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PhD, Union Institute / Doctor of Social Science, University of Leicester

At different times in our careers, we need a little help, a little boost, a little bit of direction. There are a lot of good sources for feedback and support—family members, friends, co-workers, etc. But two more formal types of assistance are also useful at times: mentoring and coaching. In this article, I’ll discuss what these two things have in common, how they differ, and where you might turn next to get either a coach or a mentor.

 Coaching and mentoring are alike in a couple of ways. First, they’re both designed to help you get where you’re going. (While “where you’re going” can mean a lot of things, we’ll focus on your career for now!) Second, both coaching and mentoring involve working with someone else to help guide you. However, who helps you—and how they help you—really differs between the two. Let’s take mentoring first.

Mentors are people more experienced than you, and can help you take the same paths—and maybe avoid the same mistakes they faced. Parents, older siblings, clergy, teachers, supervisors, and many others can serve as mentors in our lives. Also, you can become part of a formal mentoring program, where leaders are matched with employees for specific periods of time. Either way, mentors help you by providing insights, guidance, and advice. They give you answers.

Coaches, on the other hand, do not typically give you answers. Instead, they’re trained professionals who tend to ask questions for you to consider. These questions help you come up with ideas and direction for yourself. The International Coaching Federation defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” While mentors typically have some familiarity with your professional situation, coaches can work with just about anyone. While mentors are the “sage on the stage,” coaches are the “guide on the side.”

Another important distinction is that mentors tend to work with their protégés voluntarily, while coaches are professionals who work for a fee, usually several hundred dollars per hour.

So, which is right for you, a mentor or a coach? Either one, depending on your style and needs. If you want to connect with someone who knows where you’ve been and where you’re going, someone who can give advice on your career, then a mentor—formal or informal—might be the way to go. But if you want to work with someone who can guide you through a professionally constructed process, someone to help you find your own answers and direction in your career, a coach just might be the answer. Either way, guiding your career all by yourself is hard and doesn’t always get you the best results. When it’s time to give some serious consideration to your career direction, consider getting a coach or a mentor to help you along the way.