Mentors or Coaches – Why You Need Both

Some of my best post ideas come from reader comments. Like this one:

I advocate having a mentor versus a coach. You may think they are one in the same but, in my world a mentor is someone YOU pick, a coach is someone that THEY pick.

I agree that mentors and coaches are two different things. Not sure if I completely agree the distinction is who chooses whom. Because managers can regularly coach their employees. In both situations, the people involved have to want to be in either the mentoring or coaching relationship. Otherwise, it’s a waste. This is also true when it’s a supervisor and subordinate relationship.

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On the other hand, I do realize that sometimes mentoring or coaching relationships are created without much of a selection process. When that happens, everyone involved is given the extra task of trying to build a relationship from a position of being “assigned” instead of “selected”.

I’ve always viewed the difference between mentoring and coaching being subject and process oriented.

Mentors are typically subject matter experts in the topic they are mentoring. Their method involves teaching and development. They are passing along their knowledge and skills.

Coaches are focused on listening, questioning and processes. Their methods focus on action plans, goals and accountability. They are helping someone achieve a goal that’s been set.

This doesn’t imply that one method is superior to another. In fact, it only heightens the importance of choosing the right one. Coaching might be best in situations where there’s a skills or knowledge gap but not a clear path to address it. Mentoring may be a good option when someone is confident about what they want to do but they need direction.

I can see where it might be helpful to have more than one mentor, depending upon what a person is trying to accomplish. Not sure about multiple coaches – since they are process oriented, wouldn’t that be confusing?

Let me know your thoughts on this. Are mentors and coaches the same thing?

Image courtesy of Robert Smith


  1. says

    Certainly, there are subtle distinctions. An answer may lie within investigating the distinction between advice and guidance.

    Thought experiment in progress, results pending.

    Using the picture as the metaphor, which way is your ship sailing and how is the view from the crows nest?
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  2. says

    Hmmm…. the thing is, one of my favorite things to do as a mentor is to ask questions… and my favorite mentors are good questioners. So, in that way a mentor can also be a coach. I think the important thing is to have lots of great people in your life challenging you and from whom you can learn.

  3. says

    The two concepts has its own distinctions and features while sometimes they overlap according to the situation itself; A mentor has to shift for being a coach of his own team when assigned to a task with a deadline, on the other had the Coach has to be a mentor at a certain point if he noticed issues going on between his team…

    Both are leading styles, and the only difference is when to apply which concept.

  4. says

    This is somewhat of a common topic which conveniently also has a couple of common opposing opinions. I feel that Mentors as a whole fill a more general and long lasting role in the development of an individual. I feel like mentor is building up the mentee to eventually fill their roles within the profession. Coaching on the other hand has a measured and specific goal of improving a certain skill.
    In that sense I do agree with your view of coaches. I feel like it’s hard to say that you can only have one mentor, as there are different people that influence your life. There can be a lot of informal mentors through someones life and that’s alright.
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  5. Mark says

    The lines between the two are blurred and a relationship as a coach often morphs to mentoring and vice versa. In a lot of ways I think this is natural as it allows all topics to be discussed in the coaching/mentoring discussions which in turn means that the discussions are uninhibited & free flowing.
    The reality is that both relationships should be preceded by mutual understanding of each participant’s role and then strict enforcement of those roles on- going, but this is for me an ‘idealised’ situation that is virtually impossible to apply.

  6. Ioana Rijnetu says

    I do believe there is a difference between coach and mentor. In my opinion, a mentor is a person you choose to guide, teach and inspire you through life and personnel development , while a coach is a specialized person that helps you achieve your desired goals. A coach helps you perform in an area after setting your objectives; he lets you clearly see how you can improve the way to get from A to B :-). They may have similar skills, but with different directions.

  7. Magdalena Giec says

    There is clear distinction between mentoring and coaching. Coaching is an ADVICE FREE ZONE. Through questioning coach helps the client to choose the goal, find the way to achieve it and find the source of motivation and energy to go through possible obstacles.
    Mentor may ask powerful questions AND at the same time transfers knowledge and shares his or her experience influencing in this way the protege or mentee. Percentage of questions and sharing knowledge depends on mentor while in coaching sharing knowledge is considered “a violation of professional standards.”

  8. says

    Magdalena is quite correct in saying that – in the eyes of most coach training organisations at least – the main difference between coaching and mentoring is that coaching is an advice free zone. In theory at least a good coach can coach on any topic as the process is all about helping the client to self-identify their own goals and work out an effective way to achieve them. Often a major benefit of the coach is to help make the client feel accountable for achieving their goals and therefore more focused on achieving them.

    The difficulty with this clear distinction is that most CLIENTS either do not understand the distinction, do not agree with it or could not care less about it. What they want is “help”!!

