Coaching vs mentoring. Which one is right for you?

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If you’re looking to get ahead in your career, engaging either a coach or a mentor is essential. 

While coaching and mentoring share some similarities there are also key differences. Both are there to support you with your personal or professional growth, however, depending on what you need, one may be more suitable than the other. 

Want to learn more about the differences between coaching and mentoring, and learn which is right for you? F4S spoke to the experts and delved into case studies to provide the low-down.

Table of contents
What is coaching?
How does a coach help you?
Looking for an effective coach?
What is mentoring?
How does a mentor help you?
Do I need a mentor or a coach? Real-life case studies to help you decide
Coaching vs. mentoring: In sum
Still wondering if you need coaching or mentoring?

What is coaching?

Depending on who you ask and the type of coaching, the definition of coaching, and what the coaching relationship entails, varies.

Here is what our experts have to say:

‘[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.’

- Dan Mason - career and life transition coach at Creative Soul Coaching
‘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.’

- Maresa Friedman, business strategist at
The Executive Cat Herder
‘Coaching is providing structured guidance towards the accomplishment of some aim or goal, which may include specialized knowledge, accountability, and the implementation of strategy.’

-
Rahkim Sabree, financial coach and mentor

In sum, coaching is the process of supporting an individual, or team to reach a goal. This is achieved through the provision of specialized, or industry-specific knowledge, or via a more generalized approach.

How does a coach help you?

Coaching is about professional development, and performance, and is goals-driven. During the process, a good coach will ask plenty of questions about your goals and empower you to create a plan for success. With your development goals in mind, a coach will support you to develop the skills necessary to achieve them within a given time frame.

Depending on the type, coaches play a crucial role in the development of the following key skills:

A coach-coachee relationship is more formal and career coaching sessions tend to be quite structured. While career coaches can be friendly, a coach is not necessarily your friend. They are professionals hired for their skills enhancement techniques and to help you get unstuck.

Typically, you pay a coach for their services. This can either be a long-term relationship or a brief intervention over a set period of time. Instead of giving you the answers, a coach helps you find them on your own. 

Coaches are professionals who often run their own business and have certifications. There are many different types of coaches including:

  • Sales coaches
  • Performance coaches
  • External coaches (hired from outside your company)
  • Internal coaches (hired within the company)
  • Presentation skills coaches

Each will offer distinct coaching skills in their areas of expertise.

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Finding the right coach for your needs, budget or unique situation can be challenging. At F4S, we believe in coaching for all, and so we have a range of coaching options, both human and AI, to enable everybody to have access to this powerful tool for professional development.

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What is mentoring?

Mentoring and coaching have some things in common, but they are fundamentally different types of relationships. 

Effective mentoring relationships often develop between an experienced individual in a given field, and an up-and-comer. Usually (though not always) there is no monetary exchange between the parties.

Here is what our experts say:

‘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.'

- Anna Dearmon Kornick, Time Management 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.’

- Stacy Roberts, certified executive coach and owner of
SMR Leadership Solutions
‘Mentoring is a partnership with someone who 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.’

- Maresa Friedman, business strategist at The Executive Cat Herder

In short, career mentoring is a development-focused relationship in which a person who has achieved professional success helps a person who is starting out their journey. 

A business mentor offers career guidance and professional development tools based on their experience. The relationship is less formal than that of a coach-student relationship. Unlike a coach, a mentor may be in a position or industry you aspire to. Instead of challenging you to come up with your own answers a mentor may provide a roadmap based on their own professional journey. 

The relationship may form spontaneously, or through a structured mentoring program.

How does a mentor help you?

The mentor-mentee relationship is typically categorized by knowledge transfer from experienced people or senior leaders to future leaders or up-and-comers. With a mentor, you can take advantage of the unstructured, more casual nature of the relationship and simply shoot them an email if you need some advice. 

Participating in a mentoring relationship can help you:

  • gain valuable insights from someone who knows your profession inside out
  • benefit from a professional in a senior-level position sharing experiences with you
  • learn from a subject matter expert on the finer details of your profession
  • leverage networking opportunities 
  • hear constructive feedback on your professional goals.

In summary, a mentor is a wellspring of knowledge you can tap into, usually for free. If you're looking for a way to achieve your career goals, a mentor relationship might be the best way to go about it.

If you're still not sure if you're better suited to a coaching program or a mentorship program, here are some case studies for you.

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

1. 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,’ said 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. 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, said Racki. 

2. 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.’

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 5 to 27 employees and exceeded fundraising goals, all while dealing with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

3. You want to forge a new career path.

Changing jobs is challenging enough, but changing industries can feel impossible. If your goal is to break into a new 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 had first-hand experience with drastic change, he left his 6-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!’

4. 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 could help you prepare and perform well.

5. 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.’

Coaching vs. mentoring: In sum

While there is some crossover, coaching and mentoring have distinct differences and offer unique benefits. If you're keen on career advancement and looking to soak up the professional experiences of somebody who has advanced in their field, a mentor with a focus on career progression might be just what you need.

However, if you’re looking for personal development, skill development, improved job performance, or to understand the blindspots that are getting in your way, the coaching process might be best.

Still wondering if you need coaching or 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 your network for recommendations. Schedule discovery calls with these coaches, and ask whether they think you need mentoring or coaching or both!

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