What’s the difference between a coach and a mentor — and when do you need each?

Although they have superficial similarities, the relationship you have with a mentor is very different from what you get from a professional coach. To grow in your career, you need to know when to prioritize each kind of guidance.

Buffer facilitated a discussion back in 2018 in which SEO expert and founder Areej AbuAli asked a question that got me thinking then and still has me reflecting now:

“What’s the difference between a mentor and a coach? Yup, I know there are tons of articles on that, but what’s your personal experience on it and how does one know which one they need?”

In conversations with founders, I sometimes hear “mentor” and “coach” used interchangeably. But, in my experience, these two roles are distinctly different, and it pays to know which one is best for you at any given time.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

Early in my career, I heard a lot about the power of mentorship. Podcast hosts talked about how mentors shaped their lives and blog articles with tips for founders suggested finding a mentor. Startup accelerator programs even encouraged founders to have an entire slide of their pitch deck dedicated to mentors and supporters. Naturally, I came to the conclusion that I had to have a mentor to have any chance of success. “Get a mentor” quickly jumped to the top of my to-do list!

Over a casual dinner, I outright asked a woman I admired, “Will you be my mentor?”

It didn’t go as I had planned.

Neither one of us knew exactly what I meant by the question, which ended up putting a lot of pressure on both of us. I had assumed that there was a treasure trove of tips and hacks that I could unlock only if I became her protege.

Looking back, I can see now that we were better off as friendly acquaintances who casually discussed challenges at work once in a while. I learned it’s OK to admire what a powerhouse woman has accomplished in her career without seeking a mentorship dynamic with her.

Further into my own career, I settled on seeking out informal mentorship with people in my network and saved the structured business growth for paid coaches.

Here’s an overview of how I see mentoring being different from coaching:

WHAT MAKES A MENTOR?

Early on, informal mentorship for me took the shape of peer-to-peer coffeehouse chats. In addition to these mutually beneficial sessions with peers, my venture-backed startup co-founders and I also had a monthly update email we sent to a list of people who were interested in what we were up to.

When I began traveling full-time, mentoring moments transformed into recurring calendar appointments every two months with people I admired and respected. These were people I had met throughout my career that I wanted to keep connecting with, even as I was on the road. I could easily have lost touch with them because I wasn’t able to see them in person. So, these recurring calendar appointments solidified our relationship to ensure that we didn’t drift apart. Some of these informal mentors have been meeting with me on a regular basis for over six years now!

Before starting to work with other entrepreneurs and founders, I thought having a solid foundation under my feet for what works — and doesn’t work — for mentorship would be helpful. After mentorship meetings with people I admire, I realized things like mutually beneficial exchanges and shared values mattered a lot to me. I also found the professionals I most looked up to were not just mentoring others. They had mentors themselves with whom they met consistently. So, before I offered my time to entrepreneurs and founders, it was important to me that I had mentors of my own with whom I had meaningful relationships.

Today, I work with a U.S.-based startup accelerator to mentor new founders, meeting with them one to three times during their three-month program for 30-minute Zoom calls. An accelerator like this takes the guesswork out of hunting for mentors for these founders. They’re matched with someone straight away as members of the programs.

Pre-meeting, I like to be sure I understand why I’m the right person to help with a specific challenge the founder is facing. If they want to talk broadly about marketing, I ask for more details so I can come prepared for the meeting. I always want to make sure we end the call with action items that will impact their business immediately.

I’ll say something like:

“Let’s meet for 30 minutes to see how far we can get. Take a look at my LinkedIn profile to see if any experience I have stands out to you. I can share more about it on the call. Before the call, think about two specific challenges keeping you up at night that you would like us to focus on. Send those two things over in advance of our chat. That way, I can come prepared with ideas to make the best use of our time.”

Asking these questions pre-meeting takes a bit of extra time for both parties, but I find the calls are much more productive all around this way. I recently decided to no longer take non-paid, pick-your-brain-style calls with those seeking my general advice. If an entrepreneur isn’t able to be specific about what they need a hand with, it isn’t clear that they’ve done research on their own time, or I don’t see why meeting with me will help them on their journey, I won’t take the call.

Participants in the startup accelerator are in a formal program that models for them how to make the best use of their time with a mentor. On the other hand, sometimes founders who reach out on Twitter or through a cold email don’t understand how to ask for someone’s time.

A mentorship meeting exists to talk through a specific challenge or topic. Don’t simply ask to meet just to meet or mindlessly check the boxes of what you think a startup founder should be doing. You can find creative ways to engineer serendipity in your career, but cold outreach should be well thought out to make it worthwhile and exciting for the person you’re hoping to speak with.

When I approach someone I would like to talk through a business challenge with, I ask for 20 to 30 minutes of their time and share the specific problem I’m facing. I avoid phrases like “picking your brain” or “getting coffee to chat.” That way, I let them know I respect their time and why I think they would be the best person in my network to help with the problem at hand. Being direct and clear aligns expectations straight away. People want to feel helpful rather than walking away from a session feeling like they didn’t accomplish anything.

