The terms “mentor” and “coach” are often used interchangeably when it comes to describing a person who provides expert guidance at work.
The truth is that there is an important and distinguishing contrast between coaching and mentorship that make each relationship uniquely rewarding and useful at various stages in a career journey.
Understanding the distinction will help you to make an informed decision about which type of expert support might be right at this time for your present career development goals.
Serve as generalists, offering services to their clients across many industries and at various levels of the corporate hierarchy.
May or may not have lived experience in your chosen field—you’re generally paying for their business and goal-setting advice rather than their knowledge of your particular career path.
Are generally more experienced with your career ladder. Their value comes from their tested knowledge of the ins and outs of your chosen field, allowing them to provide advice that you can trust because it's based on firsthand experience.
Will often happily make professional introductions for you, drawing from their industry-specific networks, or be able to provide aligned advice and share experiences.
Over time, may also have the potential to become role models and sponsors for you as well, introducing you to new people and opportunities within your field.
Goal Setting and Growth
Both coaches and mentors help achieve professional goals, but in different ways.
Tend to teach, using their clients' knowledge and experience to learn.
A coach is useful for getting unstuck or finding a new path.
Spend time focusing on the present and future.
Lead from experience and share their knowledge, wisdom, and experiences with their mentee.
A mentor is useful when you know where you want to go, but not how to get there. A good mentor can offer the kind of wisdom that only experience can bring—someone who has been there, done that—and guide your path accordingly.
They are focused on the present-day needs of the mentee with special attention to career goals; coaches also focus on career development, but they are goal-oriented and tend to be external to their clients.
Short Term vs Long Haul
Are usually a professional whom you hire to help you navigate your career with a specified time for engagement. The relationship between you and your coach will often last for a specific amount of time—usually for as long as they’re getting paid.
Are a completely valid approach to career development if you need a one-off or as-needed professional opinion to help provide clarity or otherwise achieve your goals.
Are often intended for a long-term relationship. It’s not uncommon for a mentor/mentee relationship to last for years, or even decades, as long as both parties feel mutually fulfilled by their work together.
Offer the greatest insight into the long view of a career. By investing time and energy into another person’s professional development, you build a foundation for a meaningful relationship that can withstand the test of time.
Coaching is about helping you to move forward—professionally, personally, or both—by focusing on the now and planning for the future; it is action-oriented. Mentoring can help you understand why you are where you are, especially by trying upon shared past experiences and decisions, helping you in your current role, by reflecting you on track.
Coaches can help you get unstuck, but mentors will help you avoid getting stuck, to begin with.
In the past, finding access to high-quality coaches and mentors has been challenging. Currently, however, there are a great number of professional development tools and groups on LinkedIn that may help you find coaches for hire if that is what you’re searching for.
The best opportunities will typically come from your network or within your workplace for mentors. If offered, seek out an employee mentoring program or group at your company to find a mentor that shares your values and professional interests. If a program doesn’t exist currently, express interest in desiring this benefit for yourself and your team. Consider sharing information about an online mentoring program or employee engagement platform that can be adopted by your organization.
The Mentor Method offers extensive development tools for optimizing talent mobility, employee experience, and implementing employee mentoring programs at scale. Visit our website for a demo today.