Mentoring vs Coaching: What is the difference and what to select?

The terms “mentoring” and “coaching” are often used interchangeably but can be very different.  At Engage Mentoring, we define mentoring as “knowledge transfer that is ideally based on successful experience.”  In other words, the mentor has been there, done that, done it successfully, and is willing to share their experience and advice on the topic.  By contrast, a coach is someone who is working to move someone from Point A to Point B.  Unlike a mentor, a coach isn’t usually drawing from personal experience only, but is asking good questions, holding the person or persons accountable, and tracking outcomes.  A great example of this is a coach of a basketball team.  Usually a coach isn’t an all-star athlete themselves, but they are skilled at helping draw out the skills and ability of their team.

Throughout your career, you may find yourself wanting perspective and it is really important to understand these differences in order to determine if you need a mentor or a coach (or both).  The good news is this is easily discernible once you evaluate your goals and what you are trying to accomplish.

Mentors are an incredible way to shortcut learning and build powerful relationships in the process.  Mentors usually come in four different types, which include peer mentors, someone you aspire to be more like, competency-based mentors, and career mentors.

Peer mentors are individuals who occupy a role similar to yours and are ideally successful in the role they occupy.  Peer mentors are typically very approachable and ideally someone you can trust.  Peer mentors are such a powerful and yet often overlooked type of mentor.

Career mentors are usually individuals who work in your industry who can give you advice on possible career paths and how to really grow within your company or industry and how to manage your career path and goals effectively.

The most common form of mentoring is with someone you aspire to be more like.  This form of mentoring can come from a relationship with someone who occupies a position you would like to have in the future or someone who demonstrates the qualities and skills you would like to have. 

Finally, competency-based mentors are people who can teach you skills to help you grow personally and professionally by sharing experiences.  In this form of mentoring, it is important to get clear on the skill or competency you wish to improve and seek out a relationship with someone who has mastered this skill or competency.

On the other hand, as outlined above, a coach is someone who can work with you on specific outcomes you wish to achieve. Examples of times in which working with a coach is warranted is when you are looking for help and accountability for a time bound goal or to really shore up a particular skill set with some urgency.  An example of this is when you have moved to a new executive role and need to work quickly to establish yourself in that role and work towards your first 90 day accomplishments.  Another example of where coaching may be prescribed is when there is friction or there are challenges that could have significant impact on productivity. A coach can also help you develop specific skills, such as a sales or leadership coach by combining training with accountability.

The first step to determine what is needed is to get clear on your goals and what you are hoping to accomplish or seeking to learn.  Once you have clarity on that, the type of relationship that is warranted usually becomes evident based on what you are trying to accomplish and who the ideal person would be. 

Alison Martin is the Founder and Managing Director of Engage Mentoring, a software-enabled leadership development program that helps companies attract, retain, and develop their talent through strategic mentoring initiatives. For more information, visit www.engagementoring.com.

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