One of the questions that we are often asked is about the difference between coaching and mentoring. Perhaps more importantly, however, the real question is once you know the difference, what does that mean for you as a subject matter expert? In particular, how does it affect how you approach your target audience?

Mentoring vs. coaching

Mentoring and coaching share some similarities, but are also distinctly different. They are both relationships that support learning, albeit in different ways. They also require some similar skills, such as ability to build rapport and relationships, knowing when to listen, and being able to ask the right questions. Both also provide a ‘safe space’ for sharing work problems, and a way to find solutions to difficult issues. Finally, in both the decision about what to do is up to the learner, not the coach or mentor.

The differences, therefore, are crucial. Researchers Clutterbuck and Schneider did a lot of work on coaching and mentoring. They suggested that there were key differences in focus (present for coaching and future for mentoring), and the aims and objectives (improving skills and competences for coaching, and opening horizons for mentoring). They used these distinctions to define the two.

However, more recent thinking suggests that the focus and aims can be much more flexible than this distinction suggests. Instead, the main differences are around:

  • The expertise of the mentor or coach

Mentors are generally experts in their field—which is usually also the field of the person being mentored. They therefore have subject-matter expertise to convey. Coaches, however, are not subject-matter experts. Instead, they are process experts: they are experts in helping people to think through issues, and come to their own conclusions about what actions to take. 

  • The equality of the relationship

Mentors are usually older and more experienced. Their role in the relationship is to impart knowledge and share their experience. There is therefore an imbalance of power in the relationship. That is not to say that the mentor is ‘in charge’. However, they will often provide advice, based on their experience. A coach, on the other hand, is an equal partner in the coaching relationship. The coach and learner are co-creating learning, and the coach is there to help the learner to find strategies to manage their own problems. They are not there to give advice, because they do not know the answers.

  • The basis for the relationship

Coaching is often, if not always, a formal relationship. Coaches are generally engaged to provide coaching for a period of time, and usually paid to do so. Mentoring can also be formal, but it is far less likely to be a paid arrangement. Instead, mentors usually give their time for free, in a relationship that may be brokered by an employer, or through introductions from someone else, or may arise organically through an acquaintanceship. 

  • The qualifications of the mentor or coach

There are no formal qualifications for mentors. They are simply ‘wise guides’: people in your field with more experience, whom you have chosen to ask for help or support. Coaches, however, often have formal qualifications in coaching, or at the very least considerable experience in the area. Of course anyone can take a coaching approach, and many managers do. This approach basically means working from a belief that everyone can solve their own problems with the right support. However, those engaged in formal coaching processes are more likely to have a qualification.

Coaching vs. mentoring for thought leaders

As a thought leader, then, should you approach your audience as mentor or coach? There are advantages to both approaches. You may feel that you have the expertise to act as mentor. You may also find that you are asked questions that draw on your experience and expertise. 

However, sometimes you can best help people see their own way through problems and issues by asking the right questions—and not by providing the answers. As the researchers in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy found, sometimes the question is the most important part of understanding the answer. 

Perhaps as a thought leader, your best bet is the ‘sweet spot’ between coaching and mentoring. In other words, your focus should be on creating a safe space to explore ideas, and encouraging curiosity and self-improvement. We suggest that probably the best way to do that is to model those values yourself by being open to new ideas, and valuing questions of all kinds. 

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