Mentoring vs. Professional Coaching: Where Do They Fit into Your Career?

Mentoring vs. Professional Coaching

By Julie Norwell

After six years working at a non-profit educational research organization in Washington D.C., Elfreda had risen as high as she could. She felt that there was still more that she wanted to do with her career, but she didn’t know how to fully explore her options. So, she hired a coach.

“I needed an executive coach to help me be really clear about what I wanted. I am near the end of my career and wanted to be very intentional about my career change,” said Elfreda. 

As someone who ran human resources organizations for 15 years of her career, Elfreda was a big advocate of mentors and coaches. She routinely recommended them to everyone in her purview. She had always had mentors and had been a professional coach herself. As a result, she was in a good position to know what kind of help she needed at this point in her career.

“Mentors have helped me throughout my career, but I knew a professional coach would help me develop a formal strategy,” said Elfreda. “Coaches also bring a level of accountability, so the likelihood was greater that I would follow through on my strategy.”

Most people could benefit from mentors and coaches in their careers. According to a 2020 survey of HR professionals, about 70% of respondents agree or strongly agree that coaching and mentoring lead to improved individual development. 

Yet, Elfreda is the rare individual who expresses a good understanding of the difference between mentoring and coaching. So, what are those differences, and when do using mentors and coaches make sense in your career?

Mentors Transform

Identifying the differences between mentors and coaches can be tricky because the differences are subtle and there are overlaps. But there are important nuances. 

In the annals of English-language culture mentors play a special role. There are few more famous mentors than Obi-Wan Kenobi to Luke Skywalker, Professor Dumbledore to Harry Potter, the Good Witch of the North to Dorothy Gale, or Gandalf to Bilbo Baggins. Those mentors make powerful figures, not because they are imbued with magical qualities, but because through their guidance the heroes of those stories are transformed. 

The concept of mentors strikes a deep chord in our psyches because the mentor is a mythological and psychological archetype. It is the mentor who dispels a sense of insignificance on the part of the hero and empowers her to face the challenges of her journey. The mentor also gives the hero the supplies, knowledge, and confidence required to overcome his or her fear and face the adventure. 

In the professional world, mentors can be as crucial to the success of a protégé as Obi-Wan Kenobi was to the success of Luke Skywalker in his Star Wars adventures. They are reservoirs of wisdom and experience who help shape the arc of your career as personal advisors. But mentors aren’t necessarily someone you call on at every turn. Instead, they are touchpoints during particularly tough times or when the path forward is not clear. 

Often, this is early in your career, but not always. 

“When I was the number two guy in audit at Time Warner, I was 25 years into my career,” said Russ Charlton, chief audit executive of Advance. “Time Inc was getting spun off and I needed help figuring out whether it would be better for my career to take the chief audit role at Time Inc. – a smaller company – or wait for my current boss to retire and then try for his job. Reaching out to my mentors for advice was enormously helpful.” 

Coaches Press In

Like mentors, coaches can also transform their coachees. Ara Parseghian, who twice coached the University of Notre Dame football team to national championships, famously said, “A good coach will make his players see what they can be rather than what they are.” But the methods are different. Coaches typically provide more hands-on training and setting of goals. And they ensure accountability to those goals.

“Coaching is very structured. It’s 1, 2, 3, 4…and so on,” said Lori Chevalier, executive career consultant for The Barrett Group. “A coach is like a personal trainer. They help clients stay on task. And if they aren’t doing what they need to do, sometimes coaches press in a little harder.”

Whereas mentors offer broader, looser encouragement and advice, coaches give specific techniques and tools to understand what is blocking them from achieving specific goals. “Do. Or do not. There is no try,” Yoda told Luke. Whereas Obi-Wan Kenobi is Luke’s mentor, Yoda is his coach. 

Where Do They Fit into Your Career?

There are currently more than 50,000 business coaching businesses in the U.S. And business coaching, an $11.2 billion industry in the U.S. in 2022, has been on the rise since the start of the pandemic. According to HR Research Institute, both coaching and mentoring will increase in importance. So, where do they fit into your career?

Coaches are often engaged for very strategic reasons. To improve skills in leadership, communication, public speaking skills, confidence, career change, and other professional needs. They focus on those areas for a short term, and then their job is done.  

Mentorships often happen organically – with a former boss or a senior manager. The relationships sometimes span years. But not all do. Many companies, recognizing the value of mentorships in cultivating talent, have in-house coaching and mentorship programs for their employees. By one estimate, 84% of U.S. Fortune 500 companies have them. They range from structured programs to facilitated, informal meeting opportunities for any employee interested in participating. 

“Some organizations offer mentoring to everyone going up the executive track. Some give new employees a mentor to follow at onboarding to shorten the time for them to contribute and to have the most effective performance possible,” said Dan Resendes, chief consulting officer emeritus at The Barrett Group. 

Mentor or Coach?

Finding quality in mentoring and coaching is sometimes a problem. Few organizations say that more than half of their coaches or mentors are highly effective. Some of the biggest challenges are “holding difficult conversations” and “instilling confidence.” Good chemistry is obviously important. 

When mentorships don’t sing and results are needed, experienced coaches are the way to go. And when it comes to finding quality coaches, organizations that use them prize experience in reputation most of all. 

“Certified coaches are experts in understanding all the nuances of business and office dynamics across sectors. They can give unbiased views and the necessary coaching to help clients be successful in their goals,” said Dan.

Arguably, the ideal scenario is to find someone who can be both coach and mentor.

“If one of my clients says to me that he can’t do the program task I’m asking him to do because he is uncomfortable with it, I’m going to stop and assess what his challenge is,” said Lori. “My job becomes mentoring at that point, and I’ll sift that into my coaching as necessary.”

Elfreda, though, has a more expansive view of the ideal relationship, though. “My coach, Julie Mathern, really pushed and encouraged me. I didn’t want to let her down. We had a really good connection, and I really valued that relationship. Today, I call her my friend.”

Read next: How to Recognize a Toxic Work Culture 

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