Mentor or Coach

Over lunch a couple of days ago, we were discussing the subject of mentors and coaches and started to highlight the difference in the roles. Sometimes people can seemlessly operate in both roles at once, so the roles do not seem distinctly different, but they are.

We discussed a few items that seem to differentiate the two roles:

One of the items was Blind Spots. Coaching is designed to identify blind spots, where mentorship is more designed to overcome blind spots once identified. Sometimes the coach can guide the coachee in ways to overcome the blind spot, while in other situations they might recommend they obtain training or a mentor.

Another item was Proximity. Coaches are generally involved with what they are coaching you on, whereas a mentor is someone you mostly meet with to discuss things with. Coaches tend to actively participate in the thing they are coaching you on so they can witness your actions and provide advice and direction if improvement is needed.

Another item was Selection and Appointment. Although some organizations have more formal mentorship programs, generally coaching relationships are formal and assigned for a specific reason. Mentors are normally sought out to discuss and close a gap.

When we were discussing the subject, we discussed two different types of coaches–Lean Six Sigma and Executive. Both of these are very specific roles where an individual is involved with what is going on in a coachee’s life. In Lean Six Sigma, for example, the coach is engaged with every step of a coachee’s project,  guiding them in the application of the skills they should have learned already. If the coach recognizes that the coachee has difficulty in running meetings or presentations, they might suggest that the coachee obtain additional training in those areas. If the coach notices that the coachee has trouble with time management, they might suggest establishing a mentorship relationship with someone that they know is particularly good at time management. If the coach is good at time management, they might quickly switch into that mentor role, but this is outside of the original coaching arrangement.

This is why people often see coaches and mentors as the same thing–they can cover more areas than what they are specifically coaching for. In the case of an executive coach, the coach might be able to provide all kinds of advice and assistance on leadership and employee motivation. However, they probably would suggest the executive have a mentor if the coachee is trying to learn how to navigate the company’s culture toward promotion.

When you think about the roles, this should help you better delineate what each does and which you need.

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About johnrknotts
John Knotts is a results-oriented business professional leader, manager, and supervisor with experience from the military, small business, several nonprofits, and is currently a management consultant. Working out of the San Antonio, Texas, he retired from the Air Force in July 2008 and worked with Booz Allen Hamilton from the end of October 2008 to December 2011. Now he is a Strategic Business Adviser with USAA. John leads large and small strategic transformations and has extensive experience in the areas of change management, strategic planning, process improvement, strategic communication and marketing, strategic human capital and resource management, education and training, facilitation, organizational design and development, modeling and simulation, financial and budget analysis, activity based costing and management, quality management, competitive sourcing and privatization, leadership development, and business development.

2 Responses to Mentor or Coach

  1. Bill Bliss says:

    John, thanks for the article. Respectfully, I have a difference of opinion on some of your points. Executive coaching (or any other true coaching for that matter) is not about giving advice at all. It is about deepening the coachee’s awareness of their own situation, including any blind spots. This is done by asking highly curious questions designed to have the coachee think deeper and therefore differently about the situation. These questions don’t tell a person what to think, rather how to think deeper and differently than they have previously to uncover the limiting beliefs holding them back. As a result of this deeper thinking, they generally develop new approaches to the situations they are dealing with leading to a successful outcome.

    As a coach (and I have coached C-Suite and other senior leaders for almost 20 years), I would never presume to ever know enough about their entire situation to offer them any relevant advice. Another distinction is always allowing the coachee to drive the agenda, not me.

    The advice giving business is in the realm of consultants, not coaches.

    In terms of mentoring, a mentor can be either internal or external and will generally provide their perspective based on what they did or experienced at some time in the past that may be similar to the situation the mentee is describing. The significant thing to remember is the mentee’s situation is likely going to be somewhat different from the situation the mentor experienced and therefore the “advice” may or may not be entirely helpful or relevant.

    I’d welcome hearing how others weigh in on this discussion.

    Bill Bliss

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