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Published September 2, 2020
It's easy to get confused about the differences between coaching and mentoring.
When you’re trying to make big strides in your life, the benefits of both mentorship and coaching may not always be obvious. Many people think they don’t have time for both, so they feel they have to choose which is right for them.
You might be surprised to learn how valuable having both a mentor and a coach can be! Plus, having both isn’t as time-consuming as you might think. Most companies can benefit from having both coaching and mentoring programs for their employees.
In this article, we’ll look at the differences between a mentor vs. coach and why having both may be the secret to professional success.
What's the difference between a mentor and a coach?
Great guidance comes in many forms, and both mentors and coaches can help you make progress in your personal and professional life. While both a mentor and coach can contribute to your success, they play complementary roles in your development.
Gaining a better understanding of how mentorship and coaching work helps to highlight the key difference between them.
What does a mentor do?
No matter what stage you’re at in your career, “find a mentor” is a common refrain. However, despite 76% of people claiming mentors are important, only 37% say they currently have one.
Most people seek out a mentor to get critical advice from a more seasoned professional and open doors to that mentor's network. Plus, some people work with a business mentor within their organization to access higher-level leadership than they might encounter in their daily work.
Mentors range in job title, age, and seniority, but they usually have one thing in common: they are motivated to help others by sharing their experiences.
A mentorship program can help employees open a heavy door to a rich network of potential mentors within their organization. With almost 61% of people finding mentors who work at their current company, the impact of mentoring programs is clear.
Sounds like a dream, right? Yes, but mentors have their limits.
Despite 82% of people believing their mentor would call themselves one, there is no formal title that defines most mentor/mentee relationships. Even in a structured mentoring program, your connection with your mentor is often based on their availability.
For senior-level executives, spare time tends to be pretty limited. That may mean that the more successful your mentor is, the less available they may be, leaving mentees waiting for a chance to catch up.
A monthly lunch with your mentor can be valuable for building your network and asking questions. But, they may not be the best resource to help you build a new skill or make progress on a specific goal.
What does a coach do?
Unlike mentors, coaches are paid, highly-trained professionals. Their job is to guide and enable their clients to identify solutions that can alter behavior or help them develop a specific skill — all through the process of self-discovery and self-awareness.
An effective coach doesn't need to work in your industry, have great contacts, or be willing to open doors for your teammates. Instead, they help you develop goals and make progress toward them.
While coaches are dedicated specifically to formal goals, only 41% of mentor relationships have defined goals. A good coach guides their clients through self-discovery to integrate new techniques that encourage them to build leadership behaviors.
A coaching relationship also offers tangible results like reduced burnout rates, lower stress, and increased passion and resilience.* That kind of transformation is powerful, not just for individual employees, but for the teams they manage, too.
Good coaches are invaluable to organizations for one main reason: they can train managers to be coaches themselves.
This shapes your company's culture in a meaningful way by turning bosses into impactful coaches for their teams.
One of the biggest benefits of coaching is having a professional outside your organization dedicated to you and your team’s success. Many people who get coaching show increased engagement levels at work, job satisfaction, and overall well-being.
The key difference between coaches and mentors, and why you need both
The most significant difference between coaches and mentors is that coaches are paid, and mentors volunteer.
While it may seem like an obvious choice to opt for free guidance, it’s essential to see how coaching and mentorship work together to help employees expand their capabilities.
Many mentors offer support and guidance on what has worked for them in their careers to help their mentees. If they feel confident in their mentee’s growth, they may even make professional introductions to advance the mentee’s career.
While that’s immensely valuable for many professionals, the benefits can fall short without coaching.
A career coach focuses on helping their clients tackle specific, measurable goals through tested techniques. As highly trained professionals, coaches can teach the leadership skills needed to succeed and use the resources a mentor can offer.
In that way, coaching can be valuable for employees at every career level, while mentorship is often focused on early or mid-career development.
Since executive coaching is a paid relationship, coachees have more flexibility with scheduling, too. That means an employee may have coaching sessions more often, like once a week or every other week. More frequent meetings and dedicated attention can help coachees build skills faster.
A coaching relationship has a fixed training goal, so it usually has a fixed time span. A mentor, however, is often a more long-term relationship.
A business mentor can be helpful because they offer in-depth industry knowledge, connections, and expertise to someone newer in their field.
