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I work as a Mentor and am often asked what the differences between mentoring and coaching are. It’s not a question that I take lightly because understanding that difference can often be the key to an individual getting what they want out of a relationship with a mentor or a coach or wasting their time and money.
The description which I’ve come up with, and which seems to make most sense to the people who have asked me, is that coaching is focused on the tactical improvement of specific skills while mentoring involves work on the foundational questions of a life. The example I most often give is that a Coach will help you improve your golf swing while a Mentor will help you decide if you should be a golfer.
Both of these kinds of contributions are very important to helping an individual realize the potential that their life represents. Coaches, particularly good ones who are deeply experienced and capable, can make a huge difference in a person’s life experience. They can help you clear away roadblocks and embark on a highly productive program of personal improvement. They tend to be much more effective if you done the heavy lifting beforehand. A solid foundation of self-understanding will help a coach be more effective. That’s where a mentor comes in.
Most of the people that I work with have decided to address foundational questions. Many of them have been following a particular path for years and have begun to suspect that it has been taking them in the wrong direction. Often this shows up as a growing dissatisfaction with the way their life is developing. Sometimes they have been thinking that there are other things in life that they want to accomplish before it is over. No matter what the motivation, they come to me seeking help in finding a new path that it will be more fulfilling and represent a better use of their life.
The kinds of transitions that I am talking about are not easy. Overcoming habits that have developed over many years, and sometimes decades, is very difficult. Changing patterns of thinking or a way of viewing the world can be a very daunting undertaking. But, when you come right down to it, that is the nature of life itself. Each of us has to find a way that fulfills our inner needs and potential. Helping people do that is my fundamental contribution is a Mentor.
The average person that I begin working with has tried a number of things prior to contacting me. Most often they have worked with coaches in an attempt to get better at navigating the path their life has been on. Sometimes this work has gone on for decades. When they finally come to the conclusion that more of the same is just not going to do it, they begin to look for alternatives. That is the critical phase that determines whether a new path will be found or more of the same experienced.
Someone dancing inside us
has learned only a few steps:
the "Do-Your-Work" in 4/4 time,
the "What-Do-You-Expect" Waltz.
He hasn't noticed yet the woman
standing away from the lamp.
the one with black eyes
who knows the rumba.
and strange steps in jumpy rhythms
from the mountains of Bulgaria.
If they dance together,
something unexpected will happen;
if they don't, the next world
will be a lot like this one.
The first steps in all of my mentoring engagements begin with foundational questions. Who am I really? What are my passions? What are my interests? What should I be doing with my life? These and others form the initial basis for our work together. There is also a great deal of clearing away brush and deadwood. Most people experience rather severe vertigo as this process advances. They are casting off that person that they have been telling themselves that they are and it can be a sobering, and often frightening, experience. But you cannot see your true reflection in the mirror until you remove the mask.
“We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.”
Once we have navigated the initial rapids, the journey becomes much more enjoyable and productive. Once the first step is taken on a new path, the feeling of disconnectedness begins to gradually ease. Initially the whole world of options and opportunities open and the experience is like the proverbial kid in a candy store. Then things start to narrow down and come into focus. The time it takes to get them into focus varies from individual to individual. But it’s never the four-week wonder journey that a lot of consultants and authors describe. Changing the direction of a life is hard work and requires heavy lifting and persistence. There is no magic holy water that can be sprinkled on you.
As we get further into the process of mentoring something very interesting begins to happen. Coaches become more relevant and helpful - as do friends and family. Asking people for directions becomes easier and more productive if you know where you’re going. Once a person begins to see that new path they are better able to select the coaches who are more likely to help them. In fact, I see it as a kind of graduation ceremony when we begin to discuss the selection of coaches and advisers. It’s an indication that I have done my work. It’s also an indication that a person now has a new and better understanding of the direction that their life should be taking.
“You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.” Yogi Berra
Before I wrap up I should say something about the difference between what makes a good coach and what makes a good mentor. Good coaches are very experienced in the area that they are focused in. They have “done it before many times”. Bad coaches are mostly selling a methodology that someone else has developed. Really good coaches “shrink-wrap” their approach to the individual client. “One-size-fits-all” doesn’t work very well.
Mentors are a different matter. For the most part, the good ones have been around for a rather long time and have led a highly diverse life. They are broadly read and have a strong interest and capability in areas like psychology and sociology. Mentoring is hand-to-hand combat at close quarters.
One of the contributions that I regularly make is to introduce individual to parts of the world and human thought that they had not previously considered relevant. Mentors draw on the entire range of human experience and knowledge. Another characteristic of a good mentor is that they are fearless in what I call “adult conversation”. As an example, I have told a number of people that I was mentoring “if you’re not going to take this seriously and do the hard work necessary, then stop wasting my time”. Mentoring takes a huge amount of effort and energy on the part of the mentor. It needs to be repaid in kind.
I hope what I’ve written is helpful to you in deciding whether to engage a coach or a mentor. I further hope that it is helpful to understanding the difference. Your life is yours to live but, before you can do that, you need to figure out what it is you should be doing with your life. That’s where a mentor helps.
© Earl R Smith II, PhD
PJ, Mentoring Client,
Mentoring Client, CEO and Serial Entrepreneur,
Mentoring Client, Deloitte,
CEO of Croix Connect and Host of ABC Radio’s ‘Taking Care of Business’,
Partner, IT & Telecom, Defense Solutions,