Coaching and Mentoring: What’s the Difference?

Your tech career can benefit from coaching and mentoring. Here’s when to seek both.

Written by Lisa Bertagnoli
Coaching and Mentoring: What’s the Difference?
Image: Shutterstock
Matthew Urwin | Aug 29, 2023

You don’t need to choose between mentoring and coaching during your journey as a professional. Both can offer advice and direction during critical points in your career.

Coaching vs. Mentoring

  • Coaching focuses on a specific goal, while mentoring focuses on broader career development. 
  • Coaching is structured and mentoring is unstructured. 
  • Coaches are experts at a particular skill, and mentors are senior, experienced people.
  • Coaching is self-directed; mentoring is directed.

Nikkee Rhody turns to coaching to boost her technical acumen when she needs it. 

“I reach out to people who are experts in a particular field, and tell them I’m trying to learn more about a certain skill set, for instance cybersecurity or API technicalities,” said Rhody, executive vice president of strategy at fintech company Central Payments and co-founder and managing director at fintech accelerator Falls Fintech. “The primary outcome is the ability for me to serve a little better and know a little more than before.” 

Rhody also meets with two mentors regularly to ask them to challenge her thinking, help her see from a different vantage point, find the good in all situations and help spot flaws. “This process keeps me grounded, humble, approachable and a bit more relatable because I’m not so absolute in my way,” she said. 

As Rhody’s experience illustrates, coaching and mentoring can shape and define careers, and with subtly different approaches. The two forms of career guidance can definitely overlap. 

Here’s a basic primer on the difference between coaching and mentoring — and when to seek them. 


Difference Between Coaching and Mentoring

1. Coaching Focuses on Specific Goals, Mentoring Focuses on Career Development 

Coaching is typically focused on achieving a specific performance outcome (improved delegation, run a marathon, etc.), whereas mentoring is more open-ended and focused on broader career development, said Sasha Siddhartha, chief technology officer and co-founder of Thrive Market.


2. Coaching Is Short-Term, Mentoring Is Long-Term

Because coaching is focused on measurable outcomes, the coaching “program” is often shorter — weeks or months — while mentorship can span years as both the mentor and mentee grow in experience. A great coach can also have a long relationship with their trainee, but the subject matter is likely to change over time.


3. Coaching Is Structured, Mentoring Is Unstructured

Coaching usually entails a specific agenda actively driven by the coach, with more communication. Mentorship tends to be more unstructured, with the mentee owning the agenda.


4. Coaches Have Expertise, Mentors Have Experience

Mentors tend to be more senior, experienced individuals in a similar field as the mentee, sharing their experience to help develop the mentee. Coaches are often experts at teaching a particular set of skills, and might not have direct industry experience at all. 

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When to Use a Coach

Learning or Improving in a Role 

Pursuing a new job? Then you get a coach, said Mark Grignon, co-founder and president of Rooster and Kognitiv, Workday support solutions. 

“They are there to make sure you succeed at your role, and that the team gets the most out of their investment in selecting you,” Grignon added. “You might ask a coach something like, ‘A client logged a ticket today related to X problem. What’s the best way to respond to something like that?’ You would never really ask a mentor something like that.”

Your employer, in fact, might hire a coach for you to boost your potential or help you fix a nagging issue, said Martin Moore, co-founder of Your CEO Mentor, a leadership development organization. This type of remedial coaching can be brutal and perhaps lack the gentle, nurturing style of mentoring. “It can be quite scary,” Moore said. 

All people leaders at Thrive Market attend a structured leadership coaching program, Siddhartha said. The point is to create a consistent leadership and management culture across Thrive Market, regardless of a leader’s past experiences. 

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Figuring Out How to Apply Skills in Different Areas 

Suzanne Blake was working in special education when she decided to switch careers. Blake sought coaching from an HR executive and trained coach at a tech company for help with a specific situation: where to take her career.

