How to choose between a mentor or coach - and why you don’t need a ‘how-to’

By liamarus, 24 October, 2013

Entering into a deep debate about if you should choose a mentor or a coach is missing the point entirely. Both people can play a pivotal role in your development: you will need both and both roles can be interchangeable. That still leaves the question: coach or mentor?

The real issue in choosing a mentor or coach has to do with what you need to learn:

  • When it comes to a practical skill or specific behaviour you wish to acquire, a coach might be a better option:

- Coaching aims to be more ‘hands-on’ and practical. Think of a sports coach: they watch how you play and will then provide specific ways in which you can get better at whatever it is you are doing. They provide feedback, objective analysis and practical suggestions about how to take you game to the next level.

  • A mentor, on the other hand, is someone who gifts you with perspective, insights or what we might term ‘wisdom’. It is usually not prescriptive, often bundled in the form of a question or story, which allows you to reflect and grow. Ultimately, this wisdom allows you, in your own time and way, to incorporate and interpret the advice in your own journey.

Coaching and mentoring could be seen as two sides of the same coin

A coach can be a mentor and mentor can be a coach – it all depends on the learning agenda and outcome. The real underlying issue here is not ‘which one do I choose?’ but rather, ‘what do I need to learn next?’

Today, most leaders have stopped learning and the result of this is that learning within their organisation takes the form of mere training: functional training is important but only represents a thin slice of the learning pie:

  • A true learning organisation goes far beyond having a robust training curriculum:

- It imbibes an attitude of learning that originates from the very top. 
- It is a curiosity, a questioning, a willingness to experiment where the guardians of such things can be found in the executive himself.

As individuals, executives will have both mentors and coaches and thereby define the need for instructors, an example that gives permission to others looking on to do the same.

‘Why would a senior leader need a coach?’ you may be thinking. Well one area that immediately comes to mind is that of social media. How many senior leaders do you know who do not need coaching in this vital area of life and business today?

The learner can (in)formally contract mentors and coaches

Sometimes, it is likely that neither the coach nor mentor is fully attuned to the role they are playing.  I have learned a great deal from children - and even wrote a book on it - where they (the children) would not have known just how much they were teaching me.  

There is a Buddhist saying that suggests our lack of learning is never because of the lack of teachers but rather our inability to see the teachers that surround us. Learning is an attitude before it is anything else. The desire to learn and grow will then automatically embrace those who can coach us towards better performance and help us develop necessary skill-sets.

Avoid the trap of deciding if you need a coach or a mentor

You need both. Find and surround yourself with those you can learn from, who will give you reliable feedback and will risk engagement to help you develop. Ultimately though, learning is always the learner’s responsibility. It is never too late to learn and no matter what your position in the organisational hierarchy, you should remain and cultivate the attitude of a learner.

How do you do this?

Well, somehow I suspect that if you need me to lay this out, you are not doing the groundwork necessary. My friend Meg Wheatley wrote that, ‘thinking is place where all intelligent action begins.’ You don’t need a ‘how-to’ list from me – you need simply to pause, think, look around and ask, ‘what is it I can or need to learn?’ It is that simple; it is that difficult.

Go on, be a learner and the more you learn, the more you will realise how little you really know. It remains one of the great gifts given to the true learner.

by Keith Coats

This article first appeared on HR Pulse.




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