The human brain allows people to learn in countless ways, but two of the most important ways people learn are by developing and practicing skills and from others’ example.

Learning by example is common in people of all ages.

People who look back on exceptional careers often cite the influence of those who set a great example and those who specifically helped them become proficient at key aspects of their work. These people roughly correspond to the mentor and the coach. While having one of the two is better than none, the best results come from having both.

Coaches and mentors have some similarities, but there are key differences. Here’s how coaching and mentoring are alike, how they are different, and why both are important.

Differences Between Coaches and Mentors

Mentors are generally self-selected, from the same company or the same industry. The relationship is open-ended and more informal. The business coach, however, is hired specifically for coaching purposes, and the coach-client relationship is defined and has a beginning and an end. The following table illustrates the differences between coaches and mentors:

Key Differentiator Coaches Mentors
Type of relationship Formal, defined relationship Informal relationship
Length of relationship Relationship has beginning and end Relationship is usually indefinite
Improvement goals Personal performance Personal development
Origin of relationship Hired for the purpose Usually self-selected
How relationship is defined Has a plan and agenda Generally does not have an agenda
Area of focus Focuses on performance Focuses on the person

Why You Should Have Mentors

Mentors can make the difference between sticking with a career plan and watching that plan derail. Whether it’s your first after-school job or your chosen career, having a more experienced colleague take you under his or her wing can be of enormous benefit.

Particularly once you enter your chosen profession, you can benefit from the influence, acquired wisdom, and inside knowledge that a mentor offers. Sure, you can find your way without a mentor, but having one makes the career path far less bewildering to follow.

Mentors are unsung heroes of the business world.

Why You Should Have Coaches

Every job requires skills, and business coaches help leaders identify, learn, and develop skills that are necessary to maximize individual, team, and organizational performance. While skills like mediating conflict or communicating clearly are referred to in formal learning programs, it’s often assumed that leaders learn these skills osmotically, and that’s a shame.

With a business coach, the professional leader can identify where skills gaps exist, set goals, and define steps and objectives that lead to the accomplishment of them. After a successful coaching relationship, the conflict-averse leader may have excellent conflict resolution skills, and the reticent communicator may prove to be an outstanding orator. Coaches help clients assess skill gaps and bridge them.

Coaching Plus Mentoring Is Greater than the Sum of Their Parts

Exceptionally fortunate is the professional who has both a mentor and a coach. The coaching relationship may not last as long as the mentoring relationship, but it can be the key to putting the transferred wisdom of the mentor into everyday practice. Many businesses dismiss the idea of hiring a business coach, on the theory that a strong mentoring system can take its place, but that is not actually true. Coaching and mentoring may be complementary, but they reinforce each other and add up to something more than what the coach and mentor bring individually to the table.

I have over three decades of experience as a business coach, and I have tremendous admiration for the mentors who turn eager fledgling professionals into mature, outstanding professionals who in turn lead and mentor others. I also know first-hand how the services of a business coach can enhance and complement the great things mentors do.

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