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The 5 Key Differences Between a Life Coach and a Career Coach


What's the difference between a life coach and a career coach? In this image we see a coach talking to a client.

There are hundreds of types of coaches out there, and it can be hard to keep straight what is what. 


In this article I’ll help you get clear on the difference between a life coach and a career coach.


Whether you feel like you could benefit from working with a coach and want to make sure you find the right type, or you are looking for a career change and want to know what kind of coach to become, this article will be your guide.


Definition of Life Coach and Career Coach

Let’s start with the basics by defining each term.


A life coach is a generalist who helps clients focus on where they are in life and where they want to get to. Life coaches help clients find direction, get unstuck, and achieve their personal goals.


A career coach is a specialist who helps clients get clear on what their dream job looks like, land that job, and then excel at it. Career coaches focus more on professional work skills (like job search, interviewing skills, and salary negotiation) rather than personal development. 


The Differences Between a Life Coach and a Career Coach

Here’s a quick guide that breaks down the key differences between these two occupations:

Aspect

Life Coach

Career Coach

Client goals and issues

Focuses on personal growth, emotional well-being, and direction

Focuses on moving toward one’s dream job, professional advancement, and career transitions

Scope of coaching

Broad scope. Sessions might involve any part of the client's life

Narrow scope. Sessions focus on the client’s professional life and career goals

What a session is like

Sessions geared toward self-reflection

Sessions are a combination of self-reflection and concrete actions (like building their dossier and interview prep)

The nature of the relationship

Focuses on empowering clients to uncover their own insights and solutions

The coach teaches the client how to upgrade their professional skills and accelerate their career.

Coach background

Coach may come from various backgrounds. Likely has an interest in personal development

Coach has a successful career history and industry expertise

Now let’s dive into each difference to uncover a bit more nuance.


Client goals and issues

A life coach is likely a good fit for someone who wants support in one of the following areas:

  • Improving self-confidence

  • Managing stress

  • Finding a sense of purpose

  • Achieving work-life balance

  • Navigating life transitions

  • Stronger relationships

These issues are all personal in nature. A life coach could expect a client to show up to a first call sharing things like, “I’m struggling to find meaning in my life,” or “I don’t feel like I’m living up to my potential,” or maybe just “I don’t feel fulfilled and I’m not sure why.”


Surveys suggest that the top reason people tend to seek out a coach of any kind is for better career opportunities. And this would be in the domain of a career coach. 


Career coaches are well-suited to help clients with:

Clients will tend to come to career coaches with sentiments like, “I have never had fulfilling work and I want to change that,” or “I just got laid off and could use some help,” or “I’m sick of seeing all my colleagues soar while I feel like I’m not developing professionally.”


To boil it down, a life coach will help a client build a life that matches what they want and who they are. And a career coach will help a client find work that lights them up.


Scope of coaching

How much of a client’s life do they share with their coach?


With a life coach, a client might tell their coach about their desire to bring more joy into their life, their struggles with their father, or even their beliefs about what happens after death. 


With a career coach, the scope tends to be more narrow and centers around a client’s professional life.  


As a comparison, a life coach is like a general practitioner (GP), and a career coach is like a specialist doctor. A GP deals with a wide range of health concerns, from a sprained ankle to a lingering cough. A specialist doctor, on the other hand, only focuses their expertise on one part of the body—be it the heart, the digestive system, or the skin.  


Similar to a GP, a life coach deals with a wide range of life concerns, from a broken heart to faltering confidence. And a career coach only focuses their expertise on a client’s career. 


What a session is like

So, if a client sits down with the coach for 60 minutes or so, what does that time actually look like?


A life coach will likely take a client through activities to help them reflect on every area of their life. 


For example, a life coach might help a client get clear on their top five personal values, or imagine who they’d be without the belief “I am not enough,” or develop strategies on how to work with their anger issues.


One popular activity that a life coach might use is the “Wheel of Life” (which looks like the image below), where a client rates and reflects on each domain of their life. This type of activity helps the coach understand where to focus their work and helps the client take an honest look in the mirror.




Lots of life coaching looks like a focused and intentional conversation where the coach asks provocative questions to help alter the client’s thinking. 


