Are You a Mentor or a Coach? There’s a Difference

Bob Wiesner | February 28, 2017

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If there were ever two business terms that can be confused for each other, it’s gotta be “mentor” and “coach.”  I’ve trained executives and manager in mentoring and in coaching.  At times, even I’ve used the terms interchangeably.

That’s fine, if you’re talking about one individual who might fulfill two different roles.  And that’s the key: Mentor and Coach are, indeed, two separate roles.  And should be handled by different people.

Sometimes it’s a struggle to understand what differentiates mentoring from coaching.  This article in HBR, which lists the attributes of an effective mentor, actually helps us understand the difference versus “coach.”

 Here’s what an effective mentor does, according to the author:

  1. Put the relationship before the mentorship
  2. Focus on character rather than competency
  3. Shout loudly with your optimism, and keep quiet with your cynicism
  4. Be more loyal to your mentee than you are to your company

I think this is spot on.  And it’s the key to understanding what effective coaches do.

Coaching should be designed to improve the skills – or cultivate the strengths, or build the right mindset – of the coachee.  Its ultimate goal is a more effective employee who gets more out of the job while contributing more to the organization.   So, here’s how coaching really compares to mentoring, based on the four points above:

  1. Coaching is about professional development.  A close relationship isn’t required (though there must be a significant level of trust).
  2. Coaching focuses on competency.  Character needs to be addressed only if it’s an obstacle to success.
  3. The coach needs to be a realist. While an effective coaching relationship can start with the belief that the coachee is capable of improvement, the coach must be willing to give honest feedback.
  4. Coaching is first for the benefit of the organization.  A duty of care for the coachee is not irrelevant.  Targeted areas of coachee improvement should be selected based on what’s good for the company.

As I write these, they sound a little cold.  Maybe they are.  And that’s where mentoring comes in. A mentor will help the employee recognize whether the improvements that are the objectives of coaching are, in fact, best for that employee.

It’s possible for one person to serve as both coach and mentor, as long as they are clear on the parallel, and sometimes conflicting, objectives.  No doubt different people for each role is better.



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