Mentoring, Coaching, and the Space Between

A recent conversation with a young first-time CEO about executive coaching made me realize that there is still a lot of confusion out there about what coaching is and isn’t. As the leader was trying to answer my question, “What are you hoping coaching will provide you?” His response prompted me to say, “Oh, you’re looking for a mentor.” He replied, “What’s the difference?”

What is a Mentor?

A mentor is a trusted advisor who shares advice and expertise with someone with less experience in a particular area. The mentor and mentee share a similar journey; one is farther down the road and dedicates time and energy to reach back to teach, advise, and impart the wisdom of lessons learned that are particular to their shared experience.

What is a Coach?

A coach is development partner who provokes and supports a person’s development through observation, inquiry, feedback, and suggested learning activities in order to accelerate that person’s growth.

Leaders want to get better at leading.

The focus of coaching is developing the behaviors that result in an individual getting better at leading. The focus of mentoring is to sharing knowledge about the experience of leading. While it may be appropriate for a mentor to answer a leader’s questions. Coaches rarely provide answers; coaches ask the questions that evoke the leader’s own answers.

Some facility with coaching skills like listening, inquiry, and providing feedback are useful for mentors; and, mentors needn’t be master coaches. Relatedly, coaches need not be someone with expertise in the particular functional area of the person being coached. While many executive coaches also have expertise in leadership, team dynamics, and organizational change; and, the coach’s primary area of expertise is coaching.

I encouraged this young CEO to find one or more more-experienced leaders to mentor him as he works to build his company. A mentor is a good idea before, during, and after coaching but it isn’t a substitute. While there’s some overlap, there is also space between what a mentor and executive coach can bring to a leader’s experience and to their development.

If you’re a leader, I hope you have a mentor. If you have a strong desire to learn and grow as a leader, I hope you have a coach. 


Categories: Leadership.