Mentoring and coaching are incredibly similar concepts. They are commonly (but not always) 1:1 relationships between someone who wants to learn and someone who has the experience that can be taught. But when you whittle down the details, the mentor vs. coach comparison reveals some distinct differences that matter far more than you might realize at first. Instead of being direct analogs, what you’ll find is that mentoring and coaching are often complementary roles that can at times be filled either by the same person or by different people. It all depends on how you structure the relationships.
Before you create a training program or begin establishing an official training relationship, it’s important to understand what mentoring and coaching are, how they differ, and when each type of role is necessary.
Mentor vs. Coach: What's It All About?
The differences between coaching and mentoring are subtle conceptually but become more apparent in practice. The key difference between the two is the dynamic between the learner (such as a mentee) and the instructor (such as a mentor or coach). Those differences are unique enough, in fact, that we would hesitate to refer to a mentor as a teacher in the strictest sense because that poorly defines the mentor/mentee relationship. Conversely, you could easily call a coach a teacher without much confusion. To get a top-level view of mentoring vs. coaching, let’s start with how these terms can be defined.
- Mentoring soundbite: Depending on the dictionary you check, a mentor could be “a trusted counselor or guide”. Some dictionaries will add “teacher” to the definition, though we don’t think this is entirely accurate to describe the way mentoring works in practice.
- Coaching soundbite: When it comes to defining a coach, many dictionaries focus on the sports aspect, which is certainly the more common application of the learning style. However, in more general terms, a coach is often defined as a “private tutor” or “one who instructors or trains”.
An Alternative Definition for Coaching and Mentoring
In her book, Mentoring Programs That Work, talent development specialist and MentorcliQ Chief Diversity Officer, Jenn Labin, breaks down the difference between these two concepts early in the book’s introduction. Understanding the differences and similarities, she believes, is incredibly important to ensure that programs are designed with the desired outcomes in mind (and to ensure that those outcomes are met and are measurable).
Labin delivers several pointed definitions that may help:
- Mentor: A more experienced individual providing some amount of guidance and support to another individual.
- Mentoring: The relationship between at least one learner and at least one mentor.
- Coaching: A skill set used to help a learner grow and develop. It usually involves active listening and asking guided questions to encourage the learner to come up with solutions to issues.
In effect, you can coach without mentoring, and you can mentor without coaching, but for the best results, a good learning or training program needs to have both. Again, whether the mentors and coaches are the same people, and whether the coaching and mentoring occur concurrently depends on how you structure your organization's talent development program.
3 Key Differences Between Coaches and Mentors
Mentoring and coaching can seem like two sides of the same educational coin. To help you better understand how they’re different, consider the following:
1. Mentoring relationships are typically mentee-directed; coaching programs are always coach-directed
In a coaching relationship, the learner is typically instructed step-by-step what to do. They’re acquiring skills through a structured training program so that they can then apply those skills for the purpose of performance.
Conversely, in mentoring relationships, mentees are often tasked with setting their own goals, while mentors help guide them toward meeting those goals. Mentors are there to use their existing experience as a resource to help point mentees in the right direction but don’t necessarily spell out step-by-step learning objectives. This relationship is often weighted toward the mentee’s personalized learning experience, the tone and flow of which are often set by the mentee.
2. Mentoring programs can be both formal or informal; coaching programs are usually outlined
In her book, Jenn Labin explains that “mentoring is broad, covering both professional and personal issues, while coaching is task-oriented and focus on specific performance gaps”. Simone Biles certainly wasn’t mentored into becoming the most-decorated female gymnast in history; she was coached. Her coaching program was detailed and elaborate, focusing on current and projected skills gaps and implementing training regimes to help hone her skills.
The same can be true of mentoring, but not always. Mentoring relationships can be as informal as a mentee scheduling a meeting with a mentor to destress from a difficult client meeting to as structured as an onboarding program for new hires to help them get acclimated to the company. Informal mentoring can also be seen through mentoring circles and Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), both of which allow peers to learn from each other and grow together.
3. Coaches usually have a specific skillset to teach others; mentors may have other valuable traits and experiences to share
Someone doesn’t become a coach if they don’t have a pre-existing set of skills or expert knowledge and experience that can be taught to others. Just look at any successful coaching program. The coaches are industry leaders with decades of experience, awards, and status. You wouldn’t want to learn from them otherwise.
That doesn’t mean that mentors can’t be just as skilled. But in many cases, mentors are everyday individuals who have valuable insight and experience to share, but who may lack the published pedigree or a coach. This is often the case with reverse mentoring, for example, where more senior-level executives in an organization take on junior-level employees as their mentors.
In those situations, the individual who might otherwise be serving as the mentor is able to become a mentee in areas that are just as important but more difficult to measure, such as diversity and inclusion or unique cultural perspectives.
Best Skills for Mentors
To be an effective mentor, you may need to have the following skills:
Mentors usually embody transferable experiences and skills, but may not have built a career around teaching others about those experiences of skills. Don’t be surprised if you’re trying to launch a mentorship program and have trouble attracting mentors. Many individuals who would make excellent mentors for a mentorship program don’t realize just how much of a positive influence they can make because they've rarely been recognized for the transferrable talent they bring to the table.
That said, if you want to find and cultivate mentors, create a culture where your people are actively recognized for the positive and impactful value they bring to your organization.
Best Skills for Coaches
Great coaches are those who possess all (and more) of the following:
- Verifiable skills or experience in one or more high-need areas
- Experience teaching or educating others to help them grow in that skill
- Understanding of teaching philosophy or pedagogy to help structure and deliver effective teaching strategies
- Encouraging personality
- Goal-oriented with the ability to motivate learners to meet objectives
- An observant and reflective mentality to notice and implement coaching changes as needed
More often than not, someone who becomes a coach has been coached effectively in the past. These individuals carry with them what they learned through coaching, as well as what they learned about effective coaching either through training or through observing the traits of their past coaches.
When Do I Need a Coach or Mentor?
This is often not an either-or discussion. Organizations can benefit from both coaching and mentoring. In fact, coaching and mentoring are easily combined into the same learning programs, assuming that those learning programs are built at the outset around measurable organizational goals.
Therein lies the problem with many organization's mentoring or coaching programs. They’re typically created to solve a problem (reduce turnover rates, accelerate the onboarding process for new hires, etc.). But when those programs are not designed with the end goal in mind, are not structured properly to make them easily measurable, and are not built to ensure that the mentor/mentee or coach/coachee matches are best fits, the results are usually underwhelming. As much value as we know they bring, it's hard to justify a mentoring or coaching program that doesn't have verifiably positive results we can put before stakeholders.
This is why organizations like The Clorox Company, Nielsen, and Bacardi have chosen to leverage mentoring software like MentorcliQ for their mentoring programs. By implementing modern mentoring software, organizations like these have found that they can more easily hit their measurable program objectives, and sometimes in dramatic fashion. That includes saving millions of dollars by retaining top talent and reducing turnover rates.
With MentorcliQ’s customizable mentoring software you can:
- Launch any number of mentoring or coaching programs
- Train mentors through our ATD-accredited MentorLab training modules
- Integrate your HRIS for deep programmatic insights and ROI data
- Receive ongoing support from Customer Success Coaches
- Easily connect a distributed workforce from anywhere in the world
Whether you’re building a mentoring program for the first time or expanding on an existing program, MentorcliQ reduces the strain of starting programs and helps program administrators easily win over decision-makers with exceptionally direct ROI data for every program.
Connect with MentorcliQ to see how mentoring programs powered by mentoring software and our framework can impact and improve your employees' mentoring and coaching needs.