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Manager, Coach or Mentor? Different Roles for Different Goals

Alison Napolitano
Alison Napolitano

Businesses want employees to learn their jobs quickly, to attain maximum error-free performance and to gain greater skills, capabilities and experience needed for advancement.

Achieving these training and development goals typically involves managing, coaching and mentoring, but those terms are often misunderstood or used interchangeably.

Lack of clarity around the purpose of each role and when and how to play them can hamper talent development and lead to difficult workplace relationships.

Understanding the differences among them is critical to success.

Related Article: Guiding Lights: How to Create a Mentor Program for Your Organization

Manage for Operational Results

A manager’s priority is achieving operational goals set by the enterprise. Goals may include a unit of production, a dollar amount of sales or a percentage of market share. Managing workers in the course of meeting objectives is just one of a manager’s many responsibilities.

Most theories about the manager’s role trace back a century to the work of French mining engineer Henri Fayol, who defined five functions of management: planning, organizing, commanding, coordinating and controlling. A later theorist, Luther Gulick, consolidated commanding and controlling into directing and added staffing, reporting, and budgeting, to create the acronym POSDCORB, which is still used in the management and public administration fields.

Directing subordinate workers is a key function, but other concerns abound. Managers must devote attention to market conditions, financial resources, schedules, regulations, organizational structure, work environments, efficiency, productivity and more. It is not surprising that as organizations grow in size and complexity, managers need human resources departments to support them.

Managing is indefinite in duration, defined by organizational structure.

Coach for Personal, Professional Goals

Professional coaching, according to the International Coach Federation (ICF), encompasses “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” The ICF trains and certifies coaches in methods of objective assessment, active listening and reflective questioning that encourage client self-discovery.

Professional coaches offer proven concepts and strategies; they challenge blind spots and foster new perspectives, but they do not prescribe actions or outcomes. The client, often in conjunction with a manager, sets the agenda. The coach holds the client accountable for goals and outcomes the client commits to during the coaching process.

Companies hire outside coaches or establish internal coaching programs for such tasks as improving interpersonal or public speaking skills or integrating cultures after a merger. Coaching’s client-driven approach makes it less suited for correcting poor performance, but it provides measurable benefits for talent development and moving from “good to great.”

Coaching is generally short term.

Mentor to Share Experience

A mentor’s role is to impart knowledge, expertise, and wisdom to colleagues with less experience. These qualities generally accrue over time, so mentors are usually older than mentees, but not always. Younger “reverse” mentors may share expertise with older co-workers in areas such as new technology and social media.

Mentoring relationships are mutually beneficial. Each party gains insights from the sharing process. Unlike a manager, who hires and has power over subordinates, mentors and mentees choose each other. A mentor’s authority derives from the mentee’s esteem. Such relationships often form naturally at work, with mentors and mentees becoming friends and confidantes.

Companies establish formal mentoring programs to accelerate the process. Goals include acclimating new hires, promoting diversity, retaining workers, grooming potential leaders and facilitating knowledge transfer as senior workers retire. Institutionalizing the process requires careful planning and implementation to achieve good matches and desired results.

The University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School’s online MBA degree program, MBA@UNC, developed a downloadable guide, “How to Build a Successful Mentoring Program.” It summarizes a series of helpful tips related to one-to-one mentoring, e-mentoring, reverse mentoring, group mentoring and peer mentoring. Step-by-step instructions cover setting objectives, structuring a program, training participants and measuring results.

Small businesses with few employees or solo entrepreneurs can access free mentoring through SCORE, a nonprofit association of volunteer, retired business executives.

Mentoring usually lasts a year or longer.

Related Article: What Football Coaches Can Teach CEOs

Wearing More Than One Hat

Given the different goals, methods and relationship dynamics of managing, coaching and mentoring, can one individual play all three roles with an employee? No, not properly. Here are some caveats:

  • Managers can employ coaching techniques when appropriate but will inevitably face times when they must “call the shots,” rather than await employee self-discovery.
  • Managers and subordinates who become close friends create a delicate balancing act, raising issues of power, boundaries, objectivity, accountability, and favoritism.
  • Managers may be role models and share experience, but their power conflicts with the mentor’s role, negating a valuable function—helping mentees navigate conflicts with management. Subordinates inevitably feel inhibited in what they share with a manager.
  • A mentor may counsel or advise the mentee but does not coordinate with the manager.
  • A coach closely coordinates with the manager but does not advise or counsel the client.

These distinctions illustrate why the roles of manager, coach and mentor are best played by separate individuals. Specialization helps to keep the different roles from colliding and allows each to focus on their own set of goals.

Alison Napolitano
Alison Napolitano,
business.com Writer
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Alison Napolitano is a Senior Marketing Manager at 2U where she supports community outreach for 2U's programs. Alison has a background in digital marketing and a passion for helping great brands succeed online.