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Coaching vs. Mentoring: Is There a Difference?

Life CoachingSkillsSoft SkillsArticle

“Coaching” and “mentoring” are fundamental to helping people launch careers or excel at jobs and organizations become successful. They are often interchangeable, but the reality is that each is an entirely different approach to training or equipping a person with the tools they need to succeed.


Understandably, the parameters of the two terms could get blurred, and sometimes, a person can serve both roles. However, understanding how the two are supposed to work can avoid confusion and lead to better learning environments.


Here is a brief rundown of the role and differences between coaching vs. mentoring.

What’s a Mentor?

A mentor’s purpose is to help the mentee develop the skills they need to succeed. That can include the mentor imparting their experiences to the mentee. The mentor helps the mentee improve their professional skills, learn new skills and techniques, and generally teaches them how to pursue a career path.


The advice and guidance of a mentor helps the mentee understand the requirements of a job or career and then learn how to master those requirements. That includes, but is not limited to:


  • Helping the mentee develop leadership skills
  • Helping to define job or career goals for the mentee
  • Offering professional advice and techniques
  • Opening the doors for new contacts
  • Serving as a general sounding board and resource professionally


A mentor can offer specific advice for situations the mentee faces. However, the advice they usually give is general and oriented toward providing the mentee with the skills they need to do it themselves.

What Is a Coach?

A coach’s role is more episodic. The coach will guide specific strategies and tactics to master individual scenarios. They will map out a plan and how to execute it and then be there to help navigate challenges that arise during that execution.


The typical business coach will take a firm or individual’s goals and determine the most effective way to achieve them. Along the way, they will help the organization position itself in the best way possible to ensure every action is a stepping stone towards victory.


For the individual, they will assess the skill set they are working with and put that person in a position to excel. That can mean explicit actions or omnibus tactics like learning new skills through training.


One of the most critical roles a coach can play is to keep a business or individual’s goals realistic. A coach examines what has been accomplished and how you can use those accomplishments to attain future success. As importantly, they will keep the organization or individual grounded so that their goals do not exceed their respective abilities.

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"Coaching" and "mentoring" are fundamental to helping people launch careers or excel at jobs and organizations become successful.

What Can Coaches and Mentors Do for You?

The ‘A’ Team Example

One of the best ways to see the role of a coach and mentor in action is to look at a professional sports team. Most pro sports teams have several tiers of managers, mentors, and coaches. Each person has their role. At the top is the head coach.


Mentors (Assistant Coaches, Coordinators, Skills Coaches, Life Advisors)

Mentors on a sports team are usually coordinators or specific skills coaches (they are called coaches but are mentors.) Both will work with an individual to make sure their technique is proper. An NFL Quarterback Coach, for example, will mentor an aspiring Quarterback on how to play the game most effectively at the NFL level.  


The game at a pro level is much different than at any other level and requires specific skills, knowledge, and experience to excel. Therefore, the role of a skills coach or coordinator is to work with the player in question to help them develop the process, mechanics and physical skills, and strength to compete.


Behind those mentors are physical fitness, nutrition, and lifestyle managers. These folks are also mentors of sorts. They help a player develop good habits for building and sustaining strength, eating properly, and living up to the rigors and demands of being a pro athlete off the field.


In addition, older players that have the respect of the coaches and their teammates can serve the role of mentor. They might help a young recruit handle practice or life off the field.


The Head Coach

Above all of that is the Head Coach. 


The goal of a head coach is to ensure all the components are in place to win a game. That includes overseeing that players complete training, are healthy physically and mentally, and prepared to go up against an opponent. 


They take the team’s overall goal, which is to win, and make sure that each player is prepared and in a position to help the team achieve that goal and is motivated to do so.


A head coach comes up with a game plan and execution strategy. They also come up with contingencies should the game plan prove ineffective. 


Then, in-game situations, they decide how the team should play, which can include everything from targeting weaknesses in the other team to deciding on a path they think will prove successful.


How That Plays in Real Life

The pro sports team analogy is not perfect, but it provides a general sense of the role of mentors and coaches. A mentor will give rising executives the advice and training they need to have the skills to succeed. A coach will help those rising executives succeed by putting them in a position that capitalizes on their skills.

Final Thoughts

A mentor focuses on specific skills to help a person or organization succeed. A Coach takes those skills and applies them to particular situations to put the person or organization in the best position possible to achieve their goals. 


Both are vital growth and management components of any successful effort, even if their titles do not precisely align with coaching vs. mentoring labels.

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