Career coaches will also ask reflective, powerful questions, often at the start of a relationship, to help the client clarify what their ideal job might include. When I help clients with this, I’ll often look for patterns in what they loved and hated about previous jobs and give them space to talk about their dreams.


Below is a graphic that career coaches here at the International Association of Career Coaches might use to help clients clarify their career aims.




Once a career coach has helped the client clarify their ideal job, sessions will orient around practical, on-the-ground support to help them move toward that job. In a session, the coach might help their client edit their résumé, practice charismatic storytelling, or learn the subtle art of networking.


The nature of the relationship

Both life coaches and career coaches help clients live fuller lives.  But they play different roles in the client’s growth.


You could think of a life coach as an empowering mirror. When a client enters a session, they see their own genius reflected back to them. Life coaches ask questions and give reflections to help clients come in touch with their own wisdom, find their own answers​, and believe in themselves.


A​ career ​coach also empowers the client​ by helping them uncover what they really want out of their work​ and believe it's possible to achieve. However, ​a career coach functions more as a guide and a teacher. ​Unlike a life coach, a career coach will teach a client business skills (like how to develop Jedi-level interview skills) and impart their knowledge (like what a good LinkedIn profile looks like) to help them excel and avoid unnecessary mistakes.


A career coach is in many ways similar to a sports coach. Yes, a good football/soccer coach will help players build confidence and break through mental barriers. But that coach will also teach players how to stand, how to shoot, and how to practice so that they are clutch.  


I don't believe someone is able to gain mastery in their career just through the self-reflection that a life coach provides. That’s why, like sports coaches, career coaches teach skills, strategies, and mindsets.


Background required

Coaching isn’t a regulated industry, so anyone can technically call themself a coach. And while not all coaches are formally trained, it’s often your best bet to seek a (life or career) coach who has graduated from a coaching training program.


In addition to formal training, most talented career coaches will have several years of successful work experience under their belts. Many career coaches will also have a deep history of diving into a particular role or field and will have some invaluable industry expertise. 


And, while it’s not necessary, many career coaches have a background in business consulting, team leadership, or human resources. 


Life coaches might not have a quantifiable type of success that you can point to. But many good life coaches have lived lives dedicated to personal development and self-actualization, and have cultivated a wise and empowering life perspective.


The Similarities Between a Life Coach and a Career Coach

While career coaches and life coaches offer different services for different types of people, at the end of the day they are both coaches and are much more similar to each other than either are to, say, a dentist.


Helping with life direction

While career coaches focus specifically on professional development, in many cases, a client’s personal development will come up. 


When a person is discovering their dream job and taking strides to actualize it, how could they not bump into fears, resistance, and limiting beliefs? So, in this way, a career coach can act like a life coach, where they help the client become a bigger version of themself.


On the flip side, while life coaches help people with their personal development, this can often mean helping a person clarify their sense of purpose. And when a person is exploring their sense of purpose, it’s hard to avoid the topic of career! 


While a life coach might not be able to help a client with the tactical efforts of finding a job, they can help a client get clear on what they want to do with their work life and how that fits into their bigger picture.


Motivations of the coach

There are many coaching certifications out there. There are career coaches, life coaches, relationship coaches, health coaches, abundance coaches. If there is an area of life where someone struggles and wants support, there is a coach for that!


And the thing that all coaches have in common is a deep desire to support other people.

There are usually two primary motivations that lead a coach into their line of work:


  1. The coach has overcome a massive struggle in their life and wants to help others who face the same struggle.  For example, someone who has struggled with financial scarcity and had to overcome endless hurdles to build a financially healthy life might become a career coach because they feel endless motivation to help others who feel beaten up by money. Or someone who has drowned in depression for years might want to become a life coach to help others overcome these well-known demons.

  2. The coach is naturally very good at what they do and wants to share their expertise with others.  For example, some people are exquisitely talented at networking and may have used this skill to build a brilliant career. Once they realize their genius, they may feel inclined to certify as a career coach to help others level up their networking game. Or there might be someone who has a natural wisdom for how to create a meaningful and love-filled life. They may want to train as a life coach to help others who have never discovered how to get over what others think to pursue a life of personal actualization and joy.

