Do You Need a Mentor, Coach, or Consultant? Find Out Here

Part 2 of 4 in the series Finding a Mentor

People might think I’m crazy for recommending mentors so much. After all, wouldn’t it put me out of business if every person had one?

On the contrary, there are important differences between mentors, coaches, and consultants, and the services they provide. In fact while we’re at it, we’ll add one more to the list: counselor/therapist. If you know how they differ, you can pick one and have the best match for the kind of support you need at every stage of your career (and life in general).

Take the following mini-quiz below to find out what kind of professional you need most.

(1) Do you have a specific task you need done, with a high learning curve?

If so, you may need a consultant. A consultant is someone who is paid to share his or her proven expertise on specific topics, often for a limited time (until a measurable outcome is reached or for a set time, for example). A consultant says, “I recommend you do it exactly this way” – or, “Let me do that for you.”

This is helpful if you don’t know how to do it yourself, have limited time, and don’t have much room for the usual mistakes-while-you-learn. For example you may hire a consultant to design your website for you, or do payroll.

The benefit? You are paying for this person’s undivided attention, and should expect to get it. And, you can reasonably demand results, again because you are paying for it.

The drawback? Consultants can be expensive. (In fact, the good ones should be.) And, after the consultant is done you still may not be able to do that particular thing yourself, that you are paying them to do.

(2) Do you feel stuck in the past, or unable to function in daily life?

If so, you may need a counselor/therapist. A counselor is someone who helps you resolve the past (i.e., a traumatic event) or overcome issues that prevent you from living a reasonably normal life. Counseling may involve grief counseling, marriage or family therapy, therapy for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), addiction recovery, therapy for anger or anxiety management, or more serious mental issues (such as clinical depression or bipolar disorder).

This is helpful if you have trouble keeping jobs, keeping relationships, or experiencing the pleasures of life. It is also helpful if you are experiencing flashbacks or hallucinations, or wish to overcome an addiction.

The benefit? A trained therapist can help you overcome a personal difficulty that you are having trouble overcoming yourself, and get back to enjoying life again. Your therapist can also help you get an official diagnosis for your problem, get access to social services or connect you with someone who can proscribe medication if you need it. Many therapists also take health insurance.

The drawback? Although counseling/therapy may be what you really need, you will need to “face” your issue and that may be difficult at first.

(This, however, should not be a reason to avoid getting the therapy you need. Of the four services listed here, I consider this one the least “optional” if you really have a problem. Enough said.)

(3) Do you feel stopped by an obstacle, either professionally or personally?

If so, you may need a coach. A coach is someone who helps you get a new perspective, seek out tools and resources, so that you creatively overcome the obstacles in your way. A coach helps you think new thoughts on an old problem, set goals and be accountable to them, and generally helps you see your way out of the forest. A coach says, “Let me help you to do it yourself.”

This is helpful if you don’t know what the answer is to a question (for example, “what should my next career be?”) that should only be answered by yourself. It’s also helpful if you keep running into the same roadblock over and over (for example, “I want to start training for a new career but I never seem to have the time/money/courage.”) Unlike therapists, coaches tend to focus on the present and the future (rather than resolving the past).

The benefit? With a coach, you get control over the outcome or decision, because it’s yours to make. Also, you will leave the experience with confidence in your competence – in the end, you made it happen, not the coach.

The drawback? Although coaches are good motivators, you have to be willing to do your own projects and “homework” between coaching sessions for coaching to yield results. (If you are highly motivated this may not be a drawback.)

Note: My business is a blend of coaching and consulting; I believe this is what career-changers and job-seekers need most. See here for more.

(4) Are you more interested in a long-term relationship with someone in your field, than with a guarantee of specific results?

If so, you may need a mentor most of all. A mentor is someone who acts as a role model, a professional sounding board, a reassuring I’ve-done-it-so-you-can-too person. Mentors share their personal stories, and their wisdom and suggestions based on those stories, in order to help you along. A mentor says, “Let me tell you what I’ve learned.”

This is helpful if you would like ongoing, low-density support (i.e., whenever you can both make time). A mentor is very helpful if you want support and ideas from someone who knows your industry or profession. It’s also a good fit if you are budget-conscious (there is little cost beyond travel to meet, and perhaps a shared meal).

The benefit? A good mentoring relationship can last years, if not a lifetime, with little financial cost.

The drawback? Since most mentors are volunteering their services, you have to find one that is willing to commit to you. This can take more time and effort than hiring a consultant, therapist or coach. And, since most mentors are not trained “as mentors,” there is no guarantee of specific outcomes. What they have to offer is more like the Play-Doh right out of the can; you have to shape it to make it fit what you need.

Having said that, a good mentor is invaluable and the benefits outweigh the challenges. I recommend finding one if you can.

Q. So Michelle, which one of these is best?
It really depends on your situation and your need. These different professionals play different roles and provide different benefits. In fact, you may end up working with several of these professionals at the same time.

Q. Can’t I find someone to do all of these things for me?
Yes, and no. Some professionals play several of these roles (one colleague of mine is a licensed therapist, provides consulting for health-care agencies, and mentors her new staff) but not necessary with the same people. Some therapists will have counseling and coaching clients. Some coaches will offer consulting. Some consultants will mentor protégés, and so on. Usually you will have one primary relationship with a given professional.

You may have a secondary one, provided it is not against their code of ethics. For example as a coach I may offer some consulting to a client on a limited basis. However, a therapist will not offer therapy and mentoring to the same person.

Q. Great! So how do I find the right mentor for me?
That, my friend, is the subject of another article. Stay tuned.