Before I bring on a new coaching client, I always have a short session (maybe 20-30 minutes) to help me understand their goals from the coaching process, and to help them understand how my coaching process works. One of my recent new clients asked me a question I’ve heard many times before: “What is a coach?”
There’s plenty of confusion around this title. There are a lot of coaches out there: life coaches, executive coaches, media coaches, business coaches, dream coaches, professional development coaches, and many, many others. I’ve had clients ask me what’s the difference between a coach and a consultant, therapist, mentor, trainer. So, let’s clear up some of these distinctions.

Firstly, let me acknowledge that I’m using the term “coach” with a pretty narrow definition. What I call a “consultant/advisor”, some would call a “coach”, and I’m not here to call them wrong. These are just words, and there’s nothing wrong with using the term “coach” differently than I do. But for folks to understand these roles, we need to give them names, so we’re going to use mine. After all, I am the one typing this article, so I win!

Let’s just define a few common roles, and how they work.

  • Therapist. This is someone who is trained in psychology, and who uses techniques to help people get past psychological issues. There can be a huge overlap between this person and a coach, if the therapist uses coaching techniques. Traditional psychotherapy isn’t coaching, but some coaching techniques come from this background.
  • Mentor. A mentor is usually someone in the same company or industry, who has more experience. They share their lessons and advice with someone who is learning in areas they’ve already learned.
  • Trainer. A trainer may be an internal or an external resource. He or she is usually an expert in the area they are training, though not necessarily on the trainee’s job or business. They deliver generalized content to a group of people, and it’s up to the individuals to make the translation to their own situation. Trainers have a high impact overall, because they touch so many people at the same time.
  • Consultant. A consultant is an external expert who is brought in to help for a period of time. In most cases, this is either for a specific project (new software, process improvement, etc.), or to help with a specific internal challenge (reduce turnover, improve employee engagement).
  • Coach. A coach, strictly speaking, is a guide. The coach helps the client work through decisions and thought processes without adding their direct input. The coach may advise on techniques to consider or resources to learn from, but rarely advises directly about the decision/action at hand. The highest value of a coach is that the client learns new processes for working through emotions, decisions, and obstacles in their life and business.

So, there you are. A coach is just one role. In business (where I work, as opposed to many “life coaches”, who may focus on the non-business areas), leaders often have a need for external coaches, consultants, and trainers, in addition to the internal mentors and trainers.