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What is the difference between coaching and mentoring?

a woman thinking about the difference between coaching and mentoring

What are the similarities and differences between coaching and mentoring?

If you’re reading this, you’ve likely noticed how tough it is to distinguish between coaching vs. mentoring. Both are necessary for our personal and professional growth. Both provide support. Both help us reach our full potential. And to make matters more complicated, the words “coaching” and “mentoring” are often used interchangeably.

What are the similarities and differences between coaching and mentoring? 

So what’s the difference? I talked to professional coaches and mentors to really understand the key difference between coaching and mentoring.

Dan Mason, career and life transition coach at Creative Soul Coaching

  • Coaching is “a process that helps clients quickly identify and overcome blind spots to success so they can unlock their potential and create a career and life on their own terms.”
  • Mentoring is “a relationship where someone established and experienced at a particular skill set helps a less experienced person replicate their success in said skillset.”

Maresa Friedman, business strategist at The Executive Cat Herder

  • “I look at coaching as a tool or collaborative relationship whose sole purpose is to improve a specific area of business. … A coach is helping an individual or team to learn or implement towards a goal. The coach doesn't necessarily have to be industry-specific and in most cases can be rather agnostic working across multiple industries.”
  • Mentoring, by contrast, is a partnership with someone that has experience in your industry or specific scenarios like launching organizations, structuring exits, or even dealing with core internal issues like performance and change management. The mentor has direct experience in what their mentee needs or wants.”

Rahkim Sabree, financial coach and mentor

  • Coaching is providing structured guidance towards the accomplishment of some aim or goal, which may include specialized knowledge, accountability, and the implementation of strategy.” 
  • Mentoring is taking your experiences and resources to help guide someone else on their path. A mentor may facilitate introductions or provide advice/insights based on things they've overcome or studied.”

Stacy Roberts, certified executive coach and owner of SMR Leadership Solutions

  • Coaching is an effective management tool that assists employees in advancing in their careers. It could be professional development through taking courses or hiring a coach.”
  • Mentorship is more personal. It is taking someone under one’s wing and leading through transformational leadership to develop that person and allow them to reach their full potential personally and professionally.”

Anna Dearmon Kornick, time management coach

  • Coaching is a relationship between a professionally trained coach and a coachee that produces powerful results by shifting the problem-solving responsibility from the coach to the coachee through thought-provoking questions and discussion. The coach's responsibility is to help a client uncover limiting beliefs standing in the way of what they hope to achieve. In a coaching relationship, the coach should remain unbiased and in most cases should avoid giving direct instruction or advice.”
  • Mentoring is a relationship between a seasoned professional in the same or an adjacent field to the mentee. The mentor often shares specific examples and experiences gained from their career, provides advice to the mentee, and serves as a sounding board.”
Table of contents
So, what is the difference between a mentor and a life coach?
Do I need a mentor or a coach? Real-life case studies to help you decide
Still wondering if you need coaching vs. mentoring?

So, what is the difference between a mentor and a life coach?

What is a coach?

  • Coaching is very performance and goals driven. A good coach will ask you plenty of questions about your goals and help you create a plan for achieving them. They’re focused on getting you to achieve those goals.
  • A coach doesn’t necessarily have experience in your specific job role or industry. Even so, coaches do have proven training and techniques to get you to your goals.
  • A coach-coachee relationship is more formal. While, of course, they can be friendly, a coach is not necessarily your friend; they’re a professional that you’ve hired for their techniques to help you get unstuck.
  • Typically, you pay a coach for their services. Coaches are professionals who often run their own coaching business and have coaching certifications.
  • Instead of giving you the answers, a coach helps you find them on your own.

    “A mentor will do more ‘telling’ while a coach will do more ‘questioning,’” explains Ed Cook, a startup mentor and entrepreneur who uses a business coach for his consulting firm. “A typical business coaching experience has the coach asking questions of the coachee in order to bring out what should be done in a particular situation.”

What is a mentor?

  • The defining characteristic of a mentor is someone who works in the role or industry you want to be in. In stark contrast with a coach, a mentor should have achieved what you’re aspiring to achieve. That way, they can give you experience-based advice and maybe even introduce you to connections.
  • Mentoring is more about developing you personally. While yes, a mentor can help you emulate their own career path, they’re also interested in your personal development.
  • A mentor-mentee relationship is less formal. Mentoring is typically more long-term and may develop into a friendship.
  • Typically, you don’t pay a mentor. Mentors usually volunteer as mentors outside of their regular jobs. Unlike coaching, there aren’t many certification programs for a mentor, nor is certification expected.
  • A mentor tells you what they did to get to where they are today. Unlike a coach, a mentor is in a position that you want to be in, and instead of challenging you to come up with your own answers, they will give you a “roadmap” of sorts to get to where they are.

Do I need a mentor or a coach? Real-life case studies to help you decide

1. You want to maximize your team’s productivity.

In 2016, help desk software company Groove decided to hire an executive coach. At the time, the company was doing quite well, was profitable, and had just taken on a new investor and advisor. They’d also written publicly about how helpful mentorship had been for their company. So why the move to hire a coach?

