Coaching vs Mentorship

As I discuss leadership, I often use the terms “coaching” and “mentoring” in a manner that would lead a casual reader to assume I mean them to be synonymous—that they are interchangeable. They are not.

For most of us, our first real exposure to a coach is in high school sports. My high school wrestling coach knew two important things: he knew what made up a successful wrestler and he knew that I had no idea what made a successful wrestler. With those two things, he set out to teach me the things that I needed to learn to be successful—often over my objections, frequently against my better judgement. He had a clear vision of what the goal for me looked like, and he helped me achieve.

Well, sort of, I never ended up being much of a wrestler.

A coach provides an end goal for someone who doesn’t clearly understand what the end goal should look like. He or she provides direction to achieve that goal, and supplies guidance along the way when his or her charge strays from the path. A famous example would be Mr. Miyagi in the first Karate Kid movie. Daniel’s vision of a successful practitioner of karate would have made him another Cobra Kai clone—Miyagi had a stronger vision for him.

A coach is a supplier of both the vision and the direction (the ‘why’ and the ‘how’) who guides someone through making good decisions about the ‘what.’ 

Conversely, a mentor is not supplying the vision. A mentor is working with someone who now has enough understanding of the field to know what success looks like—and that success is a deeply personal assessment of the state of things. A good mentor can listen to the goal, disagree with it entirely, and help guide the mentee toward their own vision.

To belabor my Karate Kid metaphor, in the second movie Mr. Miyagi took on the role of a mentor to Daniel. No longer was he rigidly enforcing his vision of how to employ karate, instead, he showed Daniel how to commit acts of violence against inanimate objects because that is one of the things Daniel found important.

Along the way, as happens in movies, the mentor and mentee’s common values resulted in each of their respective visions becoming more closely aligned. This is fairly commonplace in this sort of relationship, but should never be the goal of the mentor. Your goal is simply to teach the mentee how to be the sort of person that achieves their vision.

A mentor learns the vision of the mentee (the ‘why’) and teaches the mentee how to develop the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ required to achieve their vision.

It would seem then, at a glance, that coaching lends itself naturally to early in the career whereas mentorship becomes more useful later in the career. While that isn’t entirely inaccurate, it is more fair to say that at any given time I need mentors and coaches alike for various parts of my decision making—I am constantly a beginner in some areas and more expert in others, and so are most people. Patience, practice, and a heavy emphasis on listening will teach you which to use at any given time.