January 15, 2019

Coaching or mentoring? Know what you need and how to get it

Do you need a coach or a mentor?

I’m a major believer in support systems.  From peers and colleagues to family and personal friends, it takes a village to build a thriving career.  Whether you are celebrating accomplishments, coming to terms with failures or grappling with next steps, the support of those who care about you and your career is invaluable.

But often, those personal support systems aren’t quite enough.  Sometimes you need someone more experienced than you to take you under their wing and help you navigate your current role or your next challenge.  And sometimes you need a totally objective perspective from someone who has the insight, experience and training to help you zero in on a skill you’d like to build, a challenge you need to manage or a direction in which you hope to grow.

At those times, you need a mentor.  Or a coach.  Or both?  Let me explain.

About mentoring

Mentoring is typically seen as a somewhat informal relationship between the mentee and a more senior or experienced colleague who may or may not work for the same institution, as Christine Zust notes.  These relationships can last for several years or longer, and they are generally focused around career issues, building experience and growing within your sector, according to Zust.

I’ve had so many wonderful mentors over the years.  I’ll never forget the mentor who, when I took my first faculty job, really showed me the ropes and helped me find my way in an unfamiliar role as part of an unfamiliar institution.  Many of my mentors are still in my life today, and I value my own work as a mentor to my colleagues who are newer to academic medicine.

Mentors are typically experts in the same field or sector as the person being mentored, and the mentor is often fairly directive about the work to be done, projects to be accepted, and the techniques for achieving success.  Mentors often “tell” mentees what to do.

About coaching

The International Coach Federation defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”

Jonathan Passmore augments these ideas, noting coaching “is a relationship-based intervention. Its focus is on the enhancement of personal performance at work through behavioral, cognitive and motivational interventions used by the coach, which provide change in the coachee.”

Coaches are not usually subject-matter experts in the same field as their clients.  They tend to generally let the client set the agenda, and don’t seek to “problem solve” as much as they work to create a process for the client to discover their own solutions.

Get your needs met

There’s a lot of overlap in these roles, as Passmore notes, and the delineations can be fuzzy.  But Zust outlines a useful set of characteristics that can help draw the distinctions, so I will share them here:

Time frame:  Coaching relationships tend to last six months to a year, while mentoring relationships are often longer-term.

Focus:  Coaching is generally performance-driven, with a focus on specific aims in the workplace, while mentoring is more holistic and development-driven.

Structure:  Coaching is structured with regular meetings, while mentoring more often involves as-needed meetings, initiated by the mentee.

Expertise:  Coaches have expertise in the area relevant to the goals of the engagement and also should be trained for the coaching role.  Mentors bring expertise that is more organization- or job-related, and mentees benefit from their experience and seniority.

Agenda:  In coaching relationships, agendas should be co-developed by the coach and coachee, while mentoring relationships generally involve agendas set by the mentee.

Questioning:  Effective coaches ask questions meant to provoke reflection.  Growth and learning comes as coachees explore answers.  In mentoring relationships, mentees ask most of the questions and learn from mentors’ responses.

Outcome:  Coaching relationships are structured around clear, measurable goals, while mentorships may be more likely to have open-ended or flexible goals.

These distinctions really are fluid.  For example, although coaching tends to be performance-driven, some of the best coaching engagements do involve holistic conversations and career and personal development.  Check out some additional considerations and guidance for finding the right coach for you.

Above all, clarity is key.  Perhaps the most important characteristic to seek in a coach or a mentor is the ability to define the relationship so you can understand if your needs will be met.

Have you worked with a mentor or a coach?

How did you define the relationship, and how did it work for you?

Last updated January 15, 2019