Two terms that are certainly batted about as you learn about successful leadership are: mentoring and coaching. Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably but there are important subtle differences between these concepts. Here we’ll talk about the similarities and differences and how you can best leverage both concepts for an upward trajectory in your leadership success.
What is Coaching?
When you hear the word “coach,” most people think of one thing: an experienced, senior-level expert in sports instructing players in several areas:
- Skills: for example, how to throw a football or pitch a baseball
- Cooperation: how to leverage certain players’ strengths, lifting the whole team-up.
- Strategy: specific methods of working together to take advantage of opponent weaknesses and secure a victory.
A coach essentially gives instruction in something. Teachers also give instruction, and certainly teaching is part of coaching, but the scope of coaching is broader. It encompasses skill-building, strategy, and keen observation of dynamic conditions to secure a successful result.
Coaches in the business world are, of course, different from sports coaches. However many of the same principles still apply.
What is Mentoring?
The mentor and mentee relationship implies that one person, the mentor, has expertise and experience in a particular arena. The person they are mentoring, the mentee, is less senior and needs some level of assistance in reaching the next level in what they are trying to achieve.
For example, it’s quite common that a brand new associate at a law firm would be paired with a mentor. Their mentor would likely be a more experienced senior associate or partner. Together, the mentee could ask questions about how to navigate particular matters, and the mentor could provide advice. The scope of this advice might relate to performing legal tasks, but might also include things like navigating firm politics, advancement or even work / life balance.
Differences Between Mentoring and Coaching
As you can see, there are many similarities between these two important concepts. At the core is a human relationship between two people at two different levels of experience and skill. Let’s look at some of the differences between the two types of relationships.
Coaching implies a more formally defined role approaching that of teacher and student. The coach often has a specific methodology for teaching skills and approaching strategy. In a sports example, you can imagine that a football coach may have a specific offensive or defensive strategy. The players learn this strategy from the coach and carry it out.
In the business world, a coach may have a particular method of carrying out tasks, and they are coaching employees in exactly how to do particular things in a particular way. For example, a software company might hire a coach to instruct employees on exactly how to sell a new line of products. They would want the employees to highlight particular features in particular ways and be prepared to answer questions consistently each time.
For mentors and mentees, there may be no specific pedagogy that the mentor is trying to transfer. The relationship is much more informal. It may be as simple as a statement that “I am here to answer any questions you might have.” They may get together over lunch or coffee simply to discuss how things are going and offer advice on particular areas of concern that the mentee might have.
Of course, all human endeavors have a gray area. There are some situations where coaching can be less formal, and others where mentoring can be more formal. However, the main concept is that overall, coaching is more driven to accomplish particular tasks in particular ways and mentoring is focused on helping a less experienced person grow more generally.
Length of Time:
Because coaching tends to be more intensive than mentoring, the relationship is usually shorter and more intense. This is one area where a sports coach is different from a business coach! A sports coach is essentially “the boss” of a player for an ongoing basis. In the business world. coaching can be a session or two, or maybe up to 6 months. Since the focus is on improving or learning a specific skill, it doesn’t have to be an ongoing commitment.
Mentoring can last years. Since mentees may only check in when they have questions, or meet occasionally to discuss how things are going, this may last for years! Sometimes, mentors and mentees become lifelong friends, or even business partners in the future.
Experience and Expertise:
The breadth of experience is what really sets these two roles apart. Coaches usually have a very specific expertise relating to one area. For instance, an executive who will be making a lot of speeches might hire a public speaking coach. This coach is highly experienced and skilled in public speaking, and will have their own unique methodology.
While a mentor might have experience with public speaking, and can offer some advice, this isn’t the primary reason for their relationship with their mentee. They will usually have a higher level of experience with an organization or occupation and can offer advice more generally. Think back to our law firm example: a senior associate or partner has overcome many obstacles and learned a great deal during their time with the firm. They can share this advice and experience with a young attorney just joining the firm.
Mentoring and Coaching: Both are Essential to Success
As a leader, you may find yourself needing to be both a mentor and a coach. You might look outside your organization to bring in a coach to achieve certain results. You might look within your organization to find experienced team members who might make great mentors. Delegation is key. It may be better for you to mentor the mentors than to always be one yourself!
You need to identify exactly what your goals are. If your goal is the more short-term accomplishment of new or improved skills, or the implementation of a strategy, then put on your coach’s hat. If your goal is to provide more broad-based transitional support for new employees, or to help existing ones succeed at a higher level, then maybe being a mentor is more appropriate.
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