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"The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves." - Steven Spielberg

On any given day, leaders can find themselves acting as trainers, confidants, sounding boards, babysitters, negotiators or referees. Two hats that are very common when it comes to nurturing the success of those around us are the mentor hat and the coach hat. There are subtle differences (and not so subtle differences) between the two, and it is important to recognize those differences so that you can put on the right hat in the right situation.

Tasks or Relationships?

Coaching is task-oriented. This means a coaching engagement focuses on concrete issues that a person faces such as effective management, communication, strategic thinking, etc. A coach is there to help develop the skills necessary to tackle those tasks and improve outcomes. Mentoring, on the other hand, is relationship-oriented. Mentors provide their mentees with an open space to share the issues that are impacting their success. People seek mentors to help them achieve their career goals - the actual engagement goes far deeper to include broad concepts and approaches like work-life balance, confidence, professional development and more.

Performance or Development?

A coach is there to help someone improve performance on the job. Typically, the action items that come out of coaching involve learning new skills or enhancing existing skills. Once the coachee has gained those skills, the coach's services are no longer needed in that specific area of focus.

Mentoring is more about long-term development. The team may work together to develop the mentee for the job they are doing today, but they also focus on the long game, helping the mentee create a plan to achieve their one, three, five and ten-plus-year goals.

Short Term or Long Term?

Because coaching is task-oriented, the engagement is typically short. Coaching someone through a challenge can take just a few sessions, but lasts as long as necessary, depending upon the goal of the coaching relationship.

Conversely, mentoring is always a long-term relationship. It requires time to build trust and learn about one another. Mentees must feel secure about sharing the issues that impact their success, and that security is only built over months and years of involvement.

Manager or No Manager?

When it comes to coaching, the employee's direct manager is almost always involved. That manager may even be the one who is driving the coaching engagement, providing the coach with critical background information. In many cases, the direct manager will serve as the coach.

The manager may or may not be involved in a mentoring relationship. People typically seek out mentors on their own to help enhance their professional development. Sometimes, managers may help employees choose a mentor or approach a potential mentor but they are not directly involved in the relationship itself. In fact, it's best if managers don't get involved, so that the employee can feel secure in opening up to the mentor.

Are You A Coach or A Mentor?

As a leader, you will likely find yourself coaching and mentoring on a regular basis. Sometimes you'll be coaching your mentees through an immediate challenge. Other times you'll develop a mentor relationship after coaching someone through a problem. And still other times you will find yourself connecting a mentee to a coach or a coachee to a mentor. The lines can seem blurry, but the situation will always dictate which hat you wear.


Larry Hart

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