What’s the difference between a Coach and a Mentor?

Estimated reading time: 3 mins

These words can often be used inter-changibly; but there is a big difference between a Coach and a Mentor that you need to know about.

I was first introduced to ‘mentorship’ 15 years ago in my workplace. The leaders of my organization decided it would be helpful and supportive to staff, helping us grow and develop, by providing us with ‘coaches’. As it turns out, what they actually provided us with were mentors, and the initiative failed.

There is a big difference between coaching and mentorship. That doesn’t mean a coach cannot be a mentor, or vice-versa, but the process of coaching and mentoring are distinctly different. If only my employer had known this 15 years ago. Here’s why:

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Mentoring is a process where an individual, or group, is supported in achieving a goal by a mentor who shares their own experiences in achieving the same goal. A mentor is a role-model of sorts. Typically, a mentor is highly accomplished in the subject/goal and has a proven track record in this field.

Throughout the process, the mentor describes what they did in similar situations to their mentees, providing the benefit of insight and experience, and what has been known to work before. A mentor is a story-teller. They lead by their own example.

Coaching is a process where an individual, or group, is supported in achieving a goal by a coach who uses encouragement, training, inspiration, incentivization and firmness so that the coachees achieve their goals by themselves. A coach helps a coachee develop skills and know-how. The coach is not necessarily highly accomplished in the subject or field (although it is an advantage when the coach has to gain the confidence of the coachees) but they will certainly have to be accomplished trainers, be persuasive and credible, and demonstrate considerable empathy and patience.

Is one better than the other? Depends on the situation – there is no implicit advantage of one process over the other.

Mentorship is focused on the mentor. Mentorship is effective when there is a high degree of similarity between the situation of the mentee and the previous situation of the mentor, because the mentor can say “Do this… Because that worked for me before.”

One of the downsides to mentorship, possibly, is that there can be a lack of accountability between mentor and mentee. Another is that the scope of learning is limited, because the mentee learns how to do something, but not necessarily why. 

Coaching is focused on the coachee. Coaching is effective when the development of the coachee is required to be holistic, i.e., to develop the what, why, where and how. It also develops the coachee’s capabilities to achieve future goals.

A downside of coaching is that it can take time, a lot of effort from coach and coachee, and is less direct in tackling the goal head-on.

Coaches and Mentors

A coach does not necessarily make a good mentor… as it isn’t necessary for a great coach to have achieved the same goals as their coachees. If a coachee asks their coach what to do, they’re more likely to be answered with ‘what do you think?’

In my experience, great coaches typically make good mentors because they have the required track record in the subject.

A mentor does not necessarily make a good coach… as it isn’t necessary for a great mentor to know how to teach and help their mentees develop skills and know-how. If a mentee asks their mentor how to develop a skill, they’re more likely to be answered with ‘this is what I did when I was in your situation…’

In my experience, great mentors typically make lousy coaches because they veer towards their own experiences rather than staying completely focused on the coachee.

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