Hidden Danger of Online Business Coaches

In an initial consultation, take notes on the coach’s interest in your situation, his or her experience, and the basic format of sessions if you agree to purchase further services. Compare that information with what you expect to gain from the relationship to see if the investment makes sense. Outline the costs and benefits:

  • Nonfinancial ROI. If you want to entirely change career paths, the return you see from services may amount to lowered stress levels, better work/life balance, opportunity for advancement, or similar nonfinancial benefits. For some, these personal goals matter more than immediate financial rewards, and matter as much as financial cost in an overall analysis. 
  • Financial ROI. For others, the coach may provide invaluable support as a professional searcher for ways to leverage skills into a new position and higher paycheck. In this case, you might extract an actual financial return from the services.

Mentoring support, on the other hand, offers a different type of arrangement. Instead of paying a fee, mentees gain guidance from someone with real world experience in the field, and mentors gain leadership skills and understanding they can use to advance their own careers. So you’re looking at much more of a give-and-take type relationship here. Outcomes of mentoring relationships vary because each matchup is different. Both parties give what they can, which may or may not support ultimate goals.

In most cases, the cost of a mentoring relationship is the time you put into it, and the benefits are whatever you can use to reach your ultimate career goals. A mentor can’t offer guarantees, and the entire arrangement often depends on just how available you both are.

Both mentorships and career coaching services can yield profitable career results under the right circumstances. In some cases, concurrent relationships with a mentor and a coach may provide the best outcome. The two are not mutually exclusive. Ultimately, you should enter into any career guidance program or service with realistic goals and expectations. If you know what you want to learn and who to ask, whatever price you have to pay may be worth it.


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