Here’s a script to structure your requests:

“I see you have x experience. I am getting stuck when it comes to x. Do you know any good resources I may be missing? Or, if you have time this month, can we meet for x minutes to chat through x problem I am facing?”

When someone agrees to a meeting, be sure to handle all the logistics so that all they have to do is merely show up. I send over available dates and time blocks to get the scheduling ball rolling. You may also consider a one- or two-minute video using a service like Loom or Vidyard to introduce yourself, thank them for agreeing to meet with you and add some color to why you set up the meeting in the first place.

After the meeting, thank them for their time. If you made any promises on the call, such as sending over an article you mentioned that they seemed interested in reading, don’t forget to deliver. You might also set an expectation for when you will circle around again in the future. Something simple like this will work: “After I finish that angel investor pitch next month that I told you about today, I’ll send along a quick email update to let you know how it went!”

COACHING

Working with a coach is a much more formal endeavor. I believe there is no right time to begin this relationship. I decided to seek out a coach when some repeated mistakes made clear that the way I viewed challenges in my career lacked the depth required to overcome them in the long term. I needed someone with an outside point of view and experience working with others who had faced similar problems to guide me through new ways of thinking. Talking about obstacles with friends or peers was not demanding enough accountability of me to make the real changes my approach needed to level up.

You can find many coaches you can connect with online. In my experience, the best way to go about finding one who may end up being an ideal fit for you is to ask your network if anyone has worked with a coach they enjoy. Another way to learn more about a coach before reaching out is to take a look at the work they have put out online such as YouTube videos or blog posts. Ask yourself: Does this coach’s past work resonate with what I hope to accomplish? Do they appear to share my values? Are they working with people in my same situation, industry or life stage?

A meeting with a coach has a defined structure, and the timeline often resembles a sprint. I’ve worked with three coaches so far, two of whom have made an incalculable impact on my life. The coaches I clicked with had a fresh approach to problems I was stuck on. Both of them were patient, while also challenging me to grow into my full potential. On the other hand, I realized the third coach wasn’t a fit after four one-hour sessions. She approached our work together more like a friend or peer than a coach. I didn’t feel challenged, and it seemed like she admired my career and work more than she saw clear ways that she could help me improve. I chalked the mismatch up to a teachable moment and didn’t pursue a long-term contract.

Today, I work with one coach. We use a structured format within a group setting with the aim of deepening my ease of access to my creativity. Beyond that, the group as a whole has a shared set of goals. The members each want to expand their capacity for relating to our emotions, boost our self-esteem, deepen the relationships that matter most to us, view our performances in their careers in a new way and clarify our purposes.

The meetings are rigidly structured, which I find adds to the value of the work. I join a group video call twice each week for 90 minutes. I also watch weekly lectures, and the group uses two digital spaces for daily check-ins. I can also book one-on-one sessions as needed, but we don’t schedule those sessions quite as much lately since the launch — and success — of the group format.

I found that a massive benefit to working with a coach rather than a more informal chat with a mentor or friend is the cost. Because I have budgeted for this investment in myself, I show up prepared and fully present. I try to make sure I don’t have a meeting scheduled immediately after our session, just in case we go long. If possible, I also clear my calendar before the meeting so I can unplug a bit from what I’ve been doing that day and get centered. If I was asked to read or watch some content before the call, I arrive having done the homework and with a list of any questions I had. An experienced coach will tell you their expectations for working together, but if you are in doubt on how to best prepare for your first coaching session, simply ask them. Chances are they have been asked this question before!

MENTOR OR COACH? DEPENDS WHERE YOU ARE

Over time, it’s become clearer and clearer to me when I will benefit from working formally with a coach versus situations where a meeting with a peer, someone who has been in my shoes, would be more beneficial. If I aim to have measurable growth toward a clearly defined destination and I would benefit from someone who will keep me accountable, meet with me regularly and apply broad knowledge to my specific challenge, a coach that comes highly-recommended from my network is probably the person who will deliver. If I’m facing a particular challenge and I know someone in my network has overcome a similar trial with grace, a quick mentor meeting may do the trick.

There is no reason to go it alone in your career. Plenty of people have been in the exact same spot, whether you are just getting started after university or forming a new company after multiple successful exits. As I said in my TEDx talk in 2012, playing nicely with fellow entrepreneurs pays off. Whether it’s a formal relationship with a coach who came recommended or a 30 minute call every quarter with someone who has a career trajectory that you admire, you’re bound to walk away from these sessions with new ideas, a different outlook and a sense of connection.

Jacqueline Jensen is a COO, former venture-backed startup founder, TEDx speaker, author, and Royal Society of Arts Fellow.