Why We Need Both Mentors and Coaches

As a coach trainer, I am frequently asked what’s the difference between mentors and coaches. Are people referring to the same thing? There are significant differences between mentoring and coaching and we need both.

Mentors Put In

I’ve had many mentors over the years. Gary Mayes is one who has mentored me on and off over 15 years. At several turning points in my career, I’ve benefited from Gary’s experience and guidance. He shared his own journey and advised me on my own. His help was invaluable.

Authors Paul Stanley & J. Robert Clinton define it this way: “Mentoring is a relational process in which a mentor, who knows or has experienced something, transfers that something (resources of wisdom, information, experience, confidence, insight, relationship, status, etc.) to a mentoree, at an appropriate time and manner, so that it facilitates development or empowerment.”

There are three big points in this definition that is helpful in comparing mentoring to coaching.

  1. The mentor has knowledge or experience that the protégé wants or needs.
  2. The mentor transfers that knowledge or experience to protégé.
  3. The purpose is the development and empowerment of the protégé.

The key concept is that mentors put in. They share their input and guidance for the benefit of the protégé.

Difficulties in mentoring relationships arise when:

  • The mentor becomes too attached to their own guidance and disempowers the protégé.
  • The mentor doesn’t have a good answer, but gives one anyway to be helpful.
  • The mentor’s experience and guidance doesn’t match with the protégé’s needs well.
  • The protégé‘s personality and giftedness requires her to approach the situation differently than the mentor would.

Now, let’s take a look at coaching.

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Coaches Draw Out

When I lived in Japan in the 1990s, I sought out mentors to help me design a strategy to effectively begin new churches. My Japanese partner and I interviewed dozens of experienced people. They each shared their experience and gave us their advice. The trouble was, there was something missing from each person’s strategy that restricted their results.

The question that puzzled us was, “If no one knows, then how do we learn it?” That’s when we discovered coaching.

Coaching is a non-directive conversation in which the coach prompts reflection to release creativity, and empower the coachee to develop custom solutions for his or her problems or goals.

There are three big points in this definition that are helpful in comparing coaching to mentoring.

  1. Coaches are non-directive, that is, they do not share their experience or guidance.
  2. Coaches prompt reflection in the coachee through profound listening and asking powerful questions.
  3. Solutions come from the coachee’s reflection and creativity, not from the coach.

The key concept is that coaches draw out. They prompt reflection and creativity that produce customized solutions that can go well beyond the experience of either the coach or coachee. They can generate new learning together.

Difficulties in coaching arise when:

  • The coach has specific knowledge or experience that coachee wants to learn.
  • The coach isn’t skilled at drawing out and prompting reflection without advising.
  • The coachee expects to receive guidance and advice, rather than create her own solutions.

Mentors and Coaches Use Overlapping Techniques

The reality is, mentors listen and ask questions and coaches provide guidance at times. In practice, there is a large overlap between these two leadership functions. Yet, they are distinct approaches to helping people.

When to coach:

  • When you don’t have good answers, and sometimes even when you do. (See this article.)
  • When the coachee needs to learn how to create their own solutions.
  • When the coachee has a lot of experience in the topic at hand.

When to mentor:

  • When you have experience that lines up well with the protégé’s needs.
  • When the protégé needs doors unlocked for which you hold the keys.
  • When the protégé is gifted in adapting ideas and models to implement her own version, rather than simply copying models “as is.”

We need both mentoring and coaching. Knowing the difference and being able to do each will expand your leadership effectiveness as you work with people in different ways according to their needs.

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Download the updated free Infographic: Why We Need Both Mentors & Coaches.

    Keith is President of Creative Results Management. He helps busy leaders multiply their impact. Keith is the author of several books including The COACH Model for Christian Leaders.

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