Coach Vs. Mentor - What's The Difference and Which One is Right For You?

coaching mentor success Jan 20, 2021
The Difference Between a Coach and a Mentor Laura W. Miner

"A lot of people have gone further than they thought they could because someone else thought they could.” - Zig Ziglar

Coaches and mentors can be a powerful addition to your success equation. Find the right one and she/he becomes the cheerleader who keeps you motivated, the guardrails that prevent you from going too far off track, the anchor that keeps you grounded, and the magnifying glass that brings blur into focus.

Their presence can become the catalyst needed to overcome hurdles, and provide the extra energy needed to propel you toward the achievement of your goals. 
But how can you find a coach or mentor? And what’s the difference between the two? What should you look for in such a relationship? And what expectations should be set before you begin? Answering these questions can help you find the right fit for your individual needs, so let’s dive in.

What’s the Difference Between a Coach and a Mentor?

Coaches: Coaches take a direct style of development, focusing on specific co-created goals and objectives that are mutually designed and agreed upon in a collaborative fashion. In many circumstances, coaches can be subject matter experts in regards to the process of coaching, but not necessarily experts in the area the client is seeking to develop. 
Quality coaches treat their craft with the professionalism and respect it deserves, and have been formally educated or certified accordingly. They have skill sets that help propel an individual toward the achievement of their goals and are strategic and intentional in helping their clients achieve successful outcomes.
Coaching is generally a shorter-term relationship with a preset duration, though in some cases coaching relationships can remain relevant for longer periods of time, as is often the case with executive coaches. 
A large and important difference with coaching is that the relationship is paid, and therefore is often driven by the successful achievement of those co-created goals. In addition, the coaching relationship is far more formal in structure, allowing for measurable criteria to be set.
Mentors: Mentors are trusted advisors with broad, applicable experience who are willing to share their knowledge with someone less experienced. Mentors often volunteer their time and do not receive monetary compensation. They frequently hold a perspective that teaching and learning are synonymous, so they’re willing to share their advice knowing they too learn in the process of doing so. 
Mentoring takes more of a supportive, enabling approach resulting in a mentor/mentoree relationship that tends to be more personal. Mentoring is often a more long-term relationship that is generally less formal in its approach, allowing the mentoree the flexibility of reaching out when assistance is needed, as opposed to sticking to a preset schedule.
In corporate settings, mentors are commonly assigned to assist with development, though mentors can also be self-selected based on someone you personally gravitate towards. Entrepreneurs often have mentors, which frequently act as advisors to help them in their endeavors, but mentors can often be sought to help with personal development as well as professional. 
As an important side note, the line of delineation between coaches and mentors is not necessarily as cut and dry as outlined above. There are coaches who embody elements of mentors and mentors who possess the qualities of coaches.
When you find someone who brings both aspects to the table, it’s like finding Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket - you’ve got the best of both worlds!

What to Look For in a Coach or Mentor. 

  • Are they trained and certified, or do they possess an advanced formal education that makes them a good fit to coach you? Coaching is highly unregulated and therefore anyone can call themselves a coach. Pull back the covers and make sure any coach you’re considering has the background, experience, and education to truly coach you.
  • Do they share your values? If you and your coach have misaligned values, it will be difficult to excel in the relationship. As an example, let’s say maintaining a healthy work-life balance is among your core values, but if your coach subscribes to a “pedal to the metal” approach, then you may find yourself in conflict with the pace and expectations of your coach. (Connecting with your core values is essential. If you don’t have clarity on them, or if you feel they may have shifted over the years, check out this free 10-part video-based course which includes a lesson on identifying and connecting with your values.)
  • Is their coaching practice structured? A good coach will have a quality system in place that includes things like an established intake procedure, a standardized method for how calls/meetings take place, and formalized tools and resources they leverage to help you achieve your goals and objectives. If you get the impression a coach isn’t organized or doesn’t take their craft seriously, trust your gut and interview other coaches. 
  • Do they have an online presence you resonate with? Finding the right coach is important so take the time to do some digging. Check out their social media profiles, visit their website, read their blog posts, watch their online videos. If their online presence doesn’t resonate with you, chances are, their coaching style won’t either. 
  • Are they willing to provide a free consultation to determine if it’s a mutually good fit? You’re paying the coaching bill, so you want to make sure you’re going to get value from the relationship. A free consultation is a great way to ask questions, evaluate their coaching style, and ensure that their approach gels with you. As an important side note, a great coach will make you feel slightly uncomfortable as they push you beyond your comfort zone. If you’re not pushed, you won’t grow, so keep this in mind when evaluating coaches. 
  • Do they have a proven track record in the area you’re trying to develop? People seek mentors to get help and direction filling an experience gap, therefore a great mentor will be one who lives by example. Before approaching a potential mentor, do some online research to ensure their past successes are a good match for your future endeavors. A mentor whose track record is not aligned with your vision for the future may not be the best fit.
  • Do they share your values? As discussed above in regards to coaches, the same is true for mentors: values matter. As an example, if you value honesty and authenticity, but their public persona is vastly different from their private persona, then they may not be the right mentor for you. Look for mentors who complement your values and can help you live into them more fully. (If you don’t have clarity on your values or feel they may have shifted over the years, check out this free 10-part video-based course which includes a lesson on identifying and connecting with your values.)
  • Do they have the time and flexibility to be an available resource? Since mentors are volunteering their time, make sure they have the time available to share in your journey. Understanding their level of availability will help you determine if the relationship will be mutually beneficial. In addition, having this conversation upfront will show that you value their time, helping to establish mutual respect from the onset.
  • Do they possess traits that will help you thrive? A great mentor will be supportive and helpful, but at the same time will challenge you to do the necessary work to bring your dreams to fruition. They’ll value integrity and will always be open and honest with you, regardless of whether they’re delivering glowing praise or sharing constructive criticism. While their life will be just as full as yours, they’ll always give you their undivided, focused attention when having a meeting or a call. And they too will be lifelong learners who value their own growth and development as much as they do yours.
  • Do they have strong communication skills? Communication is multi-faceted. A good mentor will listen as much as they speak, take a personal interest in what you’re sharing, and be able to clearly articulate feedback and insights. They’ll have patience knowing they may have to deliver multiple explanations and will possess a natural knack for reframing things until you fully grasp the topic of conversation. They’ll be active in both asking and answering questions, and will be able to help you concretely articulate the vision you hold for yourself. 

