In the course of our professional development, many hands play a part.  Our developmental needs are many and diverse.  At times we need new or better skills and at other times we just need some emotional support and affirmation to spur us forward.  Who can help us to identify our needs and offer the assistance we need to climb the ladder of professional success? Mentors and coaches both have their place in our development.  While the roles and tasks of each often seem similar, there are 5 clear and important distinctions.  These distinctions determine who you need, when, why and for how long.

Differentiator #1:

Coaching is performance driven. Coaches are tasked with improving your on-the-job performance. This may involve improving current skills, developing new skills or a combination. Establishing metric oriented performance reviews and time lines for achievement are useful in achieving performance improvements.  Once the skills are acquired and mastered, the coach is no longer needed.

Mentoring is development driven. Mentors guide your development for both your current and long-term job performance. The developmental scope extends beyond skill and knowledge acquisition to include incubating your professional aspirations, personal motivations and lifestyle choices.  A mentor guides your growth for both career success and personal satisfaction.

Differentiator #2:

Coaching is short term. You may find success with a coach in a short period of time, maybe even just a few sessions. The coaching lasts for as long as is needed, depending on the performance goal established.  With the skill set acquired and performance demonstrated, the coaching relationship concludes.

Mentoring is long term. The best mentoring relationships are long-term relationships.  In fact, the longer the relationship, the better the experience for both mentor and mentee.  Development is a long-term process.  To be successful, mentoring requires time in which both partners can learn about one another and build a climate of trust that creates an environment in which you and your mentor feel secure in sharing the real issues that impact your success. Many successful mentoring relationships last a lifetime.

Difference #3:  

Coaching is task oriented. A coach is oriented toward completing a specific, concrete, practical mission. This may include developing professionally relevant skills such as effective leadership,  communication skills, or planning and preparation. Coaching is also useful for preparing for significant events such as an important meeting or interview, speech, or project completion.  A good coach is an experienced content expert who is able to teach others the skills and knowledge necessary to perform well and complete the task.

Mentoring is relationship oriented. Mentoring requires a safe environment for you to share whatever issues affect your professional success and personal satisfaction. Although specific learning goals or competencies may be used as a basis for creating the relationship, its focus may go beyond these areas to include work/life balance issues, self-confidence, self-perception, and lifestyle.  The level of trust and understanding needed in mentoring demands a firm human relationship be established and nurtured.

Differentiator #4:

The Coach sets the agenda.  Coaching begins with an assessment of your skillset, experience level, motivations, aspirations and knowledge base in a particular areas or field (e.g., career, leadership).  Based on this analysis, the coach sets a performance target goal or goals, and then structures a progressive agenda or plan for you to meet those goals on a specific timeline.

The Mentee sets the agenda.  In the most successful mentoring experiences, it is the mentee who sets the agenda. You should enter the relationship with particular developmental goals in mind and proposed strategies for meeting those goals (i.e. ‘what do I want to get out of this experience, and how?’).  Then in discussions with your mentor the goals may be adjusted and strategies reviewed until there is mutual agreement on both the objectives to be achieved and the steps to be taken in achieving those objectives.  The mentor, therefore, plays the ‘trusted advisor’ or ‘guide’ role.  When you drive the agenda, you bring a heightened commitment and consequently achieve greater development.

Differentiator # 5:  

Coaching is a professional relationship. Due to both the temporary nature and tight focus on a specific performance outcome, the relationship between you and a coach remains largely professional.  Over time, you and your coach may get to know one another on a personal level, but the purpose of their relationship remains solely results oriented and professional.

Mentoring is a relationship blending personal and professional.  Due to the long-term and developmental orientation of a mentoring relationship, it is not only natural, but desirable for the relationship to begin primarily as professional but then evolve into a combination of personal and professional. In the course of your development, you will often require a heavy dose of social-emotional support from your mentor.  You may come to see them as a trusted advisor, a counselor on personal matters, and a role model.


Allen, T., Eby, L., Poteet, M., Lentz, E., & Lima, L. (2004). Career Benefits Associated With Mentoring for Protégés: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89(1), 127-136.

Payne, S. C., & Huffman, A. H.  (2005).  A longitudinal examination of the influence of mentoring on organizational commitment and turnover.  Academy of Management Journal, 48(1), 158-168.