Skip to main content

Coaching? Mentoring?

| September 20, 2016

by Brian McDonald

What’s the difference?

Someone asked the other day, “What do you think?” and I wondered, is this a time to coach or a time to mentor?  In our interactions everyday we may have the choice to adopt one approach over the other.  Yet we need to be able to make the distinction between coaching in contrast to mentoring.  When is coaching the better path;  when would mentoring be a better option?

Coaching as you may know involves asking open ended questions, listening to the other person’s responses and letting her/him come to his/her own solution.  When you are new to coaching it may be difficult to turn down the volume of your inner dialogue and really, really listen to what the other person is sharing.  For many people who are learning to coach it is also challenging not to give advice.  Our brain likes to solve problems even when someone hasn’t asked you too.
If a person has the capability or experience to think out his/her own solution, then most times it is better to use coaching.  The reason is if individuals can figure out how to solve the problem, then they own the solution.  When people have developed the solution they are much more invested in taking the next steps.  Just as people don’t wash “rental cars” because they don’t own them, you may not accept advice from others because it’s not yours.
Another reason to use coaching in these situations is the person you are coaching is developing his/her own mental capability.  You could really be helping them learn “to fish” as opposed to giving them a fish.  This is important for those with whom we work as we would like them to be able to think through solutions on their own.  Coaching is also applicable outside the work setting as you help your children, family, or friends develop their ability to think through an issue.
It may be useful to offer a few definitions to differentiate coaching and mentoring.
Coaching, according Webster’s Dictionary, is to tutor, to assist students by helping them improve their ability;  a teacher;  someone who prepares people through training.  MOR Associates defines coaching as a process designed to develop a new level of performance, an increased competency or a personal quality.
Tom Peters in Passion for Excellence offered another perspective on coaching that raises the intensity in longer term coaching relationships:   “To coach is to facilitate, to ‘make easy,’ not less demanding, less intense, or less interesting, but less discouraging.”
When you consult Webster about mentoring you see the contrast:  A mentor is a “Trusted counselor or guide, the deliberate pairing of a skilled and experienced person with a less skilled and experienced person with the intent to transfer knowledge and experience.”  (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary)
It is often the case that when a new person is hired or when an emerging leader is taking on a new unfamiliar initiative, we will suggest s/he take advantage of the experience of someone who has done this before.
A thoughtful mentor can be particularly helpful when you are confronted by a challenge you know little about and he/she has been there and done that.  A mentor can be a great resource when you are considering your own professional development or career pathways or life choices that matter to you.
Jim Bruce, the former CIO at MIT and now a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, is someone who plays both roles well.  Jim will coach individuals on their goals in the leadership programs and he may mentor people who are thinking about whether they want to go down the CIO path. 
In the first instance, the person needs to own the goals so asking questions and letting them come to their own conclusions is important. In the second instance, Jim has a lot of experience and the wisdom that comes with the years he served as a CIO.  He can share his experience and considerations with someone contemplating this path.
In fact, Jim recently received “the William ‘Brit’ Kirwan Mentorship Award from Internet2 that recognizes individuals who embody the exemplary capacity that Brit has shown for mentoring those who’ve assumed leadership roles throughout higher education.  Recipients are those known throughout their community as ‘encouragers,’ people who enhance career development in others, believing what Brit has shown by example:  that proven leaders grow other leaders.  They are actively involved in connecting communities, working toward common goals and inspiring others to serve.”
What a wonderful recognition by Jim’s peers of his contribution to the next generation of higher education leaders.

You too can serve others by being a coach when needed or as a mentor.  You can also realize when it would be helpful for you to seek out a coach or a mentor.  If you are more deliberate in seeking the specific support you may find useful at that time, chances are much better you will find what you need.
Recognize the opportunities you have this week for coaching or mentoring.
Have a leaderful week.  .  .  .    brian
Brian McDonald is President of MOR Associates.