Coach vs. Mentor: Their Definitions, Differences, & How to Determine Which You Need

by | Last updated Aug 16, 2021 | Executive Women

As a career coach, I’m often asked a simple, yet common question: What is the difference between a coach and a mentor? Add the fact that the terms are often used interchangeably in most business contexts, and it makes sense where the confusion comes from.


The truth is coaching and mentoring are fundamentally very similar. After all, they’re both about forming relationships to help a person develop their career, achieve their goals, and realize their full potential. They are also both rooted in learning and training and require a level of trust, respect, and communication in order to work.


However, despite the fact that both coaches and mentors can be valuable resources, it’s important to understand the core differences between the two, especially when you’re trying to determine which one you need.

What Is the Definition of Coaching?

According to the International Coaching Federation (ICF), coaching is defined as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity, and leadership.”

In effect, a career coach is a trained professional who’s focused on creating clear steps to help you get where you want to be in your professional development and achieve specific goals. This could mean helping you identify the type of job you want, elevating your job search, or assisting you in mastering certain skills or making informed decisions about your career.

University of the People sums it up nicely: “Business coaches for individuals will work with their clients to understand what they have done in the past and what is obtainable in the future. They will look at business goals, determine a path to get there, and break up the path into smaller steps that will eventually lead to your or your company’s success.”

If you are still confused, check out this post I wrote: “What Does a Life Coach Do?

What Is the Definition of Mentoring?

In contrast, mentoring is defined in its simplest terms as the act or process of helping and giving advice to a younger or less experienced person. Typically resulting in a more informal relationship, mentoring is shaped by how the mentor leverages their experiences and skills to offer their knowledge, expertise, and advice and ultimately guide the mentee who is looking to follow a similar path.

Like a coach, a mentor may help you consider opportunities for career growth, improve your skills, boost your confidence, and set and reach certain goals. However, a key distinction is because mentors are usually in the same industry, field, or company and may even have the job you aspire to have, their support is based on their own personal experiences and the insights they’ve gained that helped them get to where they are today. Accordingly, a mentor can be both an advisor and role model for the mentee, and there’s a level of empathy and relatability that’s unique to the relationship.

Moreover, in many cases, a mentor usually works at the same company as the mentee in a more senior role, and mentoring is part of their job. However, people can also find mentors outside of their workplace through their professional network.

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What Are the Differences Between Coaching and Mentoring?


So how exactly does coaching and mentoring differ? The specifics can of course vary from relationship to relationship or person to person, but the following areas typically show how they compare to each other. For a convenient, side-by-side table, check out this resource by Kent State University.


  1. Timeframe. Coaching is usually more short-term with a set timeframe to achieve specific goals. It can last a few months to a year or possibly longer, but ultimately has a defined ending. Meanwhile, mentoring is more long-term with an open-ended timeframe and could last a year, several years, or even decades.
  2. Driver & Focus. Coaching is performance driven with a focus on the present and improving skills now. It’s oriented around accomplishing specific tasks and goals. In contrast, mentoring is development driven with a focus on the future and holistically influencing the person’s personal and professional growth.
  3. Level of Structure & Formality. While a coaching relationship is traditionally more formal and structured with regularly scheduled meetings, a mentoring relationship tends to be more informal with meetings on an as-needed basis. It could also lead to a more personal bond in addition to a professional connection.
  4. Area of Expertise & Training. As mentioned earlier, a mentor’s expertise lies in being in the same industry or line of work as the mentee and having firsthand experience and knowledge. In general, they don’t have formal training to become a mentor. A coach’s expertise, on the other hand, lies in helping people gain specific skills or getting them to where they need to be. And although coaches don’t necessarily need to have real-world industry experience, they do usually have some kind of training to become coaches.
  5. Setting the Agenda. In a coaching relationship, the agenda is developed by both the coach and client in order to meet the client’s specific needs. In a mentoring relationship, the agenda is set by the mentee while the mentor supports it. 
  6. Evaluation & Outcomes. In coaching, because fixed goals are identified in the very beginning, the results are specific and measurable to discern the level of improvement made. In mentoring, success is much more broadly defined and the outcomes can vary depending on the matchup and change over time since the focus is more about the overall mentee’s development.
  7. Compensation & Costs. A coach is usually compensated for their time and services so hiring one is a monetary investment. Accordingly, a good coach is always prepared for your sessions, focused on helping you achieve your goals, and is able to accommodate your schedule. Mentoring is typically volunteer-based or part of a person’s job description. The cost is the time and effort you’re both able to put into it. However, a good mentor can’t necessarily offer guarantees, and availability can vary depending on both of your schedules.

Coaching and Mentoring Examples


To help demonstrate how coaching and mentoring compare in real life, here’s an example from my own experience as a career coach (the name and specifics have been changed to respect the privacy of my client).


Kathleen, a teacher, came to me after being approached about an interim leadership position in the front office of her school. Taking this role would take her out of the classroom and into a higher position than her peers. And although she fully believed she could do a great job, she had concerns on how to navigate this new terrain with its unique responsibilities. This was coupled with wanting to improve her public speaking skills since she knew she would be expected to do a lot of it in this position. 


Upon her getting the job, Kathleen and I came to an agreement about a career coaching relationship where I would help her navigate the first three months in this new position. We would meet weekly to itemize her concerns, work through exercises to discover the root of her anxieties, and then arm her with tools and a balanced mindset to tackle the new challenges and opportunities of her position. In addition, we also discussed which colleagues she might begin to develop relationships with who could serve as ongoing mentors when inevitable day-to-day challenges arose.


As for mentor examples, there are tons of famous pairs that serve as great mentoring references from Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to Professor Dumbledore and Harry Potter. As Oprah put it when talking about her mentor Maya Angelou, “She was there for me always, guiding me through some of the most important years of my life. Mentors are important, and I don’t think anybody makes it in the world without some form of mentorship.”


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