    As someone who has mentored for many years and is a relatively recent leaner about “coaching”, I have in my view become a much better mentor by applying some coaching principles (other than “no advice”) to mentoring while on occasions doing “pure” coaching.

    The important thing is for the coach / mentor to agree the principles and boundaries of their relationship in the early stages of the process, so that they each know what to expect of the other.

    Coaching and mentoring and various combinations of the two are all very valuable forms of support and we must not let problems of definition get in the way of encouraging their use.

  9. Augustine says

    When you are a beginner in a job or something else, you need to have both because they may have different approach about the skills of training.

  10. says

    Thanks everyone for the comments. I’m really enjoying the discussion.

    Many of you have mentioned that the lines between mentoring and coaching are blurred. That begs the question “Can a coach be a mentor? Or vice versa?” I’ve always thought of them as different skill sets. Not to say that a person can’t do both.

    Maybe it’s really about advice versus guidance as Robert and Tony pointed out.

  11. Greg says

    For me it boils down to who has the answers. Mentors can certainly ask questions and perform coaching, but the mentor is imparting their knowledge onto the mentee. In the Odyssey, Mentor was a trusted advisor. A coach often has none of the answers, but knows all the right questions to ask to draw the information out of the coachee. In my experience as a coach, I’m most effective when I have no knowledge of the work being done or the history of the situation so I don’t have to resist the urge to “weigh in” with my advice.

  12. Dr raj says

    Sports offer good analogy to understand coaching. In my view, it is the focus and scope that differentiate coaching and mentoring. Skills like listening, questioning etc are required in either case.

  13. says

    I like Greg’s comment about answers. And Dr. Raj’s point about the skills being similar. Does that mean coaching and mentoring skills are very similar but the results are different?

  14. Tony Bennett says

    Sharlyn – in my view most of the SKILLS of coaching and mentoring are very similar. Oddly enough there seems to be massively more training on coaching than there is on mentoring, when in my experience most mentors would benefit from taking a coaching led approach to their mentoring ( ie ask lots of questions and do lots of listening rather than pitch straight in with “this is the way to do it”).

    The key difference remains however that a coach should not give advice but should help the “client” to self identify goals and ways of achieving them. In that sense the sports coach analogy does not work for me as they are in “technical” terms almost always sports mentors rather than sports coaches

  15. says

    I agree that the skills inherent in coaching and mentoring overlap quite a bit: knowing when to give advice, knowing when to play devil’s advocate, knowing when to set project goals, etc. are all crucial in those roles.

    Rather than drawing a distinction between coach and mentor, we should think of this point person as both. In the beginning stages of the process, he or she will act more like a coach, building confidence and helping you reach milestones in your field. In later stages, they will be more like a mentor, giving advice when needed and serving as an example in tough situations.

    Internships are a great example of this process: supervising managers both coach and mentor their interns, and a look at the trajectory of this relationship will see one role segue into another.

  16. Belen says

    Mentoring is related to inspiration and passion whereas coaching is to guidance. Everybody could be for somebody a Mentor but not a Coacher.

  17. Peter says

    Sharlyn says in her article that “Coaching might be best in situations where there’s a skills or knowledge gap”.

    Surely this is the definition of Mentoring where knowledge is transferred from the topic expert to the recipient.

  18. Tony Bennett says

    This discussion is increasingly illustrating the confusion about coaching and mentoring.

    Those involved in coach education will absolutely insist that the key to coaching is “no advice” whereas the key to mentoring is to have the expertise to provide advice.

    Most clients neither know nor care about the difference but it is sad that there is no consensus and consistency in the HR community about the meaning of the words.

  19. says

    Thanks to everyone for keeping the conversation going. I’m beginning to agree with Tony. There appears to be little agreement around the definitions. And there should be.

    I do think there’s a perception about being on the receiving end of coaching versus mentoring. And I believe there’s also a perception about being a coach versus a mentor.

  20. says

    My view is that a coach is someone who will come in and show you their way of doing things and improve you that way, whereas I see a mentor as someone who will watch over you as you learn for yourself and implement your own strategies but will always be there to help you over the hurdles you may come across along the way.
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  21. Peter says

    I believe a coach asks questions but a mentor tells or guides. A coach will not show you their way of doing things – that is a mentor’s role.

    At our first meeting, if a client says “So, what are you going to tell me during this coaching programme?” I will reply that I am not going to tell him anything, as I am a coach not a mentor. I am not an expert in their industry, I am an expert in coaching. If he is expecting someone to tell him how to improve how he does his job, then he should seek out a mentor or trainer who has worked in his industry.

    I agree that HR play a critical role in managing the expectations of the client before the first meeting so that clients know exactly what to expect.