Over the past twenty years, I’ve had a number of diverse roles and positions, all of which link to one area of commonality – people development.
In these various roles, I’ve usually been described as a trainer, a coach, or a mentor, in addition to a few other adjectives that I won’t expand on here!
A quick perusal of LinkedIn profiles, for those operating within the people development sector, will show a wide range of job titles, such as Performance Coach, Master Trainer, Leadership Mentor, and so on. A plethora of titles, yet the bearers of these labels all work towards the same goal, which is to increase the skills, knowledge and effectiveness of others. The question, then, is what’s the difference between training, coaching, and mentoring?
Trainer • n. a person who teaches skills to people or animals and prepares them for a job, activity or sport.
– Cambridge Dictionary
The role of a trainer is to directly impart knowledge or information to the learner, drawing on their specific expertise, through instruction and explanation. For training to occur, it requires the trainer to have more specific knowledge than the learner. That is, the trainer must be an expert who knows ‘the correct answer.’ This results in the direction of learning only flowing in one-way, passing from trainer to learner.
If we applied this training style to The Coaching Spectrum (Downey, 2003), it would reside at the Directive end of the scale.
Coach • n. Give (someone) professional advice on how to attain their goals.
– Oxford Dictionary
In contrast to a trainer (who must be an expert in their field), a coach does not necessarily need to have specialist knowledge. Coaching presumes that people hold the key to their own success, and so don’t need others to tell or show them what to do.
Therefore, a coach is someone who specialises in helping to unlock the potential of others. This is achieved through observing and measuring the performance levels of the learner, whilst also setting them new goals, and providing motivational and developmental feedback. A coach utilises much more of a questioning mode of operation, as opposed to the telling style adopted by trainers.
There is a difference between training someone, and helping them to learn. Essentially, a coach is facilitating a learner to improve their own current level of performance.
Mentor • n. A person who gives a younger or less experienced person help and advice over a period of time.
– Cambridge Dictionary
Mentors are often described as wise old owls, although personally I prefer to replace the word old with experienced!
Mentoring is all about guiding, advising, and helping the learner to master a particular field that the mentor has already mastered. Therefore, it’s a prerequisite of mentors to have specific experience and expertise themselves.
Unlike coaching, which is about solving immediate problems and issues, mentoring focuses on long-term success, and looking at the bigger picture. Put another way, if coaching is about improving performance, mentoring is concerned with building capability. Whereas a coach usually sets the goals for the learner, a mentor guides the learner to set their own goals. A mentor lights the path so that the learner can discover their own wisdom and self-reliance.
Effective People Developers
Understanding the differences between these three roles is critical for helping us to fulfil the potential of others. Yet equally important is the ability to flex our approach and adapt our language, switching from role to role depending on who we are developing, when we are developing them, and what the situation demands.
Regardless of whether we are adopting a training, coaching, or mentoring style, it’s vital that we have respect for those we’re supporting in their learning journey, understanding and appreciating their individual difference, whilst consistently modelling and promoting a growth mindset.
Would you like to support my writing? Click here to find out more