Do You Need a Coach, or Do You Need a Mentor? (Yes, There’s a Difference)

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Piano1. “I am looking for new professional opportunities. I need a new job within the same company, more responsibilities, international mobility, or perhaps even a change of function. To meet these goals, I need the help of someone more experienced, someone who can listen to me, guide me, and advise me.”

2. “I am feeling stuck and a bit lost. My competencies are not being fully used in my current job — and yet, I am struggling to grasp the extent of my new, increased responsibilities. I do not know how to change the situation. I want to get a different perspective, reflect a bit on what I do best, and improve my skill sets. After that, I’ll be able to perform better and aspire to even more responsibility.”

Do either of these sound like you? If so, who do you call upon in these instances? A mentor, or a coach?

The difference between “mentors” and “coaches” may not seem obvious. In fact, most people don’t even realize there is a distinction between the two. Unfortunately, this lack of knowledge often leads people to utilize inappropriate programs, with insufficient results.

To help you avoid such confusion and choose the development program that’s right for you, here are some considerations to keep in mind:

1. The Nature of Your Professional and Personal Objectives

Before you decide whether you need coaching or mentoring, you need to identify the professional and personal objectives that you wish to fulfill. Then, you need to clarify the nature of those objectives.

If you want to improve your specific competencies in a domain — for example, you want to improve your personal branding, speak with greater confidence, or have better impact as a leader — then you need a coach. If you want high-level, more generalized guidance and support to prepare you for your next career steps, then go for a mentor.

If you are looking for advice on how to achieve better work-life balance at an executive level, you can enlist the help of a mentor who will give you the advice and inspiration you need to do just that.

NewspaperBut if in order to achieve that work-life balance, you need concrete tools and methods to perfect your time management skills, then you would need a coach.

In short: A mentor will take a holistic view of your life and career, whereas a coach — especially if commissioned by an organization — will focus on specific issues and areas of development.

2. The Relationship Dynamics of Mentoring and Coaching

In a mentoring relationship, there is mutual interaction and exchange of best practices between the mentor and the mentee. The mentor shares their life and work experiences, and the discussions will focus on the future personal and professional development of the mentee. The mentor listens and actively offers advice, support, and guidance, and may even share their professional network with the mentee. Learning can take place both ways: the mentee can learn from the mentor, but the mentor may also open up their mind, expand their horizons, and discover new things through interactions with the mentee. Consequently, the personal relationship between the mentor and the mentee will be a key determinant of the success of the program.

A coach focuses on short-term development, with emphasis on enhancing current skills or on acquiring new skills. A coach does not share their personal concerns or experience, but rather proposes methods to enhance the employee’s understanding of their own self. Coaching is therefore unidirectional: It is always the employee that is learning and benefitting from the process, never the coach.

3. The Time and Resources at Your Disposal

Mentoring is a more informal arrangement than coaching, and its agenda is determined by the mentee’s needs. The frequency and nature of mentor-mentee meetings can be freely determined by the two parties. They can meet once a week, once a month, or even less often. The relationship is of a longer duration, and it can last from several months to several years. Aside from meeting face-to-face, a mentor is also usually accessible by phone or email, when necessary.

Coaching is a formal, structured process that often follows a specific, predetermined schedule — e.g., two hours a week for a total of 24 hours, with individual work in between sessions. Coaching is for a limited duration, simply because it has a cost. A coach is a professional who has been trained and (often) certified to coach, unlike a mentor, who has a specific skill set, knowledge, and expertise that arise from their personal experiences.

Mentoring and coaCloudsching are two popular employee development programs in modern organizations, and they often play key roles retention and engagement strategies. Keeping the above differentiators in mind when deciding between mentoring or coaching can ensure that employers and employees choose the right programs for the right reasons, leading to positive outcomes for both the organization and the employee.

Read more in Coaching

Sapna Rema Hari, MBA in HR from ESSEC Business School, France, is currently a global HR business partner with a French multinational organization based in Paris, France. She has more than 12 years’ international experience across a range of HR functions, including recruitment, talent management, L&D, and generalist HR. Additionally, she is a member of various HR and professional networks in France and contributes articles to online and print magazines.