Mentorship vs. Coaching: Similarities and Differences
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Throughout your formative school and college years, there are authority figures in the form of teachers or professors who guide you to reach your goals. They are typically invested in your good performance and the best ones dedicate time to each student to ensure their success.
Once you join the workforce, you now have managers or other stakeholders who are looking to you for results. While they can guide you from a tactical perspective and even coach you, you may, at times, be looking for more dedicated guidance from an industry senior.
You can do this by working with a mentor or a coach. The two, although used interchangeably sometimes, serve different purposes and the relationships are structured differently. Mentors and coaches are can also be used for personal growth, but for this blog post, we’ll primarily focus on mentors or coaches who aid in professional development.
Let’s begin by understanding what each of them actually does.
What is a mentor?
A mentor is someone who typically has experience and expertise in your field and shares insights with you to help you be a more successful professional. They may be from within your organization or someone you’ve worked with, in the past.
What is a coach?
A coach works with you to learn or hone a specific skill or to meet a specific goal. They provide guidance and feedback with that overall target in mind. Depending on your need at a given time, you may turn to different types of coaches - like communication coaches, leadership coaches, or confidence coaches.
Differences between coaches and mentors
With a fundamental understanding of what a mentor and coach are and what they have to offer, we can now see the differences between the two.
Nature of engagement
A mentor-mentee relationship usually begins organically where conversions are free-flowing and unstructured. The mentor shares notes from their experience which may be useful to the mentee in their career, and the mentee can ask questions and seek inputs. A mentor conversation can happen over a cup of coffee and can happen as often as is comfortable for both.
On the other hand, a coaching relationship is more formal and structured. You would normally hire a coach to acquire a skill or develop a soft skill, and this is a paid engagement. There is a timeframe for each coach-client session and specific milestones that are also tracked. Coaches also charge a fee and get paid for their coaching sessions.
Goals and targets
You may seek out a mentor to have a sounding board for your concerns and to be able to confide in an industry senior about goals, challenges, and areas of uncertainty. Perhaps you are looking to make a career change and want to weigh the pros and cons, or are considering pursuing a specialized degree. With this in mind, there is no fixed goal for the relationship, other than general professional development.
In a coaching relationship, the outcome you want is clear and is driven by you - there is a reason you reached out to a coach in the first place. You may want to be a better communicator or a more effective manager, for example. The coach breaks down this macro goal into smaller steps and milestones and measures your progress. Some coaching goals may be measurable numerically if they are tied to your company’s goals - increased profits or improved retention rates - while others are more performance-oriented. Coaches sometimes employ frameworks, like the SMART methodology when helping set your goals.
Being a mentor is not a full-time job, but a voluntary endeavor where professionals enjoy sharing their expertise with newer entrants in their industry and dedicate the time to do so, beyond their professional commitments. Mentors are motivated out of personal interest, and as such, do not normally undergo any training to be a mentor. They are simply sharing the expertise they already have.
A coach is hired for their specific knowledge of a topic or skill and depending on the type of coaching, might be certified or trained. Coaches are full-time or part-time and very often work independently. Be sure to review the credentials and success stories of a coach, before signing up so you know what type of coach you are hiring. Successful coaches have a good track record of guiding clients to their goals.
Since mentor-mentee relationships usually start organically and there isn’t a formal label or structure, they could run for as long as both are able to connect and find value in the conversations. This could be for a few months or run the course of a lifetime. You may also turn to a mentor during a period of career transition, and then the relationship may taper out.
Coaching is by definition goal-oriented and time-bound. You could sign up for a few months or a year or even extend beyond. But there need to be tangible (if not measurable) outcomes at the end of the initial period, to extend the relationship.
Do you need a coach or a mentor?
Before we dive into a checklist here, it is worth noting that in essence, coaching and mentoring are similar i.e. the overarching goal is improvement and growth as a professional. In both types of relationships, the expert i.e the mentor or coach brings significant knowledge and experience to the table and is there to help you reach your potential. There is trust and strong communication between the two parties and a focus on skill development. Both types of relationships are valuable, if there is a good rapport, and can further your growth.
If you are considering seeking out a mentor or a coach, you are in need of guidance or advice of some sort.
Here are some questions that can help you decide whether you’re actually looking for a mentor or a coach:
- Are you looking for direction to hit a particular time-bound goal?
- Do you have someone you’ve turned to for advice before? Can you do so again?
- Are you willing to pay for the required expertise?
- Do you need to spend dedicated time and effort to reach a particular goal?
If most of your answers to these questions point to a time-bound, goal-driven engagement, then a coach in that respective area might be the right answer. Mentorship and coaching are also not mutually exclusive - you may have a mentor you turn to for broad career advice and still work with a coach to get better at resolving conflicts.
Companies today offer options for mentorship and coaching, so as an employee you can tap into those benefits and networks. Professional mentorship platforms are also viable options, to connect you with the right mentor, if you are looking for niche advice from industry experts.
With a wealth of generational knowledge, there is no need to resolve problems that have already been solved. All the greats have turned to their predecessors for guidance - Mark Zuckerberg consulted Steve Jobs on occasion, and Bill Gates turned to Warren Buffett for mentorship. To go even further back in history, Socrates mentoring Plato and Plato in turn mentoring Aristotle are examples of the glorious tradition of passing on knowledge and expertise.