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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Do I need a mentor or a coach?

Updated: Jan 8

Mentor helping protege

What is a mentor? Is it the same as a coach? Or, is it something different?

The words mentor and coach are often used interchangeably. Most people would agree that the roles have much in common. Mentors and coaches help us grow and achieve our goals.

When should someone seek the services of a coach and when should someone seek a mentor?

A dictionary definition for coach is “one who instructs or trains.” Therefore, seek a coach when you need instruction to achieve a targeted skill set such as learning how to be a more effective presenter, learning business skills, or learning how to use social media.

A dictionary definition for mentor is “an experienced and trusted adviser.” Therefore, seek a mentor when you need direction and guidance in how to utilize your knowledge and skills; when you need feedback, advice, or encouragement from someone with more experience.

How are mentors and coaches different?

Although very similar, the differences between a coach and a mentor are subtle yet important.

  • A coach may be a volunteer position, but is often a person hired and paid to teach the skills needed to achieve a standard of excellence in sports, the arts, or academics. A mentor is generally a voluntary role. It may involve skill-building, but in a supporting role rather than as the primary instructor.

  • A coach may work one-on-one, with a group, or with a larger team. Mentors and mentees generally work one-on-one.

  • In coaching, goals are generally derived by the coach or an outside organization. In mentoring, goals are generally determined by the mentee with the guidance of the mentor.

What are the roles of mentors and mentees?

The lists below describe the roles of a mentor and mentee. Notice how they complement each other.

A mentor’s role involves:

  • Being an encourager and supporter

  • Asking good questions and being an active listener, demonstrating empathy

  • Being generous with sharing expertise, experience, and wisdom

  • Being a role model, demonstrating ethical behavior

  • Being respectful and trustworthy

A mentee’s role involves:

  • Taking responsibility for learning

  • Asking good questions and being an active listener

  • Respecting and appreciating the mentor’s time and generosity

  • Setting goals to work on with the mentor

  • Being open to receiving advice and feedback

In a mentor-mentee relationship, the mentor is the more experienced, supportive counselor and advisor who helps the mentee learn, grow, and develop, in order to reach the mentee’s personal and professional goals.

What is your experience with mentoring?

Has anyone ever mentored you? I believe we all achieve more when we seek the guidance of a mentor. A mentor has traveled the journey ahead of us and can lend us an ear and provide wisdom and encouragement.

Have you ever served as a mentor? If you have acquired valuable experience, look for opportunities to become a mentor. When you fulfill the mentor role, you also learn and grow.

When serving on Purdue's Nutrition Science Alumni Network board, I organized a program for alumni from the department to mentor current students. Dozens of mentors and mentees participated. I enjoyed getting to know my mentees as well as observing the positive impact of the program on all of the students and alumni involved.

What do you need to grow as a professional?

Do you need a mentor? Or, do you need a coach?

If you are seeking a coach to develop skills in nutrition communication, check out my coaching page. If you are seeking a professional mentor, a good place to start is your local or state affiliate of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.”

~ John Crosby

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