Know the Difference Between Coaching and Mentoring

POSTED: Jul. 05, 2017

Program ParticipantsOne of the most frequent questions that I am asked as a coach is, “What is the difference between a coach and a mentor?” While the skills required are similar, and both are used as professional development tools, the structure and the outcome are quite different.


The best place to start is a definition of coaching and mentoring.

Coaching: The International Coach Federation ( defines coaching as “Partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”

Mentoring: A simple, broad definition of mentor is “an experienced and trusted advisor.” ( defines mentoring as an “Employee training system under which a senior or more experienced individual (the mentor) is assigned to act as an advisor, counselor, or guide to a junior or trainee. The mentor is responsible for providing support to, and feedback on, the individual in his or her charge.” One note of clarification: While many organizations offer in-house mentoring programs, often as part of a leadership training program, it is common for mentees to work with mentors outside their organization.


Coaches and mentors can be selected to work with professionals based on their industry expertise (banking, health care, manufacturing), position expertise (marketing, finance, human resources), skill set (spokesperson, committee chair, conference presenter) or other valuable expertise that can enhance a professional’s life, like community service or board service.

The best way to understand how coaching and mentoring relationships are structured is to do a side-by-side comparison:





Relationship is more likely to be short-term (up to 6 months or 1 year) with a specific outcome in mind. However, some coaching relationships can last longer, depending on goals achieved.

Relationship tends to be more long-term, lasting a year or two, and even longer.


Coaching is more performance driven, designed to improve the professional’s on-the-job performance.

Mentoring is more development driven, looking not just at the professional’s current job function but beyond, taking a more holistic approach to career development.


Traditionally more structured, with regularly scheduled meetings, like weekly, bi-weekly or monthly.

Generally meetings tend to be more informal, on an as need basis required by the mentee.


Coaches are hired for their expertise in a given area, one in which the coachee desires improvement. Examples: Presentation skills, leadership, interpersonal communication, sales.

Within organization mentoring programs, mentors have more seniority and expertise in a specific area than mentees. The mentee learns from and is inspired by the mentor’s experience.


The coaching agenda is co-created by the coach and the coachee in order to meet the specific needs of the coachee.

The mentoring agenda is set by the mentee. The mentor supports that agenda.


Asking thought-provoking questions is a top tool of the coach, which helps the coachee make important decisions, recognize behavioral changes and take action.

In the mentoring relationship, the mentee is more likely to ask more questions, tapping into the mentor’s expertise.


Outcome from a coaching agreement is specific and measurable, showing signs of improvement or positive change in the desired performance area.

Outcome from a mentoring relationship can shift and change over time. There is less interest in specific, measurable results or changed behavior and more interest in the overall development of the mentee.

Now that you have a basic understanding of the difference between coaching and mentoring, how will you know which is best…working with a coach or working with a mentor?

When to Use a Coach

  1. Develop raw talent with a specific new skill
  2. Enhance the experienced professional with a new or refreshed skill
  3. Help individuals who are not meeting expectations or goals
  4. Assist leaders in coping with large-scale change through a merger or acquisition, like managing new “blended” work teams and adapting to the merging of company cultures
  5. Prepare a professional for advancement in the organization
  6. Improve behavior in a short period of time, like coaching an executive to address the media on a specific topic
  7. Work one-on-one with leaders who prefer working with a coach rather than attending “public” training programs

When to Use a Mentor

  1. Motivate talented professionals to focus on their career/life development
  2. Inspire individuals to see what is possible in their career/life
  3. Enhance the professional’s leadership development
  4. Transfer knowledge from senior to junior professionals
  5. Broaden intercultural or cross-cultural ties within the organization
  6. Use the mentoring process as an entrée to succession planning


When deciding whether to use a coach or a mentor, consider the goal you wish to achieve. The coach and the mentor will help professionals in different ways to accomplish their goals. In fact, some professionals use multiple coaches or multiple mentors throughout their careers, depending on their desired goals. In both coaching and mentoring, trust, respect and confidentiality are at the forefront of the relationship. Here is an example of how a coach and a mentor could be used:

Jeremy is an energetic sales associate who has been identified as a high potential. While he is energetic and enthusiastic in sales team meetings, he turns into a different person when he is in front of senior managers. He becomes nervous, he fumbles and his mind wanders. His boss decides that he should work with a coach. His boss hires a presentation skills coach to help Jeremy deliver more engaging presentations. A presentation skills coach will give Jeremy the specific tools he needs to ease his tension, allow him to focus and apply his natural energy to the presentation.

Since Jeremy is new to the sales department and a natural with customers, his boss sees his career potential immediately. He sees a bit of himself from 20 years earlier. He wants to groom Jeremy for a management position in the next few years. The boss has two options: To mentor Jeremy himself or to find another senior level sales professional to mentor Jeremy. Sometimes the boss plays the role of coach or mentor; sometimes, it is more appropriate to select another person either inside or outside the organization to assist the professional who needs help. Once you see early results, you will know if your decision was the right on or if it needs to be modified.

As you delve deeper into working with a coach or a mentor, consider these final tips:

  • Decide what assistance you need. Are you trying to figure out how to climb the corporate ladder? Do you want to be considered for more high-powered job assignments? Do you have an interest in working on more internal committees? Would you like to improve your presentation skills so you can deliver more presentations at national conferences? Are you interested in managing a community project for your company? When you decide what your need is, find an appropriate coach or mentor.
  • Trust and respect your coach or mentor. Every meaningful relationship is built on the foundation of trust and respect. You must trust your coach or mentor to provide you with expert guidance, feedback and support, based on his/her life experiences. Respect his/her opinions and ideas for the same reason because your coach or mentor has lived through challenges that you may not have yet experienced.
  • Establish ground rules. Determine how often you will meet, how long your relationship will last, outline of roles, importance of confidentiality and preferred methods of communication and feedback.
  • Determine your outcome. What do you want to have happen to you at the end of the relationship? Discuss this with your coach or mentor.
  • Open your mind and heart. Learning from someone who has more experience than you do and who can share successes and failures openly is a tremendous gift. The key to getting the most out of the relationship is your ability to enter into the relationship with as open a mind and heart as possible. Don’t be judgmental or too hasty in your decisions. Expect the unexpected.

As you can see, being involved in a coaching or mentoring relationship can enhance your professional and personal life in ways that you could not achieve on your own. Keep your mind open to the possibilities. When you have been coached and mentored, then you can pay it forward by coaching or mentoring others. Take what you have learned and pass it along to those who can benefit from your knowledge and experience.