mentor or coach
August 5, 2016

Which do you really need for your leadership, a coach or a mentor?

By Paul Laughlin

Do you know whether you need a coach or mentor?

When the world’s athletes show us what they can achieve at major events, it’s easy to overlook the achievement of the coaches. Most medal winners will acknowledge a debt of gratitude to their coaches. But, what about the world of business?

Many companies have internal mentoring programmes. So, do you need a coach or mentor? In this post, I want to briefly focus on the difference between both types of help.

Research may not have the answer, yet

Now, academic research is evolving on this point, with some academics pointing out that unlike definitions, roles blur in practice.

Some research suggests that the roles of mentor, coach & even counsellor or therapist blur & such help sits on a spectrum. We might be better to think of ‘helping by talking’ professions, as one writer has suggested.

Nevertheless, I think the distinction between mentoring and coaching does matter. I say that because I’ve experienced a few clients being confused on this point. It can even cause some organisations to just have a bias towards one word rather than the other. Perhaps the bad press from over-hyped Californian (NLP) ‘life coaches’ has rather tainted that word? Whatever the cause, I do meet people who discount coaches but would value a mentor.

So, what is the difference? Are they synonymous or not?

What does a Coach offer?

Professionally trained coaches will explain to their clients that coaching is there to enable the client to find their own solutions. This may take different forms, from goal-orientated coaching to positive psychology or even cognitive behavioural coaching. However, in all cases, the coach is seeking to help their client become more self-aware & resourceful.

A coach normally works with a client for a shorter, specified period of time, to help the client achieve speedy, increased & sustainable improvement in their performance. The aim of the coaching work is to help the client achieve their own goals (or potential as defined by the client). With a number of coaching models working from the premise that people are much more resourceful than they realise & are able to control their own response to external stimuli. So, helping the client be clear about their goals, own resources, barriers & motivation to change can all help people make progress.

Often, but not always, a coach is also external to an organisation. They at least bring a different perspective & help clients see situations from different perspectives, in order to identify potential solutions & choices available.

What does a Mentor offer?

Mentors, on the other hand, tend to be internal to an organisation. They are also often more senior (or at least more experienced) within that organisation. In addition to helping a client reflect & achieve their goals, a mentor may also take on the role of championing their ‘mentee‘ internally. Aligned to that approach, the goal of such mentoring is often internal promotion or progression within the organisation.

Mentoring can also be an open-ended or long-term relationship, with informal meetings rather than the use of prescribed models or frameworks. However, mentors are also less likely to be professionally trained & many are providing this assistance as an adjunct to their own ‘day job’.

Another difference tends to be how directive mentors are willing to be. A mentor can consider it part of their role to share their experience & direct the client as to what they should try in order to overcome different challenges. Conversely, most coaches have been trained to be non-directive, rather through incisive questioning to help the client find their own solutions. For that reason, some advice suggests using coaches from ‘out of sector’ so there is not the temptation to be prescriptive.

What do you need?

So, which should you choose? Coach or Mentor? Based on my own experience & the conversations I’ve had with my clients, the answer is that classic “it depends”.

First, let’s consider what you need & what you want to achieve.

  • Is your primary need for internal sponsorship & to progress within the business where you work? (then perhaps mentoring is better)
  • Can you afford to take time to develop & consider this support as just part of your long-term development? (again this may suit mentoring)
  • Do you really need to be ‘told what to do’? Are you new to sector or leadership level & need advice from someone who knows? (again mentoring)

But, perhaps these are true for you:

  • Do you need to sustain any improvements to your performance? Is this really about helping you change & grow? (then consider coaching)
  • Is there a clear goal, problem & timescale you need to achieve? Would you value a more concentrated focus? (again coaching may be suitable)
  • Do you recognise that there are patterns of behaviour that hold you back? Perhaps thought patterns or habits? (coaching may be better)

One caveat on the last bullet, is that any accredited coach will also share as part of their ‘code of practice’ the limits of what coaching can offer. If conversations reveal either emotional trauma or potential mental health issues that require a trained counsellor/therapist, they would refer you.

A pragmatic solution for Insight Leaders

Having trained as an executive coach, through the very helpful qualifications from the ILM & University of South Wales, I expected to help clients through coaching. However, what I’ve discovered is that most clients actually require a combination of the above.

With 15 years of experience with creating & leading Customer Insight teams, it’s perhaps not surprising that when I coach insight leaders, they want to draw on that experience. Plus, sometimes I’ve discovered that it is helpful to share some directive advice during the process, to build confidence & get closer to their challenges.

But, I am concerned that coaching is still being undervalued by UK businesses. It’s much easier to sell in technical ‘mentoring’. But, in reality, many clients whom I’ve helped with mentoring have benefited from coaching conversations. Even more striking is where a business case can be made for a much more expensive training course when the ROI on coaching the internal leader could be far higher.

So, I’d encourage pragmatism on the part of coaches. If we are there to help our clients and they sometimes need examples or advice, we should not be too principled to help. But, I’d also encourage businesses & especially their HR (L&D) departments to open their eyes to the potential of coaching. Most leaders would achieve far more by improving their self-awareness & personal resourcefulness to overcome challenges, than just project by project mentoring.

What works for you?

I hope that viewpoint helps. What has been your experience? Have you benefited from a coach or mentor during your leadership career? What made the greatest difference tom your success?