Life Coach vs Professional Coach

The terms “Life Coach” and “Personal Coach” are often used interchangeably, as are “Executive Coach” and “Professional Coach.” The International Coach Federation (ICF) uses the terms “personal coach” and “professional coach.” Both types of coaches complete the same ICF certification process. So, what’s the difference? And how do you know when to engage with a personal coach versus a professional coach?

Coaching is widely accepted as an effective way to help corporate leaders increase their interpersonal and leadership skills. According to one article, “Total industry spend on coaching approaches anywhere between $1 billion to $5 billion per year and has shown exponential rise as a business need and trend in the last 15-20 years.” A survey of 100 executives from Fortune 1000 companies reported an average return on investment of about six times the cost of coaching. Executive coaching has expanded to junior executive levels and can include leaders more than five levels below the CEO. Additional popularity growth can be credited to a growing appreciation for the role of the coach in transforming people’s lives and impacting business revenue. 


The 2017 ICF Global Consumer Awareness Study described five positive impacts of personal coaches: “improved communication, increased self-esteem/self-confidence, increased productivity, optimized performance and improved work/life balance.” Sometimes personal coaches help clients in both their personal and their professional lives by identifying areas that are out of sync or under/over utilized.


Professional coaches achieve the same five impacts listed above but their clients tend to be executives and high potential employees. In my experience, professional coaching goals are rarely focused on technical skills. Professional coaching goals usually focus on increased self-awareness, self-management, as well as the awareness and management of others. Targeted outcomes are ideally agreed upon by the individual being coached and the organization’s stakeholders (boss, direct reports, peers, boards, etc.). 


Sometimes professional coaching merges into personal coaching and is often a blend of consulting and therapy. In fact, 94% of executives said the focus of their executive coaching engagement shifts over time, stating, “It starts out with a business bias and inevitably migrates to ‘bigger issues’ such as life purpose, work/life balance, and becoming a better leader,” creating a blend of personal and professional coaching. 

My approach to professional coaching uses a combination of multiple disciplines including executive coaching, management consulting, psychology and individual and team “diagnosis.” According to systems theory, people can only be understood within the context of the interconnected relationships within their environment. There are many interconnected moving parts involved in professional coaching and focusing on the individual alone will not achieve lasting results. 

An image I use to describe systems theory at work is a mobile with different horizontal levels and objects suspended from each one. When an object is disturbed, the homeostasis of the entire mobile is impacted. In the same way, creating change in a solitary executive may impact all stakeholders. Coaching results are seldom limited to the executive being coached.


Thinking about embarking on a coaching journey? Start with the end in mind by identifying bold personal and/or professional goals that have the potential to change the nature of your life. And don’t feel like you have to get it exactly right from the start! Those goals are likely to evolve and your development is likely to be nonlinear. Then, think about intermediate, short-term goals that would be important to achieve along the way that will lead you toward your ultimate bold goals. 

You can use your network to begin your search for the right coach, Or utilize the ICF website as they have a service that can help you find coaches. Once you select a few potential coaches, avail yourself of their introductory free session. I firmly believe that education, certification and experience are important when evaluating a coach, but passion for their work is the most important consideration. Look for a coach that views their work as more of a calling than a career. You want a coach who has a combination of expertise, reputation and healthy boundaries. They should celebrate your success but recognize that it is your success, not theirs. Their ultimate goal should be for you to graduate by achieving your goals and no longer needing them. 


When selecting a coach, consider your coaching goals. Review the five positive impacts that clients report from personal coaching. If they match your coaching goals, then a personal coach would be a good choice. If your goals are more focused on your role at work, increasing productivity and relationships with other employees, then a professional coach would be a good choice. While there is a clear delineation between the definitions of Life/Personal versus Professional/Executive coaching, in practice, the difference may fade. An approach that I have found helpful is to begin with hybrid coach who understands systems theory and possesses a combination of multiple disciplines including executive coaching, management consulting, psychology and individual and team “diagnosis.” I compare hybrid coaches to lab tests and xrays because a few sessions with them can help guide you to the coach equivalent of a family doctor, internist or specialist.