Coaching and Mentoring: What’s the Difference?

Your tech career can benefit from coaching and mentoring. Here’s when to seek both.
Lisa Bertagnoli
September 21, 2021
Updated: September 22, 2021
Lisa Bertagnoli
September 21, 2021
Updated: September 22, 2021

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

Nikkee Rhody turned 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 fundamental flaws, for instance if she’s being too critical. “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; still, here’s a basic primer on coaching and mentoring and when to seek them. 

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.

More on Coaching and Mentoring9 Mentors Reveal the Questions They’re Eager to Answer

 

Coaching Is Professional

Pursuing a new sport or a new job? Then you get a coach, said Mark Grignon, co-founder and president of Boston-based 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 said. “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,” he said. 

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.”

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, said Sasha Siddhartha, CTO and cofounder of the Marina Del Rey, California-based e-commerce platform that offers home delivery of organic food and products. The point is to create a consistent leadership and management culture across Thrive Market, regardless of a leader’s past experiences, he said. 

 

Coaching Can Be Situational

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, director of coaching, learning and development at NimblyWise, a Boston-based provider of coaching and training programs. 

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. 

The goalie coach for Grignon’s ice hockey team was also an early coach. “He taught me lessons I still think about on a daily basis,” said Grignon. “I never thought about it as it happened, and I don’t think he even did to the extent it impacted me, but he was teaching me invaluable life lessons that apply themselves perfectly to running large teams, and starting an organization from scratch,” Grignon said. “I wasn’t seeking it, but it happened organically.”

 

Mentoring Can Last a Lifetime

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 some six 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,” Grignon said. “Just listening, and he remains that person to this day.”

4 Main Differences Between Coaching and Mentoring

  • Goal: 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 Siddhartha.
  • Timeframe: 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, Siddhartha said.
  • Structure and specificity: 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, according to Siddhartha.
  • Expertise: 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, he said.

 

Mentoring Is Directive 

Mentors, typically more experienced professionals, 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,” said Moore of Your CEO Mentor. “It’s a more active process and relies more on the mentor to come up with answers.”

For instance, after Blake of NimblyWise found her a new career as an executive and career coach in tech, that same HR executive served as a mentor, suggesting continuing education classes for Blake as well as offering 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. 

 

Coaching Is Self Directed

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,” said Moore. Individuals receiving coaching “have to learn for themselves what the answers are,” Moore said.

Here’s an example of how coaching and mentoring might work for an employee who asks for help making a difficult decision. 

Coaching: “I say, ‘okay, 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.”

Mentoring: Moore would ask the employee to explain the situation, point out any red flags or risks, and then offer pertinent advice from his own experiences that might help the employee avoid risk or land mines with the decision. 

The difference: “Mentoring is more about pointing them in the right direction and pushing them, while the coaching process is much more passive,” Moore said. 

 

Coaching Takeaways for Tech

“A coach can provide values clarification, career assessments and decision-making tools to employees, managers and leaders so they choose an optimal career,” said Blake of NimblyWise. 

Coaches can help tech professionals assess and improve their communication styles, create vision and goals for their careers, provide motivation and also instill accountability for actions, Blake said. They can be a sounding board for new ideas, encourage risk-taking and goal-reaching, boost trust, confidence and the ability to execute and influence, and help calm worry and excessive stress.

More on Coaching and MentoringGreat Design Mentors Will Ask This Important Question

 

Mentoring Takeaways for Tech

“The tech world is very fast paced and always changing,” Blake said. “A mentor can help someone new to the company learn the ropes and come up to speed, especially in larger companies,” she said. Additionally, a mentor can use their influence with other employees to help the protege make positive connections, or help the protege see that their ideas and work are truly valuable and therefore, build confidence. 

Mentoring works wonders for entrepreneurs, said Siddhartha of Thrive Market. Tech shifts at such a rapid place 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 said. “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,” he said.

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