What's the difference between a coach and a mentor?
Updated: Mar 18, 2018
We hear a lot about coaching and mentoring — for good reason. As Zig Ziglar said, “A lot of people have gone further than they thought they could because someone else thought they could.” The words 'coaching' and 'mentoring' are often treated as if they’re interchangeable, but they’re not.
No matter your stage, both mentors and coaches can be valuable resources. What’s the difference between the two? How do you know which is needed?
Making the Distinction
Traditionally, mentors were assigned within a company to help employees learn the ropes. In the entrepreneurial world, mentors act as advisers, compensated or not.
Mentors are successful people who share their hard-won wisdom to provide insight and guidance as an entrepreneur encounters challenges along her journey. They typically function in a reactive capacity, responding to issues as they arise. Mentors may not have expertise in the mentee’s field, but they understand how to navigate business in general.
Coaches, on the other hand, often have expertise in the same field as the people they’re helping. They’re usually trained and certified as coaches, possessing strong process management skills.
Coaches are brought in to help CEOs or entrepreneurs anticipate and tackle specific industry challenges. They’re prescriptive and proactive by nature, actively participating in strategizing and co-creating successful outcomes with their clients.
While a mentor/mentee connection is open-ended and can span decades, the more formal coaching relationship is used to address specific issues — and after a particular challenge has been addressed, both parties typically move on. A hybrid scenario sometimes develops in which the coach/mentor role blurs. Certain issues are handled in a coaching construct, but the relationship is so strong that both parties opt to continue working through long-term challenges and opportunities.
Which Do You Need?
You may already know which relationship would serve you best right now. As you deliberate, consider the following:
1. Remember your stage. One of the biggest factors in your decision should be the current stage of your journey. A first-time entrepreneur in an early-stage startup often needs a seasoned mentor who can respond to basic concerns and challenges.
At this stage, a mentor can offer broader advice and connections to help the business grow. As the company and CEO mature, however, the issues may become more granular and nuanced.
At that point, it’s best to also work with a coach from within the industry. A coach can work preemptively on strategies and point out blind spots a mentor may lack perspective on.
2. Identify your needs. If you can identify a specific need, you’ll likely be served well by a coach. For example, if your company has chronic organisational development issues that need to be addressed to scale the business, a coach with a proven track record in helping companies grow through those issues is a better bet than a mentor.
If you aren’t yet sure of a particular need and want general advice, seek the wisest, most successful mentor you can.
3. Strive to have it all. This doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. The most successful entrepreneurs have a network of mentors and coaches advising them on any number of things. You’re sometimes lucky enough to find individuals who are both.
Having someone in your corner who’s both a coach and mentor is extremely beneficial. A gifted coach/mentor knows which hat to wear in each situation and can seamlessly shift from general mentor to proactive coach, depending on the circumstance.
If you can’t find the best of both worlds in a single person, pinpoint seasoned and talented individuals to fulfill each role.
Heed the Advice of Your Elders
As Sir Richard Branson’s mentor, Sir Freddie Laker of Laker Airways profoundly influenced the founder of Virgin Group by advising Branson to make himself the face of the enterprise.
Though Laker Airways didn’t survive, that spot-on advice changed Branson’s entire approach to his business and shaped the trajectory of one of the world’s most successful brands.
Whether you need a coach or a mentor, finding the right one can spur you along your own path to greatness while helping you avoid or minimise pitfalls.