What is the Difference Between Coaching and Mentoring

Many people use the terms mentor and coach interchangeably, but they really are two different concepts. While they share some concepts in common, they also have many elements that differentiate them from one another.

Nathan Goldstein, Co-founder of Together

December 30, 2018

There are differences between a mentor and a coach, and consequently between mentoring and coaching programs. In this article we'll break down what coaching and mentoring is and how decide which is best for you. First, let's explore what mentors and coaches are.

Coaching is about performance, mentoring is about growth.

What is a Coach?

Coaches care about an individual's performance in specific activities. Coaches watch you practice specific skills and then identify areas to improve. You’ll incorporate their feedback, practice again, and repeat the process. 

The idea of coaches may bring to mind Coach Carter and how he saw the potential in his players. He’d see the behaviors and patterns of thinking that were holding them back. Coach Carter would help them change bad habits and become champions.

Sports used to be only within the realm of coaching. But in the 1980s coaching began entering the business world. Thomas Leonard, a financial planner, saw that his clients were following his financial and life advice. He’d teach them frameworks to organize their lives and by doing so, brought coaching off the court and into people's lives. Thomas made the idea of life coaching a respected profession.

Coach Carter was more than a basketball coach. He was also a mentor because he helped them become better individuals and players. 

coaching vs mentoring explained

What is a Mentor?

A mentor helps their mentees with their personal and professional development. They are more concerned with their mentee's holistic improvement rather than specific skills that can be learned through practice. 

Coach Carter, for example, cared about his players and wanted to help them become mature and confident adults as well as great players. He was a role model for them as a mentor should be. 

For that reason, a mentor is usually in a more senior position that the mentee wants to grow into. So the mentor's experience is invaluable to the mentee. Their relationship extends beyond finite training and is more of mutually beneficial relationship where they share their diverse experiences with one another for the purpose of mutual learning and development.

In short, mentors can coach their mentees, but they go further and offer them advice and guidance drawn from their own experiences.

It's important to note that a mentor shouldn’t be their direct manager. It could become a conflict of interest if a manager is also a mentor. They have a direct incentive to increase their mentee's performance. What if the mentee is trying to transition out of their current role? Instead, a mentor can help their mentee work towards their goals regardless of how it affects their current position. 

A coaching relationship is one-sided. But to build a successful mentoring relationship you need trust, an acknowledgement of each other's goals, and a commitment to helping each other grow. There’s no reason a mentor can’t also benefit from helping their mentee. 



Can a Coach be a Mentor?

Although we can use the terms mentorship and coach interchangeably, there are clear distinctions between the two. Just as Coach Carter wanted more for his players than winning a championship, a coach can transition into the role of a mentor.

Usually, this transition happens after the effective coach has successfully improved the performance of their coachee. When the coach achieves their predetermined goal, thus fulfilling their objective as a coach, their relationship may evolve into mentorship.

The mentee will probably have a deep sense of gratitude toward their coach and all the support they provided. Likewise, the coach may be proud of how far they had progressed together. Now their relationship is more mutually beneficial and something closer to a friendship.

Coaching Vs Mentoring: at a Glance
Factor Mentoring Coaching
Amount of time Long term Short term
Evaluation Non-evaluative; mentors shouldn't be managers Evaluative; measure performance
Directive Mentee asks mentor questions to learn from their experience Coach asks questions to uncover areas for improvement
Personalization Informal and seeks holistic development Standardized and repeatable; follows structured process to improve specific skills

Coaching vs Mentoring

1. Mentoring is long-term, coaching is time-bound

Mentoring relationships are long-term because they focus more holistically on their career development (something we’ll cover more below). Mentors and mentees will explore different ambitions, questions, and challenges that can evolve as their relationship progresses.

On the other hand, coaching is time-bound and expected to reach specific goals in a set time frame. Coaches will have structured meetings with activities designed to lead their coachee (or student) in a particular direction.

2. Mentoring is non-evaluative, coaching is evaluative

The first difference is that mentoring is non-evaluative, while coaching is based on measuring performance change, whether through company performance reviews or coaching tests. For this reason, mentors shouldn't be a direct supervisor or manager of the mentee, while coaches are often externally hired specialists or managers that are focusing on specific skill improvement areas.