Within an organization, mentors are invaluable in helping their mentees navigate professional situations and progress through the company. Plus, mentors can stay a vital member of your support system even after you move to another job.
But, since mentorship is a voluntary role, you may not have as much access to your mentor as you’d like.
Developing a mentor relationship can take time and commitment as you build trust and bond. While formal mentorship programs can help speed the process along, building rapport can take time these programs don’t always account for.
Role and Relationship
Volunteer helps mentee in addition to job
Paid, trained, highly-specialized professionals that serve their clients
Sharing knowledge based on mentor's experience
Less structured, often informal
Questioning and drawing out knowledge that resides with the person being coached
Structured, regular sessions with measurable improvement
Highly dependent on mentor availability
Regularly scheduled, ongoing interaction, and accountability
Career-strategy focused, based on mentor's experience
Behavior change & skill development focused on achieving and enablement
Mentor may open their network for advancement opportunities
Unlikely to share personal contacts
More focused on long-term growth, regardless of current position or company.
Focuses on developing skills for this role, and future roles
Up to mentor
Some organizations offer cohort-level analytics
As you can see from the graphic above, mentors are excellent resources for long-term professional development. However, they don’t offer the sort of regular interaction, action-oriented engagement, and measurable results that coaches do.
Discovering your organization’s development goals
As you explore your goals to kickstart a mentorship or coaching program, it's essential to dig deep and clarify your intention.
While both mentorship and coaching will support your team’s development, it helps to clarify which your organization can most benefit from before you create an internal program.
- Are you hoping to increase employee engagement, motivation, and retention?
- Do you want to improve employee performance?
- Are you interested in highlighting different paths to leadership or elevating a particular group?
- Are you hoping to expose different employee groups to senior leadership?
- Are you looking to train your leadership team (and, in particular, millennial managers) to lead like coaches?
- Do you want to develop leadership behaviors?
Once you know your desired outcomes, you can start to decide whether a formal coaching or mentoring program is right for you and your organization.
For any program to be effective, it needs to be measurable, scalable, and repeatable. Ask yourself: will one program or both fit your needs?
Mentors can help younger employees find their path and open doors in the future, but will they help develop the right skills to drive key company initiatives?
Coaches can help train leaders and create a more robust company culture, but will it help your employees develop and expand within their career?
While you may not need a formalized program for both coaching and mentoring, you can create a culture that encourages both and offers a readily available path toward ongoing personal development.
Can you really formalize a mentorship program?
Fostering personal development and encouraging mentorship is a worthwhile pursuit that is undeniably worth the investment. But the reality is, the most successful mentoring programs are rarely the result of specific structures imposed by an HR department.
While mentors can provide valuable advice on how to succeed based on their personal experience, a mentor relationship works best when it’s organic.
In the chapter titled, "Will you be my mentor," in her book, Lean In: Women Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg laments the all-too-common practice of junior employees asking relative strangers for mentorship.
Sandberg doesn't outright dismiss the value of mentorship. Far from it! Instead, she highlights that a good mentoring program needs to create reciprocal relationships.
In these reciprocal relationships, mentors gain satisfaction from cultivating a promising younger person. Likewise, mentees feel they can trust and confide in their mentor.
If you're still debating which program is right for you and your business, consider this: encouraging your teammates to find mentors and facilitating a good match is always a good idea. But, a formal approach to matching mentees up with mentors is unlikely to create these bonds or meet your mentorship program goals.
However, setting up a coaching program allows your teammates to get the specific support they need to succeed in their current roles. Plus, it can be implemented and tracked almost immediately, so you can start seeing the impacts right away.
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Setting your teams up for success
Wade Burgess, Vice President of LinkedIn Talent Solutions, writes, "[professionals] don't want to leave their company; instead, they want to stick around and move up the ranks."
By helping team members grow within your organization, you can empower your best employees and watch them rise to leadership positions at your company.
Encouraging coaching and mentorship is one proven step that leads to retaining skilled and happy employees. Plus, the guidance from a coach and a mentor can help your employees evolve into strong leaders themselves.
While it’s hard to choose between a mentor and a coach, there’s no reason you or any employee should have to. There’s a notable benefit to having both, and starting a formal coaching program at your organization is a powerful place to start.
*BetterUp user data.
Original art by Vaclav Bicha.
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