Kasey Hickey

Head of Content at BetterUp

Posted in: Organizational Learning


Coach or Mentor? You Need Both.

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Coach or Mentor? You Need Both.

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

If you’re debating between coaching and mentoring, you’re asking the wrong question.

It’s easy to get confused about the differences between coaching and mentoring, what each has to offer, and how much involvement each program demands from you.

Let’s walk through the tactics, goals, and outcomes of each, why you can’t afford not to invest in your team, and the most important distinction between mentors and coaches.

Coach or mentor?

For individuals, a mentor relationship can help them gain access to higher-level leadership than they might encounter in their day-to-day, get critical advice from a more seasoned mentor, and open doors to a mentor’s network. Mentors can range in function, age, and seniority, but they usually have one thing in common: they tend to be motivated by the desire to help others by sharing their experience.

Three out of four Fortune 500 companies have formal mentorship programs, which have been shown to play an important role in employee job satisfaction. And notably, a mentorship program can help open a heavy door for team members who don’t otherwise have access to a rich network of potential mentors. Sounds like a dream, right? Yes, but mentors have their limits.

A mentor doesn’t usually hold the formal title of “Mentor” and her services largely rely on her availability which, for senior-level executives, tends to be pretty limited. More often than not, the more successful the mentor, the less available she is, leaving her mentees hopefully waiting for a chance to catch up.

Mentor: (unpaid) volunteer

Coach: (paid) highly-trained professional

Unlike mentors, coaches are paid, highly-trained professionals. Their job is to guide and enable their clients (an important distinction!) to identify solutions that can ultimately alter behavior or help them develop a specific new skill — all through the process self discovery and self awareness.

Effective coaches don’t need to work in your industry, have great contacts, or be willing to open doors for your teammates.

Unlike mentors, who can offer support and guidance on what has worked for them in their careers and make industry-specific introductions, coaches guide their clients on self discovery so that they can integrate new techniques that can positively influence leadership behaviors. A coaching relationship offers numerous tangible results that include: reduced burnout rates, reduced stress, increased passion and resilience*.

Effective coaches are invaluable to your team for one major reason: they can train managers to be coaches themselves, ultimately shaping your company’s culture in a meaningful way.  And that’s big, as millennials increasingly want to be coached, not managed.

Mentorship and Coaching Compared

Mentoring Coaching
Role and Relationship Volunteer volunteers to help mentee in addition to job Paid, trained, highly-specialized professionals that serve their clients
Process Sharing knowledge based on mentor’s experience

Less structured, often informal

Questioning and drawing out knowledge that resides with the person being coached

Structured, regular sessions with measurable improvement

Timing Highly dependent on mentor availability Regularly scheduled, ongoing interaction, and accountability
Focus Career-strategy focused, based on mentor’s experience Behavior change & skill development focused on achieving and enablement
Networking Benefit Mentor may open their network for advancement opportunities Unlikely to share personal contacts
Employer Focus More focused on long-term growth, regardless of current position or company. Focuses on developing skills for this role, and future roles
Supporting resources Up to mentor Some organizations offer cohort-level analytics

As you can see from the graphic above, mentors are excellent resources for long-term career learning and development, but rarely do they offer the sort of regular interaction, action-oriented engagement, and measurable results that coaches do.

Determining your development goals

As you explore your goals for kickstarting a mentorship and/or coaching program, it’s important to really dig deep into your goals.

  • Are you hoping to increase employee motivation, engagement, and improve retention?
  • Do you want to improve employee performance?
  • Are you interested in highlighting different paths to leadership? Elevating a particular group?
  • Are you hoping to expose different employee groups to senior leadership?
  • Do you want to develop leadership behaviors?
  • Are you looking to train your leadership team (and in particular, millennial managers) to lead like coaches?
  • Do you want to develop leadership behaviors?

Once you’ve identified your desired outcomes, you can start to map them to the most effective tool (coaching or mentoring). For any program to be effective, it needs to be measurable, scalable, and repeatable so ask yourself this: will either or both fit your needs? Mentors can surely help younger employees find their path, and open doors in the future, but will they help develop some of the aforementioned skills and drive key company initiatives?

Can you really formalize a mentorship program?

Fostering personal development and encouraging mentor and mentee relationships is a worthwhile pursuit, and one that research has shown to be worth the investment. But the reality is that successful mentorship programs are rarely the result of any specific structures imposed by your HR department. While mentors can provide valuable advice on how to succeed based on their unique experiences, a mentor-mentee relationship works best when it’s organic.

In the chapter titled, “Will you be my mentor,” in her groundbreaking book, Lean In: Women Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg laments the all-too-common practice of junior employees asking relative strangers for mentorship. Sandberg doesn’t outright dismiss the value mentorship (far from it!), but rather highlights that the best mentorship programs create reciprocal relationships in which mentors gain satisfaction from cultivating a promising younger person, and mentors feel they can trust and confide in their mentor. A rigid approach to matching mentees up with mentors is unlikely to create these bonds, or meet your mentorship program goals.

If you’re still debating about which program is right for your business, consider this: encouraging your teammates to find mentors, and stepping in when you feel you can help facilitate a match is always a good idea; setting up a coaching program that allows your teammates to grow and learn with the help of a coach is something you can implement right now, and start tracking progress right away (before it’s too late).

Wade Burgess, Vice President of LinkedIn Talent Solutions, writes, “[professionals] don’t want to leave their company; instead, they want to stick around and move up the ranks.” By focusing your efforts on helping team members grow within your organization, you can better position yourself for retaining your best employees, and seeing them rise to leadership positions at your company, not someone else’s.

Interested in kicking off a coaching program? Learn more about how BetterUp can empower managers and rising leaders at your company.

*BetterUp user data.

Original art by Vaclav Bicha.

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