What Is the Difference Between a Coach, a Trainer, and a Mentor?
By Mike Raia | Published May 11, 2022
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- How to Be a Mentor
- How to Help Your Team Realize Untapped Potential
- Should You Train Online or in Person?
The terms "Coach," Trainer," and "Mentor" can often be used synonymously; however, their actual roles are indeed unique. While one person can serve in more than one of these roles, there are some basic differences in what should be expected from each effort and when each should be called upon. We'll cover each role.
A coach is typically brought on to fix or improve one particular problem. They're usually (though not always) tasked to work with a group of people, much as they would if they were a traditional basketball or baseball coach. A coach's biggest hurdle is usually identifying the primary issue. For example, an underperforming sales division may have everything to do with a local recession as opposed to a complacent sales team.
Being a coach is not necessarily about taking a deep dive into every complexity and complication in an office or department, but there should be some level of analysis. If an office suffers from poor morale, a coach will need more than a few platitudes to turn things around.
Theoretically, anyone can be a coach in the right circumstances, but employers tend to bring in outside parties, so roles are separated. It will be difficult for employees to respond to the CEO as a coach if they're used to seeing them as a detached figurehead. External coaches bring in a fresh perspective that can shed light on the forces at play.
High-level outside coaches used to be hired primarily to root out bad attitudes in the company's highest ranks. Still, they're more likely to be hired to maximize the executives' potential. They normally have set time limits and work on a short-term basis, though the time limits are different for every company. Experts say that ongoing coaching needs specific goals (e.g., raise productivity or revenue by x amount, etc.) to truly evaluate if a coach is contributing to the health of a company.
A trainer can be thought of as a teacher for the corporate world. It's not necessarily their job to motivate or to develop an employee's potential, only to impart knowledge about a pre-defined subject. A trainer and a coach will likely share a few key characteristics, but a trainer focuses on finding the best way for employees to learn a particular skill or concept.
As with any authority figure, the rules are not set in stone. Just like teachers, trainers can't solely rely on standing at the front of the room and delivering a boilerplate lecture. Because of the nature of training, trainers are typically internal employees of the company. They may teach a department about a new client request, inform of new compliance regulations, or show a new employee how to operate the phone system.
If a company uses an external trainer, it's usually for new technology. For example, a company-wide session can be held to instruct employees on using a new type of workflow software. Training doesn't always have to be formal, though either format has advantages and pitfalls. A large group may discourage participants from asking questions or clarifying points. An informal one-on-one session may lead the trainer to rush through the instructions or explanations so they can get back to their work.
Trainers need to be recognized as experts in their field to be effective. However, trainers tend to forget that they see the subject matter in a very different light than those trying to learn it from the ground up. Companies need to select people who can start with the basics and then tailor the rest of the session based on the needs of the people in the proverbial classroom.
A mentor has a far more informal role than a coach or a trainer, but they have the power to be more effective than either of the two combined. The relationship is meant to be professional, bridging the gap into the personal. It can be a difficult line to walk, but the right mentor can work with boundaries without crossing them.
The biggest difference between a coach and a trainer is in scope and time. Mentors get to know a person on a deeper level, and they stick with the commitment until they're no longer needed. Mentors scale back their relationship as their mentee progresses, but they don't necessarily rush that progress if their mentee isn't ready. Ideally, the two people should develop a friendship after the official mentoring.
A good mentor is typically less concerned with the company's goals and more about the mentee's ones. They may have a primary focus behind their actions, but they don't let that focus get in the way of understanding the other person.
Mentors don't necessarily need to be a part of the organization to be effective. Mentors have the potential to enrich their mentees with different perspectives if they come from different backgrounds. The idea behind this is to build up the employee's character and to invest in their overall success. It's an oft-rejected idea in a cut-throat business world, but it's also an art that can serve profit margins better in the long term.
A mentor who follows a strict set of guidelines will instantly dehumanize the interaction and turn it into a much more formal role (e.g., a trainer or coach.) Mentors work best for people who may not always respond well to authority but will benefit from someone who can meet them on their level.
Fixes or improves a specific problem in an organization
Teaches one skill or concept
Develops the character of a mentee over time
Prepares by understanding the high-level organization of the company
Prepares and adapts lesson plans based on subject matter and group
Prepares to spend months or even years learning and understanding their mentee
Typically work with groups of people
Can work either one-on-one or with a group
Usually works one-on-one
Viewed as authority figures
Viewed as subject matter experts
Viewed as a personal relationship or even a friend
Usually, an external professional
Usually, an internal professional
It may be either internal or external
Deciding between the three roles can't be a one-size-fits-all solution. It's highly dependent on what you're trying to do and who you're hoping to inspire. There are going to be some overlapping qualities you'll want in each of these positions. All trainers, mentors, and coaches should ideally be personable, articulate, and perceptive. However, laying out specific criteria will go a long way toward minimizing wasted time and finding a more streamlined solution to whatever problem is in front of you.
Marketing the world's best workflow automation software and drinking way too much coffee. Connect with me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/michaelraia/