People sometimes use the titles “coach” and “mentor” interchangeably, but their approaches and methods are actually quite distinct.
Coaching is a formal, task-oriented engagement focused on achieving a specific goal. Mentors, on the other hand, put an arm around your shoulder and support you in your overall development over the long term.
If you’re on a journey of self-improvement, it’s natural to wonder: which one’s better, a coach or a mentor? Let’s explore the ins and outs of both roles so you can determine the right fit for your circumstances.
What’s the definition of coaching?
Coaches encourage clients to achieve personal and professional objectives to live more fulfilling lives. These professionals often help clients identify pain points and help them narrow in on their causes. Then, coaches and clients collaborate to create a plan for growth through various activities, strategies, and training programs. Coaches may offer one-on-one or group sessions, online or in person.
While coaches have a lot to offer in the field of personal growth, coaching can also be an important tool in the workplace. Many entrepreneurs and companies hire coaches for professional development in areas such as leadership, self-confidence, and time management.
Coaches don't need to be experts in their clients’ fields. Instead, their expertise lies in identifying a person’s strengths, weaknesses, and personality, then tailoring their coaching methods to empower the client to achieve their goals. This unique skill makes coaches versatile professionals worth the time and investment.
What’s the definition of mentoring?
A mentor is an experienced, reliable, and trusted advisor — you might even call them a role model. They often have close, mutually beneficial, long-term relationships with mentees.
Mentors focus on overall development over an extended period rather than teaching specific skills over multiple short sessions. As a result, they get to know a mentee on a deeper level than most coaches, gaining an intimate understanding of the challenges a person faces and their strengths before providing advice.
The benefits of mentoring may include improved self-confidence, enhanced communication and leadership skills, and exposure to different viewpoints. While coaches guide clients to achieve personal and professional goals, mentors inspire their mentees to be more like them.
It’s often the case that mentors are individuals in senior roles who mentees aspire to become.
For example, a high-level manager at a company may take a tenacious new employee under their wing. The manager genuinely cares about their mentee and wants to help them develop into an indispensable asset for the company. The employee, on the other hand, is thrilled to learn from the manager, as they hope to one day earn a leadership role at the organization.
Similarly, imagine a high school baseball coach who genuinely cares about their team and wants to help them develop into excellent athletes and responsible, self-assured adults. They lead by example and mentor the students, modeling what it means to be a good person and strong leader year after year.
Can a coach become a mentor?
We just called the high school baseball coach a coach, even though he's a mentor. Confusing, right? Let's clear that up.
While coaches and mentors fulfill different roles, coaches can transition into mentors. This shift usually occurs after a coach successfully helps a client achieve their goals. If the client feels grateful for the coach’s assistance and the coach is proud of the client's development, it could spark a long-term mentorship relationship. Both develop a closer bond, and the coach becomes a mentor.
On the other hand, a coach in an inherently long-term relationship with a person — like the baseball coach and their students — may naturally move into a mentor role. For example, once the season is over and the baseball team has reached its goal and won the championship, the coach may continue to provide advice and leadership to the students for the rest of their time in high school.
Coaching versus mentoring: what’s the difference?
The most obvious difference between coaching and mentoring is that coaches are typically paid for their services, while mentors volunteer their expertise for free. However, there are many other ways these two roles differ. Here are five more examples:
1. Coaches critically evaluate performance, mentors don’t
Coaches may use tests, assessments, and reviews to measure a coachee’s performance. They adopt qualitative and quantitative methods for evaluation and focus on improvement in their specialized niche.
Mentors don't use the same evaluative methods — they aren't hired specialists focused on particular skills. Instead, they guide and advise mentees as needed and have a more natural teaching progression.
Some mentors, like those in sports, monitor performance and growth without quantitative metrics. Instead, they keep an eye on overall improvement trends across several skills and traits. For example, a life coach may ask a client to track how many times they were late to work in a week, while a mentor at the office might organically notice an excellent presentation from their mentee.
2. Coaching is short-term, mentoring is long-term
Remember: coaches intend to achieve specific goals within a set time frame. They hold scheduled sessions to guide clients toward a particular objective. This relationship often lasts a few weeks or months until the objective is reached.
Conversely, mentorship focuses on holistic growth over months, years, or even a lifetime. There are typically no scheduled meetings or rigid tasks in the mentor-mentee relationship, nor is there a specific end goal or date. As a result, mentors develop a deep connection with mentees and sometimes become friends — something that isn’t possible in a professional coach-client relationship.
3. Coaching is standardized, mentorship is improvised
Coaches are trained professionals who adapt standardized coaching programs to uplift and teach clients. As a result, coaches frequently solve common problems with similar solutions. The coaching journey is typically top-down and follows a specific, step-by-step process that yields results.
Plus, coaching relationships don’t generally offer networking opportunities to a client. As a one-on-one activity, sessions are usually structured and don't go beyond the space it occurs in.
In mentorships, every mentee has a different relationship with their mentor. Some mentors are found at work, while others are leaders in the community. A person’s mentorship journey begins organically and follows a natural progression rather than a strict plan.
4. Coaches teach skills, mentors lead the way
Coaches set the tone for their client's personal development. Since coaching sessions are performance-related, the coach is the authority figure and measures the client's performance based on various markers.
In a mentor-mentee relationship, the mentee usually takes the initiative and kickstarts development goals. They set objectives and decide which areas they want to work on. Then, they approach the mentor (or the mentor approaches them), discuss their challenges, and brainstorm ways to overcome them. The mentor provides guidance and knowledge based on similar personal experiences — and they may have never mentored someone before.
5. Coaching is specific, mentoring is holistic
Coaches help clients overcome predetermined issues. They set an agenda for a particular session and use strategies for improvement to propel clients toward their end goals.
For example, a client may want to improve their interpersonal skills for career development. A coach asks them to describe their current approach, identifies problem areas, and provides solutions.
Mentoring relationships offer a more holistic approach to growth. Mentees seek general advice from mentors, often senior individuals with relevant experience and expertise. Instead of pinpointing specific weaknesses, mentorships "go with the flow.” As a result, mentors address a spectrum of growth opportunities rather than one or two traits or skills.
Can coaches and mentors work together?
When choosing between a coach and a mentor, there’s actually a third option: both.
Coaches and mentors can certainly work together. And when they do, their strengths complement one another and provide those in their care with a robust support system.
Mentors provide mentees with constant support based in personal experience. Their leadership can boost mentees up the corporate ladder or into leadership positions of their own. And while mentors help people reach the top, coaches have the know-how to help them stay there. Coaches use tried-and-true methods to achieve quantifiable goals, allowing clients to grow into well-rounded people and highly qualified professionals.
It can even benefit you to connect your coach with your mentor — if all parties are comfortable. Your mentor may be able to provide your coach with objective insight into your strengths and weaknesses that only an outside perspective can offer. If your coach asks for a rundown of your skills and challenge areas, consider asking your mentor to write out their thoughts and bring the document to the next coaching session.
Learn more about coaching with Practice
Growth is never easy — that’s why the support of a coach or mentor is invaluable. They’re someone to lean on as work to better yourself at work or in your personal life, and their insight can make a world of difference.
We understand that not everyone is familiar with the ins and outs of the coaching industry. One of our goals is to educate people about the benefits of coaching, so our blog is a dedicated resource for the coaching-curious. Read about the benefits of health coaching, the differences between coaches and managers, the role of coaching in the workplace, and much more.