Do I Need a Mentor or a Coach?


The benefits, the differences, and how to know which one you need.

For the manager who wants to advance in his or her career, a mentor or coach could be a great resource. Across many studies, researchers have found that professionals with a coach or mentor go further in their careers and are more satisfied in their jobs. They receive more promotions and higher salaries, change jobs less frequently, and are more engaged.

But we at Kenyans Come Home are often asked: Are mentors and coaches the same thing? If not, what’s the difference? And how do I know which one is best for me?

Mentors and coaches are definitely not the same thing. Choosing one over the other depends in large part on what you’re looking for from the relationship and how you want to grow.

Mentoring is typically relationship-based and can cover a broad range of areas. An ideal mentor is usually further along in his or her career, perhaps in the same industry or occupying the kind of role that you’d like to do one day. If you have a start-up, your mentors can also be business advisors who offer general business advice or specific expertise.

One of the major benefits of mentoring is the long-term, expansive, and oftentimes informal nature of the relationship. If you need advice urgently, you can call up a mentor. If you need input on an ongoing basis, you can turn to your mentor fairly frequently. Mentors often focus on professional needs, but they can provide advice about personal issues as well.

This is how Management Mentors, which provides mentoring services in North America, Europe, and Africa, explains it: “Although specific learning goals or competencies may be used as a basis for creating the relationship, its focus goes beyond these areas to include things, such as work/life balance, self-confidence, self-perception, and how the personal influences the professional.”

If you prefer a shorter-term relationship that will move you toward specific management or development goals, then a coach may be a better fit. Coaches have usually received formal training on asking thought-provoking questions and can provide tools for performance improvement. Unlike mentors, coaches tend to shy away from giving direct advice, focusing instead on helping clients find their own answers.

The International Coach Federation defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential even in the face of growing complexity and uncertainty.”

As Business Daily reported recently, “an increasing number of high-level executives or companies in Kenya are turning to executive coaches, life coaches, headhunters and professional CV writers to help them get new jobs, unleash their inner potential and improve their productivity at work.”

One of those companies is regional insurer Zep-Re, which invested KES 3.2 million to train five of its employees as coaches. Administration manager Joseph Nabimanya told Business Daily that the coaching programme increased self-awareness and innovation while lowering employee turnover. “A coach only stands in the gap to extract knowledge from the employee,” he explained. “They connect employees to the deep reserves of their knowledge and improve their output.”

To know if a mentor or coach makes more sense for you, it’s important to be clear about your learning goals. Are you most interested in receiving advice or developing a long-term relationship with a more experienced professional? Then a mentor could be a great fit. Or do you have specific developmental goals and want guidance and accountability toward attaining those goals? If that’s the case, then a coach may be better.

Of course, you can have a mentor and a coach at the same time; the two are not mutually exclusive. We encourage leaders and aspiring leaders to make use of every available resource to grow. If you lead a business, you could also consider establishing a formal mentoring or coaching programme within the company, similar to what Zep-Redid.

“No one is born wise,” says the African proverb. Regardless of where you are in your career, there is always more to be learned from others, and coaches and mentors are excellent guides in providing that wisdom.