How to Decide Whether You Need a Coach or Mentor

Every leader has room for personal and professional growth. Whether you are looking to accomplish a new goal, improve your effectiveness at a task or obtain guidance for your career, you may need a coach or mentor. These two words are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same.

With both coaching and mentoring, you should strive to be authentic in your interactions.

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A leadership coach is best for those who are interested in improving performance in a specific area. This can include both professional areas such communication skills, strategic thinking and management skills, as well as personal areas including time management or work-life integration. Coaches are more goal-oriented than mentors and can provide specific action-oriented steps to guide you toward a desired measurable outcome. 

Coaching is often a contractual agreement with a dedicated investment and specific timeframe. As a client, your coach will provide specific information and details on what is needed to accomplish your goal. When looking for a coach, consider what professional goals you would like to achieve. A coach can evaluate what is not working in your process and instruct you on what changes are required. Coaches have expertise in their field and typically have advanced training or certification.

A leadership mentor is a better option if you are looking to develop your overall skills in multiple areas as a leader, or if you feel stuck and unsure about your next steps. Mentors often function at a level of experience and success you aspire to achieve. They can offer professional guidance based on their own journey, including insight into their career growth. Mentors are concerned about the emotional and behavioral well-being of their mentees and often have a deeper personal connection with them. Business mentors may also introduce you to their colleagues and act as a referral source for new opportunities to directly help you move forward in your career. Mentoring is usually a mutual agreement based on relationships. It is less structured and the flow is based on the progressive development of the mentee.  

Key Characteristics of These Two Relationships

  • Vulnerability

Mentoring relationships will require a greater level of vulnerability from both sides. The mentor must be comfortable sharing about both the high and low points of their career, and the mentee should be open to discussing current struggles and difficulties. Coaching relationships have less of an emotional component and can function effectively without the need for vulnerability on the part of either the coach or mentee.

  • Personal Growth

Coaching can help you with your personal growth by training you in a particular soft skill. Mentoring often covers many interlinking personal growth areas affecting your career path. If you are embarking on a new role, a mentoring relationship would encompass a holistic look at advancement in your personal growth. If you are established within your career and would like to fine-tune specific personal growth goals, a coach will get you to your desired outcome faster.

  • Accountability

Coaching requires you to be accountable. Effective coaches will require performance checks and provide ongoing feedback to keep you on track to meeting your goals. Mentoring is less rigid. There are typically no established performance measures or specific assignments related to the mentoring relationship. Improvement is often measured by intangible interpersonal and behavioral changes.

  • Mindset Management

A mentoring mindset focuses on a long-term relationship. When seeking mentorship, consider someone you know personally or professionally who you admire and would like to achieve similar success. A coaching mindset is based on a short-term relationship. Coaching may last a few weeks, months or up to a year. It is important to manage your mindset when entering either relationship to prevent committing to something you cannot uphold.

  • Authenticity 

With both coaching and mentoring, you should strive to be authentic in your interactions. For a mentor to guide well, you will need to feel comfortable being truthful about where you are getting stuck and most needing assistance. Before a coach can help you move forward, they will need to see where you are currently seated in the process. Lack of authenticity will negatively affect the effectiveness of both coaching and mentoring relationships. 

Both mentoring and coaching have a similar intent to assist in the improvement of the one being supported; however, they do differ in their approach, focus and dynamics. Despite their differences, both are beneficial and can be a valuable part of your growth at various stages of your leadership journey.


Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith

Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith is an internal medicine physician, work-life integration researcher, speaker and best-selling author. She is an international wellness expert who has been featured in numerous media outlets including Prevention, MSNBC, Women’s Day, FOX, Fast Company and Psychology Today. She is the author of numerous books, including her latest, “Sacred Rest: Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity.” Over 100,000 people have discovered their personal rest deficits using her free assessment at Learn more about her at

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