“She provided a series of assessments and exercises to help me gain more clarity on my future path, and reminded me of my transferable skills and reassured me that I would be a good fit for the tech corporate environment,” said Blake, former director of coaching, learning and development at NimblyWise.

While career changes are a topic that mentors typically handle, looking at a career change from a skills-focused standpoint is something coaches can assist professionals with as well.  


Acquiring Transferable Skills During a Project 

Coaching can also be confined to one job or one project. “Your coach is there to make sure that for the period of time you are with the team, that you perform your best and progress in your craft,” Grignon said. 

For instance, early in his Workday career, Grignon received counsel from three people he thought would advise him wisely so he’d earn respect in the world of Workday configuration. “Without the three of them there is zero chance I’d be writing this today,” Grignon said. 


Seeking More Passive Guidance 

With coaching, you’ll search your own soul and experience for the answers, rather than get them from the coach. 

“It’s all about asking good questions and leading through a phase of self-discovery,” Moore said. Individuals receiving coaching “have to learn for themselves what the answers are.”

Moore gave the following example of how coaching might work: “I say, ‘OK, well, that’s interesting, tell me more about what you know. And they’ll explain the problem to me.’” Moore would then talk the employee through their options, including which of the options bears the highest risk. “So you’re sort of asking questions that help them narrow down what they already know.”

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When to Use a Mentor

Changing the Direction of Your Career

A career change on your radar? “This is a great conversation to have with a mentor, but a coach might not love hearing that,” Grignon said. It’s rare, he added, that a coach and mentor are the same person. “It can and does happen, but it’s not often the case long-term.”

If you’re feeling unsatisfied with your current career trajectory, a mentor can help determine what your passions are and encourage you to explore a field that more closely aligns with your personal and professional interests. 


Carving Out a Career Path at a Company 

Mentoring works wonders for entrepreneurs, Siddhartha said. Tech shifts at such a rapid pace that it’s easy to get lost without a plan

“This is especially true in the startup world, where most companies do not have the structured career pathing that you see in larger enterprises,” he added. “Mentorship can play a key role in bridging this gap, where one can benefit from the direct relevant experiences of most seasoned technologists, learn from their mistakes, and carve the best path forward.”


Building Lifelong Support 

A mentor can be a first boss, a college professor, or even a senior or junior colleague. You develop a personal relationship with your mentor, who will stay in your inner circle for large chunks of your career. 

Grignon’s mentor is Abe, a family friend who helped him feel comfortable when he decided to go out on his own and launch Kognitiv. 

During a casual chat at Grignon’s family’s summer house several years ago, Grignon discovered that Abe knew some people in the Workday space. “He became someone I bounced things off regularly, and like all good mentors, there are no strings attached, no pushing, no agenda, just listening,” Grignon recalled. “He remains that person to this day.” 

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Asking for More In-Depth Help  

Typically, mentors are more experienced professionals, and they tend to guide or direct career conundrums.

“You use experience, insight and judgment you’ve acquired over the years so you can give [proteges] directions on where they should look for answers, how they should do things,” Moore said. “It’s a more active process and relies more on the mentor to come up with answers.”

Blake’s mentor, for instance, suggested taking continuing education classes, and also offered Blake tips on working in a tech environment. Blake eventually took an executive position at a tech company — and credits her mentor. 

“Her wisdom, belief in me, powerful self-discovery tools and guidance were invaluable in helping succeed in the world of tech,” Blake said.


Frequently Asked Questions

Coaching tends to be focused on short-term goals while a mentor-mentee relationship can develop for years. Coaches also create an agenda for students to follow while mentees play a bigger role in deciding what to discuss with their mentors.

Coaching is goal-oriented and focused on developing specific skills, so industry experience isn’t always required to be a coach. Mentorship involves someone with more relevant life experience who helps a mentee with their career development instead of pursuing concrete goals.

It depends. Those who prefer teaching certain skills can choose to be coaches while those who want to help professionals grow their careers may find more value in being mentors.

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