ATD Blog

Comparing Coaching, Training, and Mentoring

Friday, October 29, 2021

Coaching, training, and mentoring are all one and the same, right? Wrong!

Business leaders often interchangeably use these three terms, but they refer to three different processes. Unfortunately, even a Google search doesn't help much. For instance, the online dictionary definition of to coach only looks at coaching from a sporting lens. For HR and business leaders looking for solutions to benefit their organizations, this isn’t helpful.

The first step to understanding is clearing the fog and debunking the misconceptions surrounding coaching, training, and mentoring.

Defining the Terms

Oftentimes, one person might call themselves a coach, but instead of coaching, they might be providing mentorship. Another might be a trainer, but they’ve labeled their service as coaching. So how can you, as a leader, tell the difference? Let’s start by fleshing out their definitions:

1. Coaching
The International Coaching Federation defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a creative and thought-provoking process that inspires them to maximize their professional and personal potential.”

Coaching requires that HR managers and business leaders engage with their people regularly in ways that help cement the company’s culture and advance its goals. An effective leader-as-coach focuses on solutions rather than dwelling on the problem, supports the staff instead of judging them, and lays the groundwork for their development rather than dishing out orders on what to do.

Perhaps most importantly, instead of giving away all the answers, coaches help people develop the skills and mindset necessary to come to solutions themselves by way of thoughtful questions and inquiry, much like a sounding board.

2. Mentoring/Mentorship
According to the Business Dictionary, mentorship is defined as “an employee training system under which a senior or more experienced individual (the mentor) is assigned to act as counselor, guide, or advisor to a trainee or junior (mentee). The mentor is tasked with providing support, and feedback on the mentee.”


Here’s a key point to note: Mentorship is relationship-based rather than performance-based. It’s about sharing your personal experiences, knowledge, and insights with your employees. Mentoring isn’t focused on specific actions and skills to improve them. It’s more about sharing advice and leaving it up to the mentee to use it.

3. Training
When it comes to training, a trainer is simply passing on knowledge that can be used to upskill or multiskill you or your team. Upskilling focuses on extending an employee’s current understanding of an existing skill. However, multiskilling is more about training employees on new or related work areas to broaden their usability in the organization.

Training is often a group endeavor, which means you’ll hardly have one-on-one sessions with your team members. In this sense, growing and learning as a team can be an effective way to boost solidarity and accountability within an organization.

What’s the Practical Difference?

Though the differences between coaching, mentoring, and training might seem subtle, they are significant.

Coaches assume that employees are the experts in their business. Through thought-provoking questions and active inquiry, a coach helps employees increase their thinking and skill application. Coaching is unique as it focuses on application of new or more effective approaches to leadership, work, and life. With trainers and mentors, they are the assumed experts. They are sharing either their own advice and experience or teaching a specific skill or approach.


Understanding this is crucial because coaching provides lasting and meaningful changes over the short and long haul, whereas mentoring and training provide ideas and information about a particular problem or topic for a specific period of time.

Guidance Versus Authority

Developing your people to build their own potential is more an act of coaching than anything else. It is an act that might even derive from them rather than yourself as their coach or leader. Coaching is about working as your employees’ partner and helping them find answers for themselves. As for trainers and mentors, they are authorities in their fields, so they work by teaching or instructing those under their watch.

If you solely mentor or train your team members, they may use your experiences and knowledge as a lodestar. While this may benefit your team, your mentees or trainees may never get to carve out their own paths. If you also coach them, they’ll have the license to chart new territories, impact business outcomes, and drive continuous and lasting change.

In short, when you’re a mentor or trainer, you authorize. When you’re a coach, you guide and inspire.

At Sounding Board, we’re all about creating truly great leaders. Impactful leaders. Through our curated network of leadership coaches, we can help you optimize your role through personalized coaching solutions designed to meet your individual and organizational goals. Join us today to learn more.

About the Author

Lori Mazan is the co-founder and chief coaching officer of Sounding Board, the preeminent global leadership development enterprise platform changing the face of leadership development through innovative technology for leaders at all levels of an organization. Lori is a seasoned executive coach who has guided hundreds of corporate executives through 1:1 coaching focused on business outcomes and developing critical leadership skills. Client companies advanced by Lori’s expertise include Fortune titans such as Chevron and Sprint as well as high growth and public companies like Intellikine, and Tapjoy, plus 10XGenomics, which became a public company in 2019 while top executives worked with Lori and the Sounding Board team.

Lori has spent the last 25 years coaching C-Suite executives to leadership excellence. Many of those public and private company CEO’s expressed that they would have liked this caliber of coaching earlier in their careers.

Before founding Sounding Board, Lori received her Masters’ in Adult Educational Psychology/Counseling from the University of San Francisco and a Bachelors’ in Psychology from the University of Virginia. Lori is an educator and has spent over 10 years as a professor of social psychology and group dynamics while acting as the interim Dean of Students at Holy Names University, She is certified by the industry’s gold standard, the Coaches Training Institute, and is a founding member of the Genentech Preferred Network of Coaches. Sounding Board is one of <3% of sole female founded startups receiving venture funding. In 2019 Sounding Board was selected as 1 of 7 startups (out of 100+ applicants) as part of SAP’s HR tech cohort, a group that represents the rising stars of the next-gen HR ecosystem.

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