One of the most humbling aspects of becoming a new business owner is to admit that you don’t know everything… and be willing to look for aid and advice from someone more experienced. The idea is to learn and apply things you wouldn’t have otherwise thought of yourself. But if you’re looking for someone to help teach you, should you look for a coach or a mentor?
You may already be using these words interchangeably. But the reality is there’s a reason why there are two separate words—coach and mentor—in the English language. The two don’t quite mean the same thing. And as a new startup founder looking to learn more, the relationship you share with a coach and a mentor will both be very different. No, one won’t be intrinsically superior or more valuable than the other. They’ll just be unique.
In this guide, we’ll dive into the primary differences between mentoring and coaching, and how a mentor is different from a coach. We’ll also provide advice on how business founders can know which one is best for them, depending on where they are and when to prioritize each kind of guidance.
Business coaching defined and explored
There’s a reason why coaching’ and ‘mentoring’ are often used interchangeably. It can be easily argued they both exist for the same reason: to help new business owners grow their skills and get better at serving their customers or clients.
But the coach and the mentor are two different people who accomplish this in sometimes subtly and other times radically different ways. Let’s talk about the coach first.
There is no such thing as a business coach, contrary to what you may have heard or believe. That’s because the term business coach is way too broad of a term. Coaches instead have a specific arena of expertise and are specially trained and knowledgeable in that arena. When they are hired by a new business owner, it’s to help the business owner improve specific skills the coach has expertise in, versus broad pieces of general advice.
Coaches also provide their coaching services as a full-time job, seeing multiple clients at once. That’s why there is now an entire coaching industry, as most coaches are also trained by specific coaching institutes or organizations. Before taking on a new client, coaches will often have an introductory call or meeting with the potential client. The idea is for the coach to assess the potential client’s goals before deciding whether they can take them on.
The coaching industry has expanded greatly since the pandemic hit. That’s because since the lockdowns and massive unemployment rate, many people who were previously employed full time have instead turned to becoming self-employed, either as remote working freelancers or as startup founders.
In fact, thanks to drastic shifts in the economy and how we conduct business, it’s now easily possible to earn just as much money self-employed (if not more) as it was when employed full time before the pandemic. At the same time, many people put into this position were (and are) at a loss for answers on how to transition to remote working arrangements that they were very unfamiliar with. Coaches came to their aid.
Additional areas where business owners often turn to coaches to help develop their skills include confidence, presentation or speaking skills, handling sales calls with clients, working with team members or lead-generation efforts to convert more customers.
Business mentoring defined and explored
The best way to think about the difference between a mentor and a coach is that while a coach is hired to help improve specific skills, a mentor serves as a voluntary guide or confidant. Mentorships usually last for much longer than coaching relationships, and can also turn into a friendship that can last for a lifetime.
In that regard, it’s even possible for a coach to eventually step into a mentorship role. But the two terms still have separate meanings. Whereas coaching relationships usually start as a formal business transaction (the pupil hires the coach in exchange to improve their skills in a certain area), the less formal mentorship usually starts as a way for the mentor to give back to a mentee they believe in and without expectation for payment.
And whereas it is the coach who will usually be driving the conversations in coaching, it is the mentee who will be asking most of the questions in a mentorship. Coaching is more structured and driven toward an end result, whereas mentoring is more focused on the mentor/mentee relationship that the mentee gradually learns from.
Previously, most business mentors were individuals who were more senior members at the same company as the mentee. Today, largely thanks to the shift toward working from home or online, it is more common for people to find business mentors at networking events or through being introduced by friends or colleagues.
Take note that for both coaching and mentorships to succeed, the coach and the mentor have to be dedicated to the development and the success of the pupil. This is the only way that coaching or a mentorship is capable of succeeding for the good of both parties.
Do I need a coach or a mentor?
Now for the big question: as a new business owner, do you need a coach or a mentor? The short answer is that because there are multiple unexpected challenges to starting an online business, you need both.
When choosing between a coach or a mentor, you need to ask yourself what you’re trying to achieve. Both will aid you in your professional (and personal) development, but it’s the coach who will provide you with the shorter-term relationship to surmount certain goals, and the mentor who will always be there over the long term to give you counsel when you need it.
With that said, ask yourself if there are specific areas to your business that you need to improve. Working on developing people skills so you can better manage your employees or contractors, improving communication abilities, and learning online marketing are common examples of when business owners seek out a coach.
In the case of a mentorship, it may not even be you who seeks out the mentor like you do with a coach. Inevitably, you will always find people who naturally step into a mentor-like role for you even if you never formally call them a mentor or hold regular meetings.
Coaches and mentors won’t just be useful for you as a new business owner; they’re both necessary. It is also not at all unusual for long-established business owners and managers to still turn to multiple mentors for advice and coaches for improving specific skills even at a late stage in their careers.
Photo by @Carodevorst/Twenty20