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Coach, mentor, trainer, advisor ... what’s the difference?

Like any manager or leader of a company in the midst of a transformation, you’ll often call upon consultants to help move your company along the path of change.  But who should you call when you want to help your team members move forward? How do you differentiate among the various people available to support their development? Do you need a coach, a mentor, or a trainer?  There are many different terms, and it’s easy to get confused.

Here are some explanations to help you sort through the terms and become acquainted with the various roles.


Guided by a method, coaches help people think, reflect on their skills and know-how and find their own ways to reach the established objectives.  A certified coach will make sure there is an agreement, with clear goals and a defined timeframe. 

Classic line:  Given the goals you've set for yourself, what are some other ways you could ...….


Mentors are people with experience in a specific field. They, too, encourage thought and reflection, but often offer solutions by sharing their own experience and contacts.  A mentor is often someone you have a long-term relationship with, who accompanies you for an undefined period.

Classic line:  Whenever I found myself in that type of situation in the past, here’s what I did: …


Trainers are subject matter experts who transfers knowledge in a more formal way.  They offer training on specific topics, usually to groups of people.  In some cases, they may provide individual coaching, but generally on a specific topic.

Classic line: In Module 2, we will learn about typical ways to deal with…. 

Which is best for you?

The answer, of course, is: “It depends”.  Before deciding, take the time to understand your needs and your business situation.

First, define your needs:

  • What are you looking to change? If you want to change attitudes and behaviours, you should focus on coaching or mentoring. If you're looking to acquire knowledge on a specific topic, training is probably more appropriate.
  • Are your objectives well-defined or vague? If you’ve already set your objectives and decided on your learning path, training is the best option. In a coaching relationship, the objectives can be renegotiated to meet each individual’s needs. In a mentoring relationship, the objectives are established at each stage of the relationship.
  • Are you trying to meet the needs of an individual or a group? Coaching and training can be given individually or in groups, whereas mentoring is more of an individual relationship.

Next, take the time to understand your situation:

  • How much time do you have?  The coaching and mentoring approaches often produce more lasting results, but they tend to extend over a long period of time.
  • Is your corporate culture employee-oriented? Coaching will be more effective in a company that is open to personal growth. In a company still transitioning to an employee-centred culture, first focus on coaching for the managers and mentoring and training for the employees.
  • Can some needs be met internally? You could easily elect to set up an in-house mentoring program to meet certain needs. Coaching and training, however, require specialized expertise not usually found in smaller companies.

Taking a decision

Once your analysis is complete and has been validated by your supervisors, take the time to also understand your employees’ preferences for a given approach. Don't hesitate to talk to multiple service providers to identify the best solution for your company. The ideal solution may be a combination of various approaches, and may change over time. Be open to experimenting and adjusting as you go.    

We would like to have enough hands to do everything, deal with everything, but we simply can’t handle it all! That is also true for a company, especially when facing a change in direction. Growth is exciting, but it comes with its own set of challenges.
It’s simple math: If you have 100 things to do as many employees to do them but you only have 80 available, you’re not going to make it. Worse, by trying to do everything, you may be spreading yourself too thin and end up completing nothing. Rather than being positive, this could be draining and demoralizing for your teams. Furthermore, any success you do achieve may be more due to good luck than good planning.

The solution we all refuse to accept is simply to prioritize. Prioritizing is often equated with eliminating the things that are less important and less urgent. That’s a valid approach and a good place to start. But in the life of an entrepreneur with limited resources or a company in transformation, we must go a step farther and separate the essential from the desirable, sometimes even sacrificing good ideas in the process.
While this is complicated, remember that proper prioritization will help you protect that which is essential to your company’s growth.

Here are a few steps to get you there:

  • List all projects under way: If it is not an ongoing activity, it takes time or money and it has a completion date, it’s probably a project.
  • Review the list: Validate the list of projects with your teams. You’ll be surprised to find that there are more projects than you thought.
  • When you think you’ve completed the list, check it one last time. Take the time to fully understand each project, how much it costs, and how it will contribute to the objectives. In short, is it worth the effort invested to the detriment of something else?
  • Put someone in charge of tracking and updating the list.
  • Establish a structure for the regular review and prioritization of the list. In real life, subject to the challenges and constraints of everyday life, the list is apt to change often.

There is no perfect formula. Nevertheless, once you know exactly what projects your team is working on and you’ve put in place the tools and tracking, you will have a better idea of the size of the task ahead. That, in turn, will allow you to assess your real ability to handle it, and will increase your chances of success.

While Aesop’s tortoise teaches us that “Slow and steady wins the race”, it’s also worth remembering that “Rome was not built in a day”.

Sophie Legendre
Senior Director

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