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


I was recently asked to participate in a panel focused on mentoring, since I co-founded the remote mentorship program, Mentor Everywhere (currently on hiatus) and often serve as a mentor for others. Mentoring, both giving and receiving, is really important to me and an integral part of my approach to networking, which is in large part giving of my time and expertise, and learning from others.

Upon reviewing the questions the panel would address, notably absent was one that I felt was really critical: What’s the difference between a mentor and a coach?

I’ve often seen people confuse or conflate mentoring with coaching, and it’s usually the mentee that makes this mistake. We saw this in Mentor Everywhere, which is one of the reasons we started requiring goal-setting at the start for our mentoring relationships, so those interactions could be very focused and respectful of the mentor’s time.

A mentee assuming a mentor will fulfill the role of a coach can alienate and potentially destroy the relationship, and leave the mentee confused as to why.

In my opinion, a mentor is usually a specialist or expert in a field and/or a position/leadership level. They’re likely doing or have done exactly what you’re asking them to help mentor you with, whether that’s a product management or product marketing leader, experience in leading during a change or transition environment, a manager of managers, a remote work specialist, etc. I wrote more about mentors and the different types of mentors – personal life, career path, and life path mentors here: A Mentor for Life.

A (career/executive/leadership/life) coach should be able to coach across industries/fields and leadership levels, and should help you in whatever you ask them to, really.

Usually mentors are volunteers and their time is very precious and therefore an ask of a mentor should be as specific as possible to get results and to be respectful of their time. I wouldn’t ask a mentor to help me choose an industry or next career move, discover my strengths and weaknesses, or help me examine my leadership style. I might ask a mentor for an intro to someone in a specific industry or company I’m curious about, for advice on how to act in a challenging leadership situation, or ask them about how they might approach a strategic problem I have.

I might work with the coach in actually identifying the problem/areas for improvement, and reflecting on my general qualities, desires, and curiosities as starting points for self-examination and growth.

I’ve been fortunate to be mentored and mentor others in my career, and I’ve sat through a few coffees with people asking to pick my brain but going through existential crises, and effectively blowing their ‘ask’ because they likely needed the help of a coach to better focus them. I also wrote How to Ask for Help…and Get an Answer if you need a little guidance on focusing your next ask.

In the past two years, I’ve been fortunate to have not one, but two coaches that I’ve been working with (who are great and are both experienced in remote coaching!) – Mark Case, PhD. from Invita Consulting, and Dani Rukin, The Success Catalyst.

I asked them to also contribute their thoughts on the differences between coaches and mentors. Hopefully it can help you better understand your needs regarding mentoring and coaching (spoiler: it’s likely you need both / many), so your next interaction with a potential mentor can be as fruitful as possible.

What’s the difference between a mentor and a coach?

Mark Case, PhD. from Invita Consulting:

Mentors often offer subject-matter expertise in your field. They know the lay of the land because they’ve been there, and they offer advice and encouragement from their own experiences. Great mentors provide high-value development through well-informed answers to your questions—they are an excellent resource for avoiding pitfalls, learning best practices, and moving forward in your career.

Coaches often offer an outside, unbiased perspective. They are thought allies who provide a safe, supportive space for you to explore what you bring to the table and discover your own unique contribution to the various issues in your field. Great coaches awaken confidence and help you remove obstacles by offering clarifying questions and observations—you feel empowered to effectively navigate the challenges you are facing and move ahead in your career.

These two terms can be used in lots of different ways in the marketplace. There are no well-agreed-upon definitions. Further, there can be quite a bit of overlap. Some mentors have more of a question-asking/observing style, closer to coaching. And some coaches get into coaching because of their business experience and tend towards an advising/mentoring style.

Dani Rukin, The Success Catalyst – she actually wrote about this topic after we chatted about it. You can read her full article on the difference between coaching & mentoring:

A coach helps their coachees discover what they want, why they want it, and what they’re going to do about it. Then create structures of accountability to make it happen. Coaching is about empowering others to stretch and grow with increasing resilience to match the growing complexity and uncertainty of our ever-changing environments, and to empower others to do the same…mentors are seasoned professionals experienced and typically trained in the area they are mentoring; leadership/executive/business/career development coaches are trained to coach professionals.

What do you think the differences are? Have you made the mistake of treating a mentor like a coach?

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Director of Product Marketing @ HubSpot. Early hire @ Automattic / WordPress.com. Founder World Nutella Day. MBA Alumni Advisory Board @ Santa Clara University.

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