Get a coach or get a mentor?

By Rich Douglas
Executive Director, Human Capital Lab

We all need a little help with our professional lives now and then. And I’m guessing you’re familiar with the terms “coach” and “mentor.” But what are they, really? Which should you turn to? Where do you find them? Let’s look at the differences between coaches and mentors along several variables: Purpose/outcomes, professional status, experience, process, timeframes, and resources. Hopefully, this blog will clarify the differences between a coach and a mentor and will help you decide which one to seek out.

Purpose/outcomes. Coaches and mentors have the same purpose: helping you reach a professional or personal goal. This might be a problem at work, a job change, a promotion, or coaching and mentoring might be part of a learning program you’re in.

On the personal side, coaches work in a variety of specialty areas like wellness, nutrition, or fitness. Mentors show up in our personal lives, too. Teachers, religious leaders, family members, friends, and colleagues can all serve as mentors for us.

Professional status. While anyone can call themselves a “coach” – it isn’t a licensed profession – it is a profession, nonetheless. Coaches certified by the International Coach Federation (ICF) certify coaches that have specific training, experience, entrance examination, continuing education requirements, have a professional association (again, the ICF), and are covered by a code of ethics. (Note: I’m an ICF Professional Certified Coach.)

Mentors, on the other hand, do not have this kind of organization or certification. Mentors can come about informally (people you know who can give you guidance), or they can be appointed to you as part of a leadership development program or from your membership in a professional association. 

There was a time when I was in a formal mentoring program as both a mentor and a protégé at the same time! And I can think of three wonderful people who, informally, are my mentors for different aspects of my career.

Experience. Mentors are helpful when they come with professional (or personal) experience relevant to you and the path you’re on. Working on being a better project manager? Be mentored by an experienced project manager. Interested in becoming an executive? Being mentored by a senior leader—in your organization or elsewhere—can really help.

Coaches, however, do not necessarily need to have a similar background to yours—although it can sometimes help. Even though I’m a coach, I also work with a coach. In that case, her experience is very relevant to our coaching sessions, and I sought her out for that reason. As a coach, I work with people from all walks of life. I like to think I learn from my client – perhaps even more than they learn from me!

Process. Here’s one sentence that clearly distinguishes coaches from mentors: coaches ask questions and mentors give answers. Oh, it’s more complicated than that, but you get the idea. Coaches partner with their clients to work their clients’ agendas, not their own by forming a partnership with their clients. Think of a coach as someone running alongside you, helping you along your way.

Mentors give advice and guidance. They show their protégés the way to go. “Follow me,” they’re saying. They’re out ahead of you, helping to blaze a trail for you to follow by being a role model in your life.

Timeframes. Coaching and mentoring can be either open- or close-ended. Coaches often take on clients indefinitely, seeing how things go and adjusting along the way. However, when coaching is provided by an employer, or is part of a leadership development program, it usually has a limited time frame.

Mentoring as part of a structured program is also limited in terms of time. The process has a beginning, a middle, and an end. But informal mentors in your life can go on indefinitely!

Resources. They say there is no such thing as “free.” Okay, but some things cost money. Mentoring—formal and informal–is normally done without cash changing hands. In formal mentoring programs, any costs are covered by the sponsoring organization. As for informal mentors, wouldn’t that be something if we were presented a bill for services after getting some advice!

Coaching is usually paid for, either by the coaching client or by a sponsoring organization. Coaches normally—but not always—work for pay. (Almost all coaches do some pro bono coaching.) Some do it internally within their places of employment, while others have their own coaching practices.

So, there you have it. With these distinctions, you should be able to decide whether you need a coach or a mentor, as well as some of the factors to consider when seeking out one. And if you’re interested in becoming one or the other, do it! I’ve been both and they’re some of the best professional experiences I’ve ever had.