By: Kim Moshlak on June 16th, 2015

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Coaching vs. Mentoring…What’s the Difference?

Total Rewards | Business Management & Strategy | Employee Relations

I recently watched a movie on television called Coach Carter.  In this true story, Samuel L. Jackson plays Coach Ken Carter, a well-groomed, highly respectful, professional basketball coach who steps into Richmond High School in California in 1999 to coach the high school team.  Coach Carter finds the team to be rude, disrespectful and belligerent.

So what does he do? He hands all of the players a contract agreement on the standards for the team (for example, maintain a certain GPA, call each other and others around them “ma’am and sir”, wear ties on game day and the like).  Most of the players comply with the new rules and that year, the school goes from a team that won 4 games the previous year, to an undefeated season in the new year.  Coach Carter felt that instilling discipline and respect would carry over into their personal and professional lives, and give his students the greatest opportunity for success in an underprivileged school system which graduated less than half of his students. He was successful…and so were the students!

And why am I telling you this story?  Well, in professional settings, we run into Coach Carters all the time. In this case, his title might be misleading.  Let’s look at the difference between a coach and a mentor and see what might work in your organization.

Coach Vs. Mentor


There are many different definitions for a coach depending on who you talk to.  My most favorite definition is that of the International Coaching Federation (ICF):

“An interactive process to help individuals and organizations develop more rapidly and produce more satisfying results; improve others’ ability to set goals, take action, make better decisions, and make full use of their natural strengths.”

This definition sums it all up to me: it’s a process and it states that you are “helping” the employee to develop.  According to the ICF’s techniques, the employee him/herself comes up with the plan based on questions asked…the coach doesn’t provide the answers.  The coach is seen as someone who provides support and challenges employees to see things differently.  There are formal and informal approaches to coaching, and they both have the same goal.


Mentoring is different.  A mentor is an experienced and trusted advisor, usually a peer or senior to the employee.  In most organizations, these employees are matched to enhance career development.  A mentor has some, if not all, of the answers and provides advice and counsel to the employee.  The mentor is seen as someone who has “been there and done that”.

How do the two differ?  Let’s look at an example:

Sally is a new mid-level manager and she is struggling to get all of her work done on time.


A COACH would ask questions to help Sally find the holes in her time management/performance and help her to see what she needs to change.  It might look like:  “Sally, help me to understand what is standing in your way of completing your projects on time.  How can you adjust to accommodate those challenges?  What might happen if you try it a different way?”

A MENTOR would help Sally come up with new ideas to complete the work. It might look like this:  “Sally, when I first started, I struggled with getting my schedule under control, too.  Some of the things I have found to be successful are...”

The decision to coach or mentor an employee usually depends on the purpose of the relationship.  If the employee is being developed in their career, it usually would fall under mentoring, while leadership and interpersonal skills usually are best served by using a coach.  It’s important to note that both are effective tools to move employees forward in their careers!