How to Find a Coach or Mentor.

Coach: Admittedly, it can be a bit easier to find a coach versus a mentor, as coaches are quite abundant. But one thing to consider is whether you want a virtual relationship with your coach, or a physical one. One is not necessarily better than the other; it’s simply a matter of personal choice regarding how you prefer to engage and interact. To find a local coach, it’s as easy as googling “(type) coach in (city)”, i.e. “executive coach in San Francisco”. Often times there will be yelp! reviews for local coaches to help in your decision making. In addition, word of mouth and networking are also great ways to find a quality local coach, so consider joining a networking group or attending local meet-ups.
However, if you’re comfortable with a virtual coach, then your options are even more widespread. A quick Google search will reveal more options than are even reasonable to review, but luckily there are coaching directories like ICF and noomii that can help you narrow the field to identify a well-rated coach in your area of interest that meets your needs. 
Mentor: In some work settings, mentors are assigned to help with the growth and development of junior team members. But what about when this luxury doesn’t exist? How can you find someone who willingly wants to volunteer their time and energy to help you succeed? In a word… CICA! Okay, maybe that’s not a real word, but it is an acronym to help you with the process of finding a mentor.
  • Clarify what you want from a mentor/mentoree relationship. If you’re not clear regarding your expectations and desires, it will be difficult to share your “why” with a potential mentor.
  • Identify someone whom you feel would be a great mentor for you. Remember to keep in mind the points above regarding what to look for in this relationship.
  • Communicate with this person and share why you’re looking for a mentor, the reasoning behind reaching out to them specifically, and what you hope to achieve through a mentor/mentoree relationship.
  • Ask if they’d be willing to mentor you. 
Not everyone has the time or space available to be a mentor, so you may get some no’s, but that’s okay. Because in following the CICA process and demonstrating the serious commitment you have to your growth and development, you’re likely to find yourself with introductions to other individuals who would potentially be great mentor fits as well. (Speaking from experience!)
So once you’ve identified a coach or mentor, the next step is to establish the ground rules.

What Expectations Should be Set with a Coach or Mentor?

Coach: The great news about a coach is that it’s their job to provide the necessary structure to move you toward successful outcomes. As a result, most great coaches will have a formal document outlining the expectations on both sides of the equation - for you and them. But here are a few bullet points to discuss in regards to the coaching relationship:
  • When calls/meetings will take place.
  • The duration of the coaching relationship.
  • The level of communication allowed between formal calls/meetings.
  • Tools or resources provided.
  • Payment methods and terms.
Mentor: Applying a structured methodology to the mentor/mentoree relationship will help it flourish. But if your mentor has never formally mentored someone, then it may help to co-create this structure with her/him. It demonstrates that you respect and value the relationship and that you’re committed to your growth and development. The types of expectations to discuss with a mentor include:
  • The time commitment being allotted to the relationship.
  • The frequency of calls/meetings. (Will they only be pre-scheduled or also on an as-needed basis?)
  • The best methods of communication. (Email, text, WhatsApp, phone calls, etc.)
  • Rules to help foster the relationship. (I.e., cell phones off during meetings, no phone calls between 9pm and 6am, everything remains confidential, etc.)
  • Predetermined time frames to evaluate the relationship and ensure it's mutually beneficial. 
While there are likely many more expectations that are relevant to your specific situation, the above lists should get you started, but remember… this is about your future success and the goals you’re seeking to achieve, so invest a bit of time in a brainstorming session with yourself to make these lists as comprehensive as need be. 
Often times, our success starts with developing an achiever’s mindset and then layering in specific skills relevant to our area of expertise. CLICK HERE if you’d like free access to a 10-part, video-based, e-coaching program on how to develop an achiever’s mindset. It draws from the fields of psychology and neuroscience and will coach you to becoming the person you need to be in order to achieve your most audacious goals.

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