What’s the Difference Between A Professional Mentor and a Career Coach?


Regardless of your field of work, you probably dread exploring your career options and goals alone. Perhaps you long for someone who can teach you the nuances and wonders of your trade or how to navigate a competitive market with grace and charisma. Maybe you want someone who can teach you a particular skill that you can apply effortlessly to everyday tasks at work. Maybe you just want a person to talk to about your personal strengths and worries, someone who is willing to nurture your natural abilities and show you how to use them to your advantage. But to whom should you turn? A career coach or counselor? A professional mentor? Are they the same thing? Before you seek out the proper help, you would probably benefit from knowing what either a career coach or a professional mentor can do for you. This post will attempt to define both roles and explain in detail and how their expertise and areas of interest differ from one another—and how they, in some ways, converge.

  1. A career coach focuses on concrete tasks, whereas a professional mentor focuses on an individual.

To better understand what a career coach really does, it may be helpful to consider the role of a coach in another context. For instance, any sports coach often wishes to achieve one primary goal: to get his or her team to play at a level suitable to beat an equally qualified opponent. What the players do off the field often is irrelevant; all s/he asks of them is a topnotch, winning performance. Career coaches have very similar objectives. Their goal is to help their clients understand what to expect on a competitive job market and what they can in turn expect from the job market. They may help you refine existing skills or teach completely new ones relevant to your field. Whatever the job coach’s method, his/her goal is simply to help you compete against others with similarly strong skillsets and qualities (Chakravarthy; “The Difference Between Coaching and Mentoring”).

A mentor, on the other hand, strives to keep the focus mainly on you. “You” here means just about everything that encompasses, well, you—your work life, your goals, and your concerns. Your mentor may ask you deeply personal questions, ones to which you may not yet have fully developed answers. This is perfectly fine. A mentor, after all, is there to help you better flesh out these questions and realize your goals in precise terms. His/her objective is not to get you to perform any specific task, but rather to talk about what you wish to perform and how you want to do it.

  1. Rather than focus on specific tasks, a professional mentor guides you mentally through active conversation.

Like an athletic coach, your career coach will have a well-planned and rigorous “agenda” for you to follow.  S/He may give you one large project or task to complete or break your agenda into several smaller “sub-tasks” (Chakravarthy; “The Difference between Coaching and Mentoring”). Furthermore, like any good teacher, your coach will have thought out precise learning objectives—that is, tasks and concepts that he prioritizes as musts for you to learn in order for the lesson to be successful. In short, a coach guides you through experience. He wants you to do the work as he observes and assesses from the sidelines, offering solid encouragement and critique when necessary.

While your mentor’s guidance may not be as “hands-on” as your career coach’s, it can still be valuable and offer wisdom that will last as long as any practical skill. Think of your mentor as the friend who always offers advice; like a good friend, he will allow you to express yourself freely and informally, but with your interest in mind. The mentor, therefore, does not necessarily require you to act in any way. He simply offers you a place to vent, confide, and listen. The mentor’s work, therefore, tends to be somewhat more abstract than that of the coach, focusing more on emotions and behavior than on “practical skills” (Chakravarthy; “The Difference between Coaching and Mentoring”).

  1. Despite their inherent differences, coaches and mentors offer the same very valuable thing: an enduring relationship of mutual respect that you will probably cherish throughout your entire career.

Although they may sometimes intimidate you with their knowledge and perceived impregnable authority, your most memorable teachers, coaches or mentors will want to form meaningful human bonds with you. Let them. Ask your coach for extra help in a specific area if you need it. Ask your mentor any question you may have, no matter how “silly” it may seem. They will in turn watch you grow, listen to your voice grow more authoritative, more expressive, more sure like their own.


Works Cited

Chakravarthy, Pradeep. “The Difference Between Coaching And Mentoring.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 20 Dec. 2011. Web. 03 Aug. 2015.

Jacqueline Hill, Esq.

This post was written by .

Jacqueline Hill is a partner at Lexacount Search, where she places top senior-level and other legal talent with law firms and corporate legal departments across the United States. She has been writing about careers, lawyers, attorney professional development, and the legal industry for more than a decade. She can be reached at jacqueline.hill@lexacount.com or 215-740-0104, extension 101.

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