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Coach or Mentor: What is the Difference and How To Choose?

“Of course,” said my coach, “that’s because you’re not listening.”

I leaned back in my chair and stayed there, quiet and confused. Trying to grasp what he said, I asked “What do you mean I’m not listening?”

“I’m not saying you’re not hearing,” he replied, “but that you’re not paying attention.” He paused for a few seconds to let that sink in me, as he knew like no one else how to use silence. Then, he continued “You’re not looking to uncover the facts about what really happened. You have to look for the facts.”

That was a total “aha” moment for me. It felt like my brain had expanded right inside my skull and turned upside down. And this is just one example among many that happened during our calls.

This is an illustration I stole from the internet
and on which I added text in an attempt at being funny.

As a senior engineering manager, I had felt stuck in my growth and career development as a tech leader for some time now.

I couldn’t find the right feedback in my immediate environment to identify which unwanted and non-useful behaviors I had to shed. That’s when I started my quest to find a coach.

I found my coach totally by luck. Today, that relationship is worth gold to me—or for a fancier term—it’s worth Bitcoins.

Before him I had tried other coaches, but it never clicked. So with each of them, I had to cut it short after the first session. Finding the right coach is similar to dating in many ways: if I lack the right chemistry, it’s impossible to open up and share how I feel about situations, or to show myself vulnerable about what I deeply struggle with.

My coach and I are based in different cities, and it doesn’t matter. We meet via video calls every four to six weeks. His warm smile welcomes me every time. Without judging me, he listens and then tells me what he hears and sees, like a mirror to the deepest parts of my soul that I’m unable to see alone.

If you find yourself on the path of self-improvement, at some point these questions will pop up in your mind as they did in mine: should I get a coach? Or a mentor? What’s even the difference between a coach and a mentor?

So, what’s a coach?

A coach is someone who listens to you, asks you questions that make you think about your own behaviors, and who acts as a soundboard for how you approach things. A coach will give you direct feedback based on descriptions you make of situations you’ve been through, and based on behaviors he’s observed while you were in action.

A childhood friend of mine is a trained and certified coach. Her biggest problem is that her clients come to her saying “give me a solution to this problem,” like she’s some sort of oracle who knows magic incantations to life. It doesn’t work like that.

A coach will sometimes suggest solutions, but a good coach makes you reflect on your problems so you come up with your own solutions, so that you have built-in accountability to apply a change to your life or career.

There are many similarities between a business coach and a sports coach. Both jobs aim at taking human potential to the best version of what it can be. And in both cases, what holds people back generally isn’t hard skills, but rather mental blocks, and the coach will help their clients navigate their own minds to build mental strength.

Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.

John Wooden was the UCLA basketball coach from 1949 until 1975. He was known for his simple and effective teachings, such as “don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses. Just get out there, and whatever you’re doing, do it to the best of your ability.” And my favorite one “focus on what you can control.”

There are even sports coaches who successfully transitioned to becoming business coaches, such as Bill Campbell, who went from coaching Colombia University’s football team to coaching Silicon Valley CEOs, including Apple’s Steve Jobs and Google’s Eric Schmidt.

Great, now that I’ve covered the basics of what a coach is, let’s dive deeper into how you select someone to be your coach.

How do you pick a coach?

If you decide to work with a coach, do not take someone who is inside your company or organization. You want to be able to share your feelings and impressions about people you work with, and to do this freely, you need to have enough psychological safety that you trust this information won’t circle back to those people. That is why your coach must be external.

In addition, there is a specialization aspect to coaching. There are coaches who specialize in leadership coaching, others in executive coaching, others in life coaching, and the list goes on. So you need to have an idea of the general class of problems you want help with, so that when you start looking for a coach, you know in what direction to orient your search.

One more thing: because there are no state-approved diplomas such as the ones for lawyers and doctors, there are a lot of charlatans out there. Those self-proclaimed coaches have read a book once, or did a two-day training, and they think they’re qualified to give you advice.

There are a few certifications and schools that try to bring some deontology and order to this mess, however, 95% of all people who brand themselves as coaches aren’t affiliated with them. When you look for a coach, ask them for their credentials and experience, and for examples of what kind of people and industries they’ve worked with in the past.

Going back to my personal experience, the coach I ended up working with on a regular basis is a registered psychologist and family therapist with 25+ years of practice. He also has experience with helping executives navigate big company politics. That’s a pretty solid and relevant track record right there, and that’s the kind of profiles you want when you look for a business or leadership coach.

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Okay now, what’s a mentor?

A mentor is someone who is of similar craft or core skills as you, and who will help you grow by transferring his skills and experience to you. You can think of it as a form of apprenticeship.

For example, Jeff Bezos had Andy Jassy shadow him for months on end. Jeff Bezos was then the CEO of Amazon and Andy Jassy the CEO of Amazon Web Services.

They’d be together in the same meetings, Andy would pick up some parts of the job or take care of some important meetings, and he’d get feedback from Jeff on how he was doing so he could learn. Slowly, Jeff grew Andy, and when the time was right, Jeff moved on and Andy was appointed as new CEO of Amazon.

On the left. Jeff Bezos, founder and former CEO of Amazon.
On the right. Andy Jassy, former CEO of AWS and new CEO of Amazon.

