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When You're Ready but Struggling with Change, Who Should You Work with and How Can They Help?


  • When you’re contemplating a major change, coaching can provide the right blend of support and challenge you need to question your assumptions, identity, values, and desired direction.

  • Coaching now has numerous specialties, and it can be challenging for clients to decipher which types of coaches to engage for their career (and/or life) transition goals.

  • Career coaches and executive coaches are two recommended types of coaches when considering a transition. I practice an executive coaching approach, and highlight what that means below.

  • Personal fit and intuition matter. Look for a coach who gets you and your style, and who you feel resonant with.

  • Every coach has their own unique approach to working with clients. My take on the difference between career coaching (which is not my specialty) and executive coaching (which is) is that career coaching focuses more on concrete structure and tangible strategy, whereas executive coaching focuses more on human development, introspective insights, and personal transformation to help clients align their career aspirations with who they value being.

  • It’s best to have an open discussion with any coach you’re interviewing to glean insights on their approach and style. Hiring a career coach when you wanted an executive coaching approach (or vice versa) will lead to a disappointing experience and outcomes for both parties.

  • My take on the different approaches is available in a graphic below, and can be used as a springboard for thinking about questions to ask your prospective coach in your discovery call.

When you’re ready to make a career change, oftentimes engaging a coach for help can be a supportive and strategic move. Coaches can help by providing just the right blend of support and challenge you need to question your assumptions, identity, values, and desired direction.

But when should executives work with career coaches, and when should they work with executive coaches?

executive contemplating change

The coaching landscape is large, and there are countless specialties out there (one Google search yielded over 100!). One of the most understandable points of confusion for clients has to do with when to work with a career coach vs. an executive coach during times of career (and/or life) transition.

Both specialties can be deep sources of help to clients, but finding the right “tool for the job” can be key for aligning what you hope to get out of coaching with what the experience provides for you.

Below, I offer my personal take on the difference between career coaching and executive coaching for executives entering career (which often corresponds with life) transitions. Many coaches will have their own take on these differences, so it’s always helpful to ask them if you’re uncertain, but this might give you a going-in sense for how themes can be parsed by specialty.

More important than anything else, though, is to look for a coach who you resonate with; who gets you; and whose coaching philosophy and approach feel natural to you. Coaching is a deep interpersonal relationship helping to drive the most important change out there: your own personal transformation. Intuition on coach selection is more important than technical factors.

In My View, Career Coaches Often Focus on Tangible Strategy, Where Executive Coaches Focus More on Intangible Personal Development

My personal approach and expertise are through the executive coaching lens, helping executives discover what they deeply want for themselves, how their inner dynamics might be affecting that, what’s standing in the way of their aspirations, and transforming into the person they want to be. Through this process, their career clarity comes into alignment as a result of the introspective work.

Career coaching, on the other hand, can be a more structured process that helps clients understand how to move toward what they want and advance in their career change process.

My Take on the Focus and Benefits of Career Coaching

For most clients, if they’re looking for concrete actions and strategies to discover and land their next job, career coaching will clearly resonate. It’s not my specialty, but there are a lot of excellent career coaches out there, and I’m always happy to make referrals.

Some examples of the focus and benefits of a career coach’s more tangible strategy include:

  • Resume building and refining personal brand

  • LinkedIn messaging and strategic positioning

  • Exploring network leads and industry insights, and communicating your value to them

  • Evaluating competencies and identifying hard skills gaps for development when pursuing a next job

  • Serving as an accountability partner in helping clients break down actions and follow through on them

My Take on the Focus and Benefits of Executive Coaching During (Desired or Current) Career Transitions

Executive coaching is more focused on self-discovery and transformation, to better understand what’s driving you, why you’re dissatisfied with your current executive career, and where/how you might aspire to more deeply align with your values in your work.

Some examples of the focus and benefits of an executive coach’s approach to the more intangible insights and opportunities below the surface include:

  • Helping clients do the inner discovery work on a values and human aspirations level, leading to personal transformation

  • Helping clients discover and work to remove introspective barriers, leading to increased clarity of career desires

  • Helping to identify and challenge thinking patterns and experiment with new possibilities

  • Helping clients develop awareness and flexibility on ways we get stuck and hold ourselves back with our career perceptions or expectations

It’s About Choosing the Right Tool for the Job

Neither approach is better than the other; they are just aligned to different client needs and goals. Usually, a client resonates with one approach more than the other. Listening to your intuition and asking questions about the coach’s philosophy and approach can help in your coach interview and selection process.

I suggest that clients have a clear and open discussion with prospective coaches in their discovery session to better understand the coach’s philosophy and approach. If you’re looking for career coaching and get executive coaching (or vice versa), both parties are likely to feel friction and disappointment with the process.

Feel free to reference this graphic for some of the key differences as I see them, and allow it to serve as a springboard for discussion in your coach-client discovery session.

Amy Kimball's take on career vs. executive coaching for career transition

How does this resonate for you? Feel free to post thoughts in the comments or on social media.


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