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Do You Need a Coach or a Mentor?

leadership Mar 25, 2022

Written by Ed Cook

The words coach and mentor are often used interchangeably making distinctions between them murky.  This is unfortunate because the value of each can be tremendous for a person’s career, but where and how that value shows up can be significantly different.  Furthering the confusion, people call themselves a coach or a mentor without even defining what they mean.  Some clarity is needed here.

“A good coach can change a game. A great coach can change a life.”
--John Wooden

As the coach of UCLA’s incredibly successful basketball team, John Wooden certainly knew something about coaching.  But is his coaching the same kind of coaching that we would want to see in business?  The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.  Coaches honor the client as the expert in his or her life and work and believe every client is creative, resourceful and whole.”   This definition puts the professional experience of the person receiving coaching at the center and then places the coach as a facilitator to enhance and grow the person based on that experience.  In contrast, a sports coach, like John Wooden, would do that but also include his own experience as a guide to improving the performance of the athletes.  Each approach can be valuable.  This also gets at the first question to ask in terms of determining if a coach or a mentor is best.

Do I want help in developing who I am or help with a whole new view of who I can be?

A coach is going to start with who a person is today and then develop them from there.  A mentor can provide a much broader perspective.   Mentors rely on their experience to provide wisdom and insights that the mentee cannot see because they don’t have that experience.   A mentor will do more “telling” while a coach will do more “questioning.”  A typical business coaching experience has the coaching asking questions of the coachee in order to bring out what should be done in a particular situation.  Done well, it can be an insight gaining process for not only the solution to a problem but also a process to solve future problems.  Great coaches help build the mental muscles that allow those they coach to grow on their own.

Mentors will rely more on their personal experience and network as a way to provide a point of view that those they mentor could not achieve.  This is a way to get a refreshed view of what is possible for life/career.  It is not likely that the mentee will learn new skills, although new skills may be gained by watching the mentor communicate and interact with others.  That kind of exposure can be valuable.  Because of this, mentors are often better when they have experiences that are significantly beyond those of the mentee, while coaching is more of a skill where success is based on how adroit the coach is not on how experienced.

Do I want this relationship with my manager or with someone outside my group?

This question gets at what a boss can do effectively and what a boss cannot do effectively.   Since managers have the responsibility to evaluate their employees, having an effective mentoring relationship is impossible.  Mentors need to be able to deliver what may be hard messages, even a “kick-in-the-pants” to their mentees without the mentee having any fear of performance evaluation ramifications.  A manager can never do that.  Everything a manager does will be viewed by the employee as potentially evaluative.  To be properly positioned to deliver these messages, mentors must not be responsible for the work the mentee does.  To be sure, a good mentor will be emotionally invested in the life/career success of a mentee, but not in the actual work the mentee does.  This is a crucial difference.  

A coach, however, can be effective while also having the responsibility to evaluate who they are coaching.  One subtlety here is that coaching is a leadership activity, not a management activity.  There are skills required to be a great coach and those skills are beyond the core functions of a manager.  For a deeper dive into the Manager-Leader distinction, read this.  It is important to keep in mind when considering whether to engage with a coach or mentor.  Leader as Coach is one of the defining attributes of a great leader.  All of this leads to the assertion that a boss can be a coach but not a mentor.  Mentors must come from outside the performance evaluation sphere of the mentee.

How should I choose the person to be my mentor or coach?

The first mentor was the character from Homer’s Odyssey.  Mentor was an old man who was a friend of Odysseus.  Athena, the goddess of Wisdom, appears in the guise of Mentor to impart a viewpoint to Odysseus that he never would have seen.  So in picking a mentor, find someone with experience and wisdom to provide an insight that you would never have gotten on your own.  Someone who has been where you are now but has had difficult experiences and overcome them.  These are the people with the wisdom that you need.  As a bonus, these are also the people likely to make introductions to others and expand your social network where you can find others that can help you and likely that you, in turn, can help.

Coach is a much newer word originating from the Hungarian town of Kocs where the horse-drawn coach was made.  The use of coach as a person came in the 1860s from the University of Oxford where it was slang for a person that “carries” a student through an exam.   Given that meaning, a great business coach would be someone who can not only encourage your ability so that you can pass the business “exam” but also has enough knowledge to do that with context.  A great coach needs to be knowledgeable about the work you do, not just skilled in asking coaching questions. 

"Get away from these two types of people: the ones who think you can only go as far as the situation you were born into; and the ones who think you can only go as far as the current situation you are in."  --Dee Dee M. Scott

No matter if you are picking a mentor or a coach, you need someone who is looking to expand your ability to succeed.  That may be with a new point of view (mentor) or through the development of who you are (coach), but it is always about how you are more powerful, more capable, more successful.