The Difference Between Coaching and Mentoring

The words coaching and mentoring are often used interchangeably. In reality, they’re two different areas of expertise with a lot of overlap. The dichotomy and lack of standardization of the terms’ use creates a lot of confusion about the two.

So, what is the difference between coaching and mentoring? Here are some of the similarities, differences, and how you can benefit from either.

How are Coaching and Mentoring Different?

Let’s take a look at the definition of a mentor in comparison to the definition of a coach. A coach is defined as “someone who teaches a special skill.” A mentor is defined as “an experienced and trusted advisor.” You can see, then, why the two get used interchangeably.

Let’s start by focusing on mentors. Mentors are trusted advisors that offer advice about a path someone is already taking. For example, if you are taking your masters, you may work with a mentor to guide you through the process and answer any questions, as they have first-hand experience in the area. You’re already on a path and you have an action plan to get there. Sometimes you need a mentor by your side to boost your confidence or coach you through something.

A coach, on the other hand, can see what you want your destination to be and helps craft a plan for you to get there. In weightlifting, your coach might know that you want to win a competition. They’ll help you define that goal (how much do you have to lift to win?), create a plan to achieve that goal (you will train four times a week for two hours a day), and then walk you through it (alter your form like so). They make strategic decisions based on outcomes and navigate as you walk the path to your goals. This often necessitates using their experience in this area to mentor you.

Mentors are often based on a personal or workplace relationship rather than a coach and a client. A mentor could be a professor or colleague who has more experience in a shared area of interest. Meetings are socially based and casual with a strong rapport that may develop into a friendship or stem from one.

The coach to client relationship will be different. This is often someone who has sought out a professional to help guide them through a sticking point in their life. Meetings will be structured and goal-oriented with accountability metrics put in place. The coach may assign homework, such as a skills test, to get a better understanding of how the client operates. In most cases, the relationship has a definitive end date with boundaries put in place and money being exchanged.

Coaches within an organization will help employees (and thus the business at large) get to the next level of success. This could include anything from becoming more efficient and skilled in certain areas or acquiring the skills needed to move up the ladder. Organizations that invest in teaching their leaders how to coach and mentor other employees contributes to a strong company culture of success and fulfillment. This means having a workplace that prioritizes and assists in the building of mutual trust and teaching versus telling.

How are Coaching and Mentoring the Same?

You can see how coaching and mentoring overlap: a mentor may have to coach someone through an issue while a coach may have to let a client take the reins and act as a mentor. Each will often act as a teacher or even a counselor, though they won’t replace those roles in the grand scheme of things.

There are, however, many skills that mentors and coaches (and teachers and counselors) require to be successful, including:

  • Strong listening skills - both a coach and mentor need to be able to listen to and comprehend what someone is saying to be able to analyze and give constructive advice.

  • Strong emotional intelligence - both a coach and a mentor need to be empathetic and care about the success of the other person, while seeing their perspective.

  • Wisdom and knowledge - both a coach and a mentor need to have the wisdom and knowledge gained from experience-- either personally or professionally-- to be able to help.

  • Seeing the big picture - mentors and coaches must be able to take a high-level approach to a problem and look at the big picture rather than the latest snag or obstacle.

  • Positivity - mentors and coaches must maintain a positive outlook and not let any negative thoughts translate to the other person.

  • Well-spoken - a mentor and coach must be able to speak their mind in a constructive, well-thought-out way.

Coaching and Mentoring in the Workplace

There are many benefits to incorporating coaching and mentoring in the workplace, whether you hire an experienced coach that is separate from your business or develop a mentorship program within the organization.

Bringing in a coaching consultant can help you develop strong mentoring and coaching skills at all levels of management to cultivate a strong company culture. In doing so, you prepare for succession in your business, improve your employee engagement and retention, and ultimately create a positive impact on your bottom line.

Many organizations are hiring consultants to implement a coaching or mentoring program in the workplace. These experts create an implementation plan and teach executives and managers to become better coaches themselves. Additionally, some organizations choose to hire an outside coach to help their employees find a healthy balance between their work and life outside the office. This offers the benefit of having a personal success coach for employees paid for by the organization-- a perk that will help attract top talent.

A coach and mentor may not be the same thing, but they both play a powerful role in a person’s life, whether they’re trying to get their first full-fledged job or a spot on a board of directors. Are you ready to reach your goals?

Meredith Wailes is the president of Bloom Leadership, founder of SEED, and an advisor and builder of women who impact social change. Contact her via or connect on LinkedIn to see how she can help you.