3. Mentoring is driven by the mentee, coaching is the opposite

When a mentee is part of a mentoring relationship, they are in the driver's seat. They set the goals of the relationship and what they want to work on. They request time with the mentor, and they come to them with the problems they want to solve.

In coaching, the coach or supervisor is driving the agenda for the relationship. This stems from the fact that coaching is performance-related. There’s a specific skill or goal that the coach is an expert on or can provide advice to improve the performance of the coachee. Their guidance never stretches beyond helping the worker develop the skill.

4. Mentoring is highly personalized, coaching is repeatable

In mentoring, a mentee has specific needs and needs to discuss challenges that are not necessarily tied to company-wide, top-down performance initiatives. Mentoring also carries the benefit of building your network by meeting multiple mentors and making new connections. Mentoring in this way is particularly helpful when onboarding new employees.

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In coaching, a specific skill gap has been identified by the organization, and one or more coaches are selected to provide a generalized program to make improvements. Content is reused and generalized, and a coach wouldn’t typically be a networking opportunity for a coachee.

5. Mentoring is for holistic development, coaching is for measurable skill improvement

Mentoring is great for tapping into the knowledge, experience and expertise of someone more senior than yourself. Asking them questions that bring out the lessons they’ve learned throughout their career provides tactic knowledge that is hard to get elsewhere. Tapping into that expertise is invaluable for fast-tracking your development. 

But what you’ll learn wasn’t fully clear before you started talking with your mentor. You had to listen as they replayed challenges or defining moments in their career closely. In the process, you can pick out valuable insights for your career. In this way, your development is more holistic and dispersed. Coaching is different.

With coaching, there are predetermined improvements you’re trying to reach. You may want to improve your presentation or negotiation skills. Your coach may ask you to explain your approach to developing these skills and uncover areas where you can try new tactics. Additionally, you may have limiting beliefs that hold you back from developing your negotiation skills, for example. A coach would be invaluable in helping you change your mindset and giving you more confidence to ask for a raise or deliver a powerful presentation.

coach vs mentor: when to look for each.

The Difference Between Coaching and Mentoring

Now that you know the key differences between coaching and mentoring you may want to know which is better for you. It all comes down to what your goals are.

When a mentor is best for you

Having a mentoring relationship can help you develop new skills in your field. Your mentor can give you access to a larger network in your industry and you can leverage their wealth of experience to talk through problems and find solutions. In your career, having a business mentor to look up to is invaluable in preparing you to become a manager, gain new skills or accelerate your career development.

When a coach is best for you

If you’re trying to develop a specific skill, for example, becoming a better presenter, then a business coach who is well versed in presenting is ideal. A coach will be able to identify the specific areas you need to improve your speaking or interpersonal skills that lead to a significant difference in your presenting skills.

For example, a sales coach could shadow a call with a potential customer and coach you on ways to improve your objection handling. You will pick up specific tactics to test out on future calls which will also give you more self-confidence in pitching your product or service. You wouldn’t go to this coach to explore why you want a career in sales, but you would go to them for their expertise in the sales process.

What is Right for Your Organization?

Organizations that are looking at enhancing employee engagement, performance and culture need to be clear on whether the employees would benefit more from mentorship or coaching.

If an organization wants to improve performance, culture, knowledge transfer and speed of career development, running a mentorship program the best option to reach those goals and objectives. In this case, every mentee has different needs and a personal mentorship relationship will accomplish all of these.

If a specific skill gap has been identified by the organization, for example, complaints about new managers or middle management being inexperienced or not up to par, a coaching program might be a better fit to provide a standardized, repeatable training.

Set up new managers for success with mentoring. Build well-trained and experienced managers from within using a strong management mentorship program.

Summary: When to use Mentoring

Mentoring is needed when:

  • Your organization wants to support career development, knowledge transfer, culture, or personal development that is unique to each employees situation
  • You are succession planning
  • You need to promote diversity in the workplace
  • You want mentees to drive the relationships
  • You don’t have a vetted curriculum ready to be covered

Summary: When to use Coaching

Coaching is needed when:

  • A company is looking to sharpen a specific skill of their employees broadly
  • A group of employees needs to become more competent in a certain area
  • A new procedure or system is being implemented

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