Coaching is not therapy

While both life coaches and career coaches can be profoundly helpful for a person’s mental health, they are both distinct from therapy.


Therapists require a Masters Degree, which takes about two years. And then, they must engage in about 3,000 hours of supervised sessions. Coaching trainings can take anywhere from a few months to a few years, and many coaches tend to bring a lot of informal training to their practice.


Another difference is that therapy tends to focus on creating healthier, happier people by healing wounds from the past. Many therapy modalities look at a client’s upbringing, seek to disrupt unhealthy patterns that the client developed as childhood survival strategies and work through traumas.


Coaching, on the other hand, tends to be less about healing and more about growth. Less about the past and more future-forward. Coaches tend to help clients build the skills and find the right mindsets to create the life (or career) that they really want for themself.


How to Know What Type of Coach You Need

If you are seeking a coach, good for you to take steps to support your life! Having an observant, insightful coach in your corner can fast-track your development, no matter where you are on the journey.


Figuring out what to look for and where to look can be hazy and uncertain. But the best place to start is by asking yourself the question, “What am I hoping to change in my life?”

If you write out your answer to that question, it can help clarify what type of coach to seek.


A life coach might be a good option if your answer is something like:

  • I want to feel more fulfilled

  • I want better tools to work with difficult emotions

  • I want healthier relationships

  • I want to stop feeling burnt out


A career coach might be the right option for you if your answer is something like:

  • I don’t like my job, and I want a better career. But I have no clue where to start

  • I could use help finding a job

  • I’d like some strategies for advancing my career

  • I’d like some help negotiating a higher salary

If you feel like you could benefit from a career coach, check out the International Association of Career Coaches directory.


How to Know if You Want to Become a Life Coach or a Career Coach

So you’re considering becoming a coach. Kudos! Working as a coach can be fulfilling, rewarding, and flexible.


Becoming a coach of any kind is often a good option for people who are naturally good listeners, can easily extend empathy to others, and feel a genuine desire to help others with goal setting.


With that foundation, becoming a life coach might be a good choice for people who love personal growth, feel called to pursue a well-examined and meaningful life themselves, and feel passionate about guiding others to their potential.


About 85% of clients expect their coach to be certified and credentialed. So pursuing training could be a good idea. One great accredited option for life coaches is the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching. 


Becoming a career coach might be a better option for people who understand the job market, get the ins and outs of career development, and want to help others create a meaningful career.


If career coaching feels like it could be a job you’d like to consider for yourself, check out our training program here at the International Association for Career Coaches, where you can book a free call with a learning advisor to see if it’s a good fit for you. 


Can you be a life coach and a career coach?

Some folks feel torn and want to be both a life coach and a career coach. But can you do both? 


Yes!


These two professions can pair quite well with each other. As a life coach, it can be hard to avoid the topic of career, given that career is a major stressor and source of purpose for many people. If you are a life coach with a career coaching skillset, you can take your clients even further.


Similarly, it can be beneficial for a career coach to have training as a life coach. While career coaches tend to stay focused on a client’s professional life, as a coach, you get to decide what service you offer. And if you want the skillset to help a client find balance and fulfillment in multiple life areas, then training as both a career coach and a life coach could be a good fit.


Takeaways on the Difference Between a Life Coach and a Career Coach

Life coaches and career coaches share a lot of similarities. They are both professionals who meet 1-on-1 with clients to help them create a more fulfilling experience for themself.


But remember, the main differences between the two are that:

  • Life coaches focus on personal growth; career coaches focus on career growth 

  • Life coaches are generalists; career coaches are specialists 

  • Life coaching sessions are about reflection; career coaching sessions are about both reflection and concrete actions 

  • Life coaches help clients find their own answers; career coaches teach clients what strategies work

  • Life coaches can come from any background; career coaches have a successful career history

If you are seeking a career coach, check out our career coach directory, where we’ll pair you with an excellent career coach who matches what you’re looking for.


And if you want to become a career coach, you might love our certified career coach training.


Best of luck!

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