Do You Want a Coach or a Mentor or Both?



Coaching and mentoring are terms that are often used interchangeably even though there are significant differences. It’s important to identify which role will fit the need at hand. There is no point in providing your employee with a coach when they need a mentor or vice versa. In the workplace, the term coach has a vastly different meaning than what we see in the world of sports where most of us first heard the term coach at school.

Definition of a Coach: A coach offers a partnering relationship to the client to help the individual become who they want to become and achieve a desired outcome. It is a creative process that empowers and inspires the client to make choices and take action that will serve the client’s goal. The coach does not give advice but, instead, asks powerful questions, makes observations, and offers assessments to help unlock and amplify the client’s awareness and commitment.

Definition of a Mentor: A mentor is an experienced and trusted advisor whose only goal in the mentoring relationship is to support the professional and personal development of their mentee. The mentor is usually more senior and/or more experienced than the mentee and serves as an advisor, model, counselor, and guide to someone with less experience. The mentor is responsible for sharing knowledge and providing advice and counsel to the mentee.

Mentoring is a long-term relationship based on mutual trust, respect, and commitment. The relationship should have clear, mutual expectations, but it is generally less structured and has less frequent interactions than coaching. While some organizations offer in-house mentoring programs, sometimes as a follow-up to a leadership program, it is just as common for mentees to have mentors outside their organization. When it is a part of an internal development program, I recommend creating a clear process that spells out the expectations and responsibilities of both parties.

Coaching also requires mutual trust, respect, commitment, and clear expectations, but it often spans a shorter period of time, typically lasting from three to twelve months. Coaching follows a more regular and structured approach. When coaching clients, the only objective should be to help each client reach his or her goals. Professional coaches have no attachment to a specific outcome; that must come from the client’s own motivations, or it is pointless from the start. I often describe the role as the “tour guide” and the client as the “driver”’ on this journey. Coaches listen deeply and ask powerful questions, noticing, in the present moment, what comes up when the client considers those questions. Clients consistently do a superb job in identifying what is really going on, and they figure out what must happen to achieve their goals. Within the safety of a successful coaching relationship, people evolve, make significant discoveries, and shift mind-sets as they are invited to tap into their own well of wisdom.

Both coaching and mentoring are relationships that require complete confidentiality and unconditional positive regard for the individual. This means that the coach or mentor is a confidant who is unfailingly supportive and nonjudgemental. We must remember that there is an adult on the other side of the relationship. The coach or mentor’s job is not to “fix” anything or anyone; it is not to parent, enable, judge, or insist on a particular path forward. It is about helping that adult understand their choices and how those choices relate to their goals.

Coaches and mentors are not therapists, trainers or consultants. Coaches and mentors provide a safe space and opportunity for individuals to discover what they need to know in order to reach the outcomes they desire. Mentors have the additional role of providing advice and guidance requested by the mentee.

Let’s make another distinction here. Training is not coaching. Training is focused on transferring specific knowledge or skills, like what is or is not a legal question to ask when interviewing a candidate. Coaching and mentoring are about enhancing and building upon an individual’s knowledge or skills for developmental purposes by asking powerful questions and making observations that can lead to greater awareness, learning, and change.

A comparison of coaching and mentoring is listed below. Employee supervision is not formal coaching, although supervisors may see better results when using a coaching approach and techniques. Specific performance issues that arise, and the best way to address them, need to be identified, explored and put into action. Managing performance in real-time, with clear expectations, clear measures, and clear consequences is part of every leader’s normal job.

When considering whether to provide a coach or a mentor, identify the goal you and your direct report wish to achieve. If you are wondering whether a coach or a mentor is the best fit for your need, here are some guidelines.

Choose a coach when you want to

  1. prepare a high-potential employee for advancement in the organization.
  2. address a behavioral habit that is blocking or slowing professional progress.
  3. encourage someone to take on new responsibilities quickly.
  4. support leaders in addition to, or in place of, formal training or development programs.
  5. inspire high-potential employees to maximize their talents.

Choose a mentor when you want to

  1. provide a role model for highly effective leadership or other important roles.
  2. transfer knowledge from more senior and/or departing staff to more junior staff.
  3. increase cross-functional interactions and collaboration.
  4. broaden the diversity of ideas, people, and perspectives within the organization.
  5. inspire high-potential employees to imagine what is possible in their career and life.

Example for Coach: Kevin is an energetic, skilled, effective facilitator identified as a high-potential employee. While he is highly successful in front of the groups he leads, he is nervous and awkward in front of senior leaders. He trips over his words and misses key points, and his leader has had to interject on several occasions. His leader wants Kevin to build upon his natural abilities so he can demonstrate his positive energy and share his wisdom with anyone, regardless of their ranking in the hierarchy.

Example for Mentor: Jennifer is new to the IT department, and she has demonstrated her outstanding interpersonal skills with the company’s internal customers as well as her coworkers. Her leader offers to groom Jennifer for a leadership position, and she welcomes the opportunity. He decides to coach her himself on some of the technical aspects of her job, but he wants to find a different senior-level leader to mentor her. He speaks with Jennifer and offers her one internal and one external leader. Jennifer chooses the internal mentor because of the added value of knowing the organization’s culture.

Prior to having an introductory coaching or mentoring conversation, the coach or mentor and the hiring leader or HR must discuss ethics and expectations and agree to an explicit agreement about confidentiality. The rules and expectations of these relationships must be discussed and agreed upon, and then a written record is created for all parties to have prior to commencing with the coaching or mentoring agreement or contract. No one worth hiring or assigning will share the content, tone, or outcome of these private conversations without receiving explicit permission from the client.

Being involved in a coaching or mentoring relationship can enhance one’s professional and personal life in ways a person could not achieve on their own. If you have ever been coached or mentored, you know what I mean. Whether you are the coach or mentor, or together you choose a coach or mentor for your employees, paying it forward is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do in your quest to retain top talent. People put a lot more energy into things they want to do than things they have to do. That means, as leaders we need to take the time to be present, observe, and ask staff members about their motivations. We then need to provide productive and appropriate opportunities to keep them engaged and wanting to continue to work for us.


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