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Coaching & Mentoring: Which “Hat” You Wear Makes a Big Difference

Whether you work internally within an organization, are a consultant or advisor, or for your own clarity if you want to work with a coach, it’s good to understand the difference between a coach and a mentor for professional development or personal growth. The two terms are often confused or used interchangeably, when they’re actually quite different, at least in the “people development” world.

To mentor someone traditionally means to advise or train, typically with a more experienced person mentoring a less experienced person and is usually done in the context of career development. The giving of direct advice is a distinguishing feature of mentoring, whether it’s about how to perform a specific task, who to know within and outside an organization to grow one’s professional network, recommending resources, making introductions, etc. Usually, “telling” is involved more when mentoring, though that doesn’t mean mentors don’t ask questions; providing recommendations is just more of its focus than coaching and it’s often employed to help people move along their career path.

To coach someone is more about guiding the person through a self-discovery process in partnership with the coach, whether for professional or personal goal achievement. An underlying tenet of coaching is to hold the belief that the “coachee” has the answers within and it’s the role of the coach to tease those answers out, allowing for the discovery of one’s own solutions. Coaching usually involves asking powerful questions to facilitate the self-discovery process and is less about giving direct advice or telling the person what to do. It’s also important to resist being self-referential as a coach, as it’s not about you and what you would do or have done; it’s about the coachee uncovering the solution that resonates.

Often, we can move between the roles of mentor and coach, depending on the situation. The important thing is to let the coachee or mentee know when you’re wearing which hat, and to ask for their permission to move away from coaching into more of an advisory or trainer role, as an additional tenet of coaching is that the coachee drives the coaching session agenda, not the coach. It’s about the coachee progressing as they see fit toward goal achievement, not what the coach thinks the coachee needs to do. Remember, it’s not about you providing a recommended solution. That’s what an advisor, consultant, or mentor does. The coach is there to ask provocative and evocative questions, challenge limiting beliefs and assumptions, and provide a framework or “guardrails” for the conversation, enabling coachees to consider different alternatives for approaching their goals.

Not everyone is a great fit for the coaching process, at least not in the beginning of a coaching partnership, when it may take a few sessions for the coachee to experience what it’s like, especially if looking to be given a “right answer” or provided with solutions. Sometimes, for example, these folks are in need of a job search consultant (when looking for résumé, social media profile, or job search help), so in my own work I have to make the distinction between that type of support (and refer that out) and the type of work I do, which is more in that self-discovery arena. Be sure that regardless of if you’re a coach or looking for one, that you’re clear on what you provide and what you don’t, or what’re you’re looking for if searching – a coach or an advisor/consultant/mentor (or a combination). That will help things go much better for all concerned.

If mentoring, consider encouraging your mentee to seek additional mentors to gain a variety of perspectives, whether inside or outside the organization, if that’s the situation, or for life in general. It can be easy to fall into a trap of only having one mentor, who’s either a “great match” or not, and then much awkwardness can ensue with only one perspective provided. Having a robust professional network can entail having many mentors for different aspects of life and career, whether around being a leader, technical skills, financial or business acumen, health and wellness, spiritual guidance, or being a great communicator, to name a few. Someone who’s an effective mentor for one area may not be quite so much in another. Do what you can to help your mentees develop a well-rounded network. They’ll thank you in the end for looking out for their growth and well-being.

If unsure which hat you’re wearing in a given situation, ask yourself if you’re providing a prescriptive plan or recommended solutions. If so, then you’re probably taking on the role of a mentor or advisor as opposed to that of a coach. Each has its value, of course, yet making this distinction will help all involved ensure that appropriate needs are met in the most effective way possible.

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