4 Critical Differences Between a Coach and a Mentor

(U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley)

Everybody needs help sometimes. When service members and veterans look for advice in finding new lives after the military, one of the most repeated tips is to find a coach or a mentor to guide them.

While this is definitely good advice, it’s important to remember that the terms are often used interchangeably, but a coach and a mentor aren’t the same thing. Finding a coach and a mentor is asking for two different mentalities, time commitments and attention to crucial details.

This is an important distinction because either way, asking someone to be one of these things in your life is a big ask, one for which they may not feel qualified or may not have the time to do. So knowing which is which and what exactly you're asking for is important. Here are the differences.

1. Time Commitment

The biggest difference between the two is that a mentor is there for the mentee for the long haul. A coach is there to help get you through a single event or time period, while a mentor is someone who is there to guide you through an aspect of your development.

If you’re starting a business, for example, a coach would be someone to help you get through the seed funding round or startup phase. The mentor is someone who either has started their own business or works in your industry and offers their advice and experience as the business grows and everything that can affect you personally and professionally.

2. Objectives

The second most important difference between a coach and mentor is what they’re helping you get through. A coach’s focus would be a hurdle or objective that affects your professional life. Your mentor is there to help you when your work or business begins to affect you personally.

A coach will coach you through an expansion of your business or help you open a franchise, focused only on meeting your business benchmarks and, ultimately, your goal. When that’s over, the coaching relationship ends. Your mentor is someone you could call if those business goals begin to affect your marriage, relationships with friends or other interpersonal relations and help you maintain a good work-life balance.

3. Experience

A coach doesn’t need expertise in your specific industry to help you get started or advance in your post-military life. The coach is there to help you see the big picture that is your career. They will celebrate your successes with you and help you evaluate your failures. They don’t need to have experience in your industry or even the military to help you here.

A mentor is different in that they have the same or similar experiences as you do. They are familiar with your emotional journey because they once traveled the same road. They know where your biggest hurdles are and what you need to do to overcome those hurdles. The mentor is essentially the mentee, just further along in life.

4. The Relationship

Since a coach’s focus is narrow and time frame for advice much smaller than the mentor's, a coach’s relationship with the person they’re coaching is much more structured and formal. Since there will be certain benchmarks met in reaching the goal, the intervals in which they meet will be more regular and easier to plan and predict.

The relationship between a mentor and mentee will seem much more like an unstructured friendship. The mentee should feel comfortable seeking the counsel of their mentor whenever the need arises, and as a result, the relationship will be much less formal than one with a coach.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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