Another key ingredient is that the mentor must have a vested interest in the success of his relationship with his mentee. Indeed, the mentee automatically has an interest because he gets additional skills and growth out of the arrangement. But the mentor is spending time and energy upfront without getting anything in return immediately.

This is why a mentor cannot be external to your organization, and has to be internal. Because the mentor needs to know that the resources he spends will pay off for him as well at some point in the future. Without this vested interest for the mentor, the relationship would be asymmetrical and nonreciprocal, and it wouldn’t last long.

The relationship between Jeff and Andy is mentoring, because there’s a clear set of skills, and a transfer of those skills from one person to another. In addition, there is a shared interest for both parties: Jassy wants to learn and grow, and Bezos wants Amazon to remain successful after his departure, therefore investing his time and energy into growing Jassy makes sense.

Your line manager is often well positioned to be a mentor to you. However, you should never treat your manager as your coach, and I’ll go into details about that in the section below.

No, your manager cannot be your coach

Like I’ve explained so far, a coach and a mentor are different.

A coach must be external to your organization and will give you insights into who you are so you can become a better yourself.

A mentor is internal to your organization and by shadowing this person you will get to perfect your core skills—you might also learn about yourself on the way but that’s just a byproduct.

Your manager can be your mentor in some way, but your manager or anyone else in your organization cannot be your coach.

Let me repeat that: no, your manager cannot be your coach.

Your manager is the judge and jury of your contribution and your performance, and you should gear your relationship with your manager in a way that optimizes for that. Treating your manager as your coach will backfire, and I could fill an entire article with horror stories on the topic.

Should you get a coach?

If you’re asking yourself “should I get a coach?” the answer is yes, absolutely. In fact, you should get a coach even if you weren’t asking yourself that question!

Having a coach is the single best thing you can do to boost your career growth. The path to finding the right person will be an adventure by itself, and you’ll encounter charlatans in your journey. When you meet one of them, if your gut feeling tells you it’s not the right person, politely say so and continue your research.

One day you will find the right person, someone who has the credentials, the experience, and a personal style which is a match for you. When you find this person, invest in the relationship and cherish it, it’s worth it.

Having a coach in your life does cost money, as a decent leadership or executive coach will charge between €60-100 per hour (US$70-120). If you work for a company that offers learning programs for employees, you could ask your HR liaison or your manager if there is a budget to cover part of your fees. If not, then still consider paying for it yourself, because there is no better use of money than investing in yourself.

Should you get a mentor?

If you’re asking yourself “should I get a mentor?” the answer is also yes.

And you don’t have to choose between a coach or a mentor. You should seek both, because they serve different purposes.

A mentor will help you identify gaps in the core craft and skills required for your job, and will help you get up to speed and become better at your job.

If you have a competent manager, this person is probably already your mentor without you realizing it. If you cannot get mentoring from your manager for any reason, then start building relationships with other managers in your organization, by asking them for advice once in a while.

The more specific you’ll be with the questions and problems you bring for discussion to those people, and the more relevant they’ll feel, which will increase the chance they’ll want to engage and help you.

A mentor doesn’t have to be someone with a higher job title than you. You can seek help from peers, and even from people with lower job titles. Mentoring is based on skills, so you should find help from whoever is willing to help you, and have the humility to do so regardless of how their job titles relate to yours. Remember that your goal is to grow, not to feel good about yourself by getting attention from someone with a shiny job title.

Also keep in mind that you don’t have to limit yourself to having a single mentor. You can ask the help of different mentors for different skills, and even different mentors for the same skills in case you’re looking to learn from their respective personal styles.

This concludes my article about coaches and mentors, and I hope you enjoyed it. Check out the summary table below, and remember to join my email list for more content.

If you’re interested in more leadership self-development, check out my other article about how I hired an editor to improve my writing skills.

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Summary Table of Coach vs. Mentor

CoachMentor
SummaryA coach is someone who listens to you, asks you questions that make you think about your own behaviors, and who acts as a soundboard for how you approach things.A mentor is someone who is of similar craft or core skills as you, and who will help you grow by transferring skills and experience to you.
RelationshipStrictly professionalProfessional, and sometimes personal
Internal vs. externalCoaches have to be external to your organization, to guarantee enough psychological safety.Mentors have to be internal to your organization. Mentors have a vested interest in the success of the mentee as it serves the success of the organization they both belong to.
Role of your managerNo, your manager cannot be your coach, neither can anyone at your workplace/organization.Yes, your manager can sometimes be your mentor. If you manager can’t for any reason, seek help from other managers or seniors.
StructureCoaching is given at regular scheduled meetings, from as frequent as every two weeks, to a few as twice per year.Mentoring is provided on an on-demand basis, when a situation arises that is a good platform to transfer skills and teach.
Expertize typeCoaches are experts of human nature for the specific domain of life or work they specialize in. Executive suite, leadership, life coaches, etc.Mentors are experts of their craft or skills.
CompensationCoaches are often paid per hour.Mentors are often unpaid.
Summary Table of Coach vs. Mentor

(Title photo credit: Football coach Reginald Samples, photo by Juan Figueroa, from dallasnews.com)

Published inLeadership and Management

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