What Is the Difference Between a Coach, a Trainer, and a Mentor?

By Mike Raia Posted January 24, 2018

 

The terms "Coach," Trainer" and "Mentor" can often be used synonomously, however their actual roles are indeed unique. While one person can serve as 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 

Coach 

coaches work with groupsA 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 is suffering from poor morale, a coach is going to 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's going to be difficult for employees to respond to the CEO as a coach if they're used to seeing them as a detached figurehead. Plus, 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 highest ranks of the company, but now they're more likely to be hired to maximize the potential of executives. 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. 

Trainer 

trainers teach specialized skillsA 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 in this regard, but a trainer's focus is set 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 a new technology. For example, a company-wide session to instruct employees how to use a new type of software. Training doesn't always have to be formal, though there are advantages and pitfalls with either format. 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 own work.

Trainers need to be recognized as experts in their field to be effective. However, trainers have a tendency to forget that they see the subject matter in a very different light than those who are 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. 

Mentor 

trainers focus on personal growthA 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 a professional one that bridges 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 trainer is both the scope and the 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 makes progress, but they don't necessarily rush that progress if their mentee isn't ready for it. Ideally, the two people should develop a friendship after the official mentoring is over. 

A good mentor is typically less concerned with the company's goals and more concerned about the mentee's personal 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. In fact, 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 who will benefit from someone who can meet them on their level.  

Role Coach Trainer Mentor

Function

Fixes or improves a specific problem in an organization

Teaches one skill or concept

Develops the character of a mentee over time

Approach

Prepares by understanding high-level organization of company

Prepares and adapts lesson plans based on subject matter and group

Prepares to spend months or even years learning and understanding their mentee

Ideal Audience

Typically work with groups of people

Can work either one-on-one or with a group

Usually works one-on-one

Perception

Viewed as authority figures

Viewed as subject matter experts

Viewed as a personal relationship or even a friend

Company Relationship

Usually an external professional

Usually an internal professional

May be either internal or external

Customized Solutions 

Deciding between the three roles can't be a one-size-fits-all solution. It's not only highly dependent on what you're trying to do, but also 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 is going to go a long way toward minimizing wasted time and finding a more streamlined solution to whatever problem is in front of you. 

Mike Raia

Marketing the world's best workflow automation software and drinking way too much coffee. https://about.me/mikeraia

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