Why We Need Both Mentors and Coaches

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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.

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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    Keith is an author, speaker and Professional Certified Coach. He helps on-the-go leaders multiply their impact. Keith is the author of several books including The COACH Model for Christian Leaders.

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    • Alan Rathbun

      Great article! Thanks, Keith

    • Walt Hastings

      Great article, Keith! Very helpful comparisons.

    • Walt Hastings

      Someone once said the difference between coaching and mentoring is that of pulling versus pushing.

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    • Awesome article Keith. I’m late to the party on this post but it is killer!

    • I find that most people have a view of coaching which is more than mentoring. The way you have described when to use coaching and when to use mentoring is so helpful. It puts into words the approach I use in my leadership coaching.

    • Michael Soderling

      nicely outlined but have you also written an article about how this all fits in with Discipleship? Seems we are converting Discipleship into something people get paid to do!

      • Michael, The key aspect of Christian discipleship is its result in spiritual and character formation (Content). How one goes about discipleship could be through teaching, mentoring, coaching, etc. (Process). Nothing in the article above says either mentors or coaches must be paid. Some people are paid to mentor and coach, but the majority of mentoring and coaching that takes place is unpaid – it’s part of life.

        • Michael Soderling

          thanks for the quick reply Keith. I know of which you speak since I am receiving coaching by a couple of people at no cost (since I’m technically serving in a “missionary” role), one of whom is your student. And she is doing a wonderful job. See you later this year. I guess my main point is that the Church (at least in the West) has done such a terrible job with Discipleship that it seems we are trying to find ways to fill the gap. So in one sense many ARE paying for what should be a natural aspect of a healthy local church.

          • Agreed. One of my hopes is that by equipping people in coaching skills they will be more likely to reach out and engage with others and not leave it to the “paid” people to do.

          • Jason

            Hi Michael, thanks for the point on discipleship and coaching. I think the needs for good coaching in discipleship are great. Traditionally and still as is now, the church has been great at teaching and mentoring (sometimes giving too much advice), but coaching is still fairly new in the East, especially in the church. I’m glad Keith has come to Singapore to teach, but still, there isn’t enough people who are equipped to go around to disciple using the coaching process. Even more so in China where I used to serve in, there is an even greater need to equip pastors, church leaders and members how to disciple even more effectively with coaching. I really hope to see in the far future of having coaching/discipleship in the Chinese language. The needs are really great. God bless.

    • Muller

      Hey Keith, sorry if someone have already made this question below. If so, you don’t need to repeat it here. The question is: How Mentoring and Coaching fits in or align with Counseling?

      • Muller, Coaching and Counseling have a skill overlap similar to Coaching and Mentoring. However, they have different functions. Very broadly speaking, counseling works to bring healing and wholeness to past issues. Coaching helps people to move forward from now into the future.

        Here’s what the International Coach Federation’s website says to answer your question:
        “Therapy deals with healing pain, dysfunction and conflict within an individual or in relationships. The focus is often on resolving difficulties arising from the past that hamper an individual’s emotional functioning in the present, improving overall psychological functioning, and dealing with the present in more emotionally healthy ways. Coaching, on the other hand, supports personal and professional growth based on self-initiated change in pursuit of specific actionable outcomes. These outcomes are linked to personal or professional success. Coaching is future focused. While positive feelings/emotions may be a natural outcome of coaching, the primary focus is on creating actionable strategies for achieving specific goals in one’s work or personal life. The emphasis in a coaching relationship is on action, accountability and follow through.”