Coaching versus Mentoring: What’s the difference?

Growthspace
Growthspace
Oct 02 2022
7 min read
Coaching versus Mentoring: What's the difference?

People often assume that mentoring and coaching are one and the same – but other than sharing the goal of personal and/or professional development, they are actually very different types of working relationships.

To get a better understanding of the unique differences, here’s a quick-and-dirty breakdown of their distinct methods, philosophies, and more.

coaching vs mentoring
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Coach vs. Mentor – Definitions

Let’s start by defining the difference between a workplace coach and a workplace mentor:

A coach acts as a guide to build employee competence and skill. It is the coach’s client who actually realizes the best path forward, with the coach being a counselor along the way. 

A mentor is an expert in a particular area of business who lends their knowledge and advice to an employee who needs support in order to progress. The mentor provides direction and input based on their experience. 

Comparing the Benefits of Coaching and Mentoring  

As professionals whose task it is to improve the performance and skills of employees, coaches and mentors approach the same goals from different directions. Let’s examine four areas in how they differ: 

Background & Qualifications

Coach

A coach is a career L&D professional. One of the benefits of coaching is that their specialty is to improve the workplace success levels of their clients. As experts dedicated to the training and development of others, they depend greatly on their reputations and networks within the business community to source clients. That’s why a reputable coach probably has some great skills and experience to back them up. 

Although anybody can declare themselves to be a coach, there are organizations that provide certification. The global leader in certification is generally thought to be the International Coaching Federation. However, there are other organizations that also certify coaching professionals, such as the Center for Coaching Certification, the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching, and the Co-Active Training Institute. It’s important to know that certification is no indication of quality, so doing some research about coaching candidates is important.  

Mentor

A mentor is usually someone with a high level of experience in a certain industry or role. Mentors can be either internal or external:

  • An internal mentor works at the same place as the person they are mentoring
  • An external mentor gets a contract to work with an employee 

External mentors are interesting because they are often people who changed careers. At one point, they were experts in a certain type of business. Then they chose to teach others in the same industry about the things that helped them to succeed. This can happen because they decided to go into semi-retirement, or maybe sold their business, or simply want to “give back”. 

(There are many famous mentoring relationships of this last type that may not have been on a professional basis but which are still fascinating, such as Steve Jobs mentoring Mark Zuckerberg and Christian Dior mentoring Yves Saint-Laurent).

Mentors often have no formal training in the L&D industry. But, unlike coaches, it’s usually a case of “their reputation precedes them”. Mentors are already known in their industry due to the success that makes them worthwhile advisors. 

Expertise & Teaching Style

Coach

A coach’s ability is concentrated on the personal and/or professional support of others. Certainly, most coaches have a knack for developing employees; that’s why they chose the profession of coaching in the first place. But all certified coaches require training, and this education involves a set of core courses that impart the essential skills that they will need. 

Aside from that, many coaches tend to specialize. For example, you can find coaches who stick to certain areas, such as communication. But within this category are many skill elements on which a coach will focus, such as interpersonal communication.  

The areas of a coach’s expertise can really influence their engagement rate. The L&D industry as a whole, as well as basically every company in the world, now needs to deal with an ever-increasing number of skills required by each employee. At the same time, many skills are becoming obsolete. A successful coach needs to keep track of what’s hot and what’s not, something that is an art in itself. Then, they need to understand the essential ideas of every skill trend, and figure out how to teach them. 

Mentor

Mentors face other challenges related to expertise. By definition, a mentor is a leader in their particular profession. They have mastered a certain type of function, department, or business and can help somebody do the same. Or can they? Without a lengthy background in L&D, mentors are not necessarily great at teaching. They might have their own leadership style, but not every person leads in the same way.  

One alternative to this situation is an external mentor. They have the specific business knowledge that mentors are known for. But a good external mentor will also have highly developed instructional abilities. For long-term engagements that need in-depth business knowledge, an external mentor might be your best bet.  

Method & Duration

Coach

Coaches work to help their clients find their own solutions. They are not supposed to offer professional advice or opinions. Many coaches use a technique based on leading questions that continuously encourage the client to think deeply about what they should be doing differently.

And because coaches are trained, they use formal assessment tools such as a 360 review or the CliftonStrengths assessment technique.

Finally, even though coaching engagements can be long term, they have a definite ending period, at which point the client-coach relationship ends.

Mentor

In contrast, the benefits of mentoring programs are often based on advice and opinions. The basic question asked of a mentor is “what would you do in this situation?”  

Mentors will also generally use whatever assessment tools they are familiar with, most likely the one currently used by the employer. In terms of engagement, the support of an internal mentor might be ongoing, depending on the career paths that they and their client follow. Chances are that the mentor and client know each other, even before the engagement starts. 

Areas of Support

Coach

The long-term engagement of coaching provides an opportunity for fundamental changes in an employee’s skills and methods. What might those be? The ingrained ideas and attitudes related to soft skills are usually the target. There is a huge range of soft skills that can be developed according to the challenges that the employee faces. 

Mentor

Employees and mentors cooperate to improve performance in certain organizational roles. Whatever skills and knowledge are part of that role will form the concentration of the engagement. It might be that the client has an existing level of a relevant skill, and the mentor will tell them how to improve, possibly by referring them to an L&D program running alongside the benefits of mentoring. 

Coaches or Mentors – What is Best for your Employees? 

You don’t have to. With a versatile L&D platform, all you need to do is define your challenge and business objectives, and the right expert will follow. 

Enter GrowthSpace’s multi-experience talent development platform. Through the magic of its industry-leading technology, GrowthSpace will source the experts and the experiences that enable customized development and targeted outcomes. The platform translates your L&D requirements to determine what expert you need – a coach, mentor, or technical trainer – and matches the resulting courses with top specialists in each field.  

Say goodbye to cookie-cutter coaching programs, and hello to measurable, effective professional development at scale, based on what the employee and the business really need to thrive. 

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