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 The Twins Often Confused: Business Mentoring and Coaching

If you’ve ever wondered what really is the difference between a business mentor or coach, you’re certainly not alone. The two are often interchanged, and the differences and similarities not well understood.

Definitions how many do you want?

In reality there are no commonly agreed definitions of Mentoring and Coaching. Even the professional bodies have not come up with clear shared definitions to explain the differences.

You can look at the dilemma this way: Coaching and Mentoring are like identical twins. They are very similar, but definitely not the same. They have different names, but are often confused with each other. From a distance they can look very different – when they have been dressed up differently. When you get closer though, you realise that they are in fact very similar.

There is a myriad of different descriptions of coaching and mentoring. Various organisations and bodies will describe them differently depending on how they want to differentiate mentoring from coaching.

The general differences

However, let me give you some of the generally agreed differences between a business mentor and a business coach:

  1. A business mentor bases a lot of their credibility on experience from the same environment as the mentee (the business owner or manager). The mentor has been there got the T-shirt so to speak

  2. A business mentor is expected to share their experience and provide guidance to the mentee

  3. The business mentor may bring contacts, networks and knowledge

  4. The business mentor will be able to bring a certain perspective to the conversation e.g. from

  5. being an industry insider or

  6. successfully growing a business or

  7. experience in getting private equity finance or

  8. leading teams etc.

  9. A mentor relationship will often stretch over longer periods with less frequent conversations than coaching

Other writers on the subject will differentiate between the two in terms of the focus of the subjects being discussed.

The definitions also vary between organisations depending on how they use the terms to differentiate between two types of support, styles or other aspects.

Let me give a couple of examples:

  1. Inside one organisation, a mentor will be a senior person, outside the line of hierarchy, who mentors a younger talent. Coaching is what managers do with their direct reports.

  2. In another public service organisation, coaching is what the leaders receive from external coaches, while mentoring is what the organisation provides to the public.

Skills the same

However, fundamentally, a good and well trained mentor will use the same skills and approaches as a good coach. As an expert, who is expected to use their experience and background to help, the mentor is likely to use the skills of giving feedback, input and suggestions on a more frequent basis than a coach.

Mentors therefore need to be particularly good at

  1. not making too many assumptions

  2. avoiding giving advice

  3. ensuring that the business owner or manager genuinely feels ownership for the chosen solutions (even if the chosen solution was a suggestion from the mentor)

  4. avoiding creating dependency

  5. not talking about their own greatness

So what to do?

One of the key differentiators here is that business coaches are now more frequently trained and qualified, whereas business mentors unfortunately too often feel that they don’t need to.

But, experience alone does not necessarily mean that a person will make a good mentor. The very fact that they are more experienced and probably older can lead to one of the biggest pitfalls: they feel compelled to give advice, making the mentee feel more helpless and inadequate afterwards, rather than more resourceful, empowered and confident in their own abilities.

It’s therefore worth checking the credentials of your mentor to ensure they possess all the skills required to offer a service that meets professional standards.

A good, well-trained and qualified business coach, with the right experience, will in fact make a great business mentor.

Mentoring as an excuse

And to finish off on a cautionary tale:

I hear this line regularly:

I’m more of a mentor than coach.

What do they mean by that then?

Well, in most cases it is actually just an excuse to cover that they give lots of advice and suggestions, rather than coaching. But, mentoring is not a poor relative of coaching!

When digging a little deeper, the reality is mostly that the coach/mentor simply does not have the right mindset and skills to coach effectively, so he/she quickly reverts back to giving advice.

Specific skills are required to be a good mentor or coach, to bring out the best outcomes from a mentoring or coaching programme. Having knowledge and experience is not the same as having the specific listening skills, insight and awareness needed to be truly effective.

So if you are looking for a mentor or coach to help you, be advised to check their credentials and choose wisely. You’ll be glad that you did.

And conversely, if you are looking to provide mentoring or coaching to your team members, clients or others, spend the time and effort on training yourself in the ‘art’. You’ll be very glad that you did.

Further reading: Six steps on the path to successful mentoring by Jan Bowen-Nielsen.

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