On the Groove blog, CEO Alex Turnbull explains that they made the decision “in the hopes of making our entire team more focused, productive and effective.”

Turnbull identified two specific areas where a business coach could help take the team to the next level:

  1. Accountability: The small team had no one holding them accountable for their goals.
  2. Process: While yes, Groove had already seen success, the team was well-aware that they needed true systems and processes to scale even more.

    “We might be very good at building help desk software and selling it, but that’s not enough to grow to where we want to be,” Turnbull wrote.

The Groove team filled out questionnaires and assessments before spending three days on a retreat with their coach. They packed the hours with team bonding and lots of planning. Their coach looked at the big-picture view of the company, challenged the team to figure out Groove's "why,” and set goals for the first quarter of the new year. 

“In the end, we came away with more clarity and determination than we’ve had since we started Groove,” Turnbull writes.

2. You need help scaling your company.

In 2017, proposal software company Proposify hit a plateau. The newly established leadership team consisted of many people who had never been in management positions before, and they struggled with creating structure. 

“As the CEO, I knew how critical it was to design and implement a structure that would serve as the foundation that supported the kind of growth I knew we were capable of,” writes Kyle Racki.

That’s when Racki hired a business coach, who taught the team a framework for structuring departments, communicating better, and delegating tasks. 

The following year, Proposify grew from 20 employees to more than 60.

“If it wasn’t for the strength of the foundational framework and systems, we may well have crumbled under our own weight,” writes Racki. “Guidance on how best to design a robust framework that can handle rapid growth is one of the biggest things I’ve gotten out of business coaching.”

3. You’re struggling to lead your team.

Often, executives hire coaches when they want to become better leaders, either through developing leadership skills or establishing systems to help them manage their time better. Time management coach Anna Dearmon Kornick gave an example of a new chief development officer who approached her for coaching.

“She'd never led a team before, nor had she worked with an executive assistant,” recalls Kornick. “She felt like she was drowning in emails and didn't have time to actually lead because she was dealing with so many details.”

So Kornick asked her client to complete an in-depth personality preference assessment and worked with her and her assistant to create a system for staying organized. 

“Once we had a solid foundation in place that spoke to her unique personality preferences and belief system, our sessions varied in focus from establishing boundaries to managing difficult employees to breaking bad habits to refining systems and processes for communication and accountability with her team,” she says.

Thanks to Kornick’s coaching, the chief development officer scaled her department from five to 27 employees and exceeded fundraising goals, all while dealing with the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

4. You want to forge a new career path.

Changing jobs is challenging enough, but changing industries can often feel impossible. If your goal is to break into a new career field, you might consider hiring a coach.

That’s precisely what one stay-at-home mom did when she approached Dan Mason, a career and life transition coach who has first-hand experience with drastic change—he left his six-figure executive job to pursue a meaningful career in coaching.

In this case, Mason’s client had a lifelong dream of becoming a television host—but she had no experience in the field. So when QVC was searching for new hosts, Mason worked with her to create action steps to submit an audition package. The casting agents were so impressed with it that they invited her to do a Skype audition. Within 11 weeks of working with Mason, she was in Manhattan auditioning in front of the network’s executives.

“The experience gave my client a newfound confidence,” Mason says, “and while she didn’t get that particular job, she’s been doing TV and commercial work ever since!”

5. You’re about to take on a new role.

Elizabeth Ward, the CMO for United Way of Greater Atlanta, hired a career coach before assuming the role. Why? She'd been out of the corporate world for 16 years and knew she'd need support in the transition. 

"I needed to relearn how to be a good manager and lead a department,” Ward tells MarketPro.

So if transitioning to a new role, especially one in leadership, has you feeling out of your element, a coach can help you prepare and perform well.

6. You feel stuck.

Nearly all reasons for needing coaching come down to one root issue: You feel stuck in some way. Sometimes, you may not even be sure why you feel stuck. And that’s okay, a coach can still help!

“When people come to me for mentorship or coaching, they feel like they have hit a stopping point or know they need to develop, but are not sure how,” says Stacy Roberts, a certified executive coach. 

“For example, a woman may want to advance her career, but she has issues with impostor syndrome or knowing what needs to be done to get promoted. With executive coaching, she can be taught the skills to grow. She can receive feedback and be taught techniques to accelerate in her career. By obtaining a mentor, she will secure critical advice and guidance, testimonies, trial and error, and experience from one who has once been where she is and has achieved the position to where she would like to go.”

Still wondering if you need coaching vs. mentoring?

Still not sure whether you need coaching or mentoring? Just ask! For instance, if there’s a more senior coworker in your department you’d like to learn from, invite them to lunch. Explain where you’re struggling and ask if they think they could mentor you. 

Alternatively, Google coaches in your specific field or ask around in your network for recommendations. Schedule discovery calls with these coaches, and ask whether they think you need mentoring or coaching—or both!

Or, you can get started with FREE coaching right now with the world’s first AI-powered personal coach — get started now.

The only life coach you need is our incredible AI-powered Coach Marlee!

Our programs were designed by world-renowned coaches. Sessions only take 5-15 minutes. Get started for free with your personalized program now.

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