When people think of getting career development guidance from others they’ll often describe these resources by use of the terms “coach” and “mentor” as if they’re the same thing. In reality, these are two very different resources. I explain the primary differences below in Figure 1. In essence, good mentoring involves elements of coaching, but is much more heavily based on the mentor’s ability to speak with a voice of authority through experience, such as being able to say “I’ve been there, done that.”

Figure 1

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When to Seek a Mentor

You should seek help from a mentor when you are clear on your goals and know what you want, but need help navigating a specific path. A protégé (the person seeking guidance) should be clear on his/her goals and what he/she is looking for from a mentoring relationship. Mentors can be extremely valuable for those who aspire to very senior level roles where the “rules” of success are ambiguous or very subjective. Another reason to seek the help of a mentor might be when pursuing a very unique career path where few have gone before and role models are limited.

A productive and sustained mentor relationship is pretty rare, partly because of the long-term nature of the investment of effort and time required in finding, building and maintaining the relationship.

Some organizations have a formal mentoring program where relationships will be assigned based on the career interest of the protégé and the willingness of a more senior leader to provide some help. While these relationships can be useful, I question whether they are true mentor relationships. One of the hallmarks of successful mentorship is a strong personal connection that cannot be forced. If the parties work well together initially, then it may turn into a strong mentor relationship over time. Keep in mind mentors do not have to be found within your same function or organization; in fact, someone external to your organization may be of great benefit in providing a broader perspective.

When to Seek a Coach

Coaches can provide help with the protégé’s specific skill development, such as learning how to manage a project, dealing with conflict, or learning how to give an effective presentation. Other reasons might be in seeking clarification on career direction, motivational issues, and interpersonal relationships or interpreting and prioritizing feedback messages. Typically, the protégé has the “answers within” but needs help in bringing these to the surface and in getting objective perspective and feedback. Great coaches help individuals come to their own conclusions through thorough analysis and by asking powerful, insightful questions.

Most of us will have a number of coaches throughout our careers. A few of us will be lucky enough to have a great mentor, too. While both are important, I think having a good coach is the foundation to a successful career. Clarify what you’re looking for, and then seek the right resource.