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The Difference Between a Coach and a Mentor

A coach helps you be successful in business. A mentor helps you be successful in your business, — in your company, in your industry.

It used to be that you started your career at the bottom and set your sites on the corner office. If you were good — and just a tad bit lucky — a company veteran tapped you on the shoulder and took you under their wing. They showed you the ropes. They introduced you to the right people. They taught you how to lead and they made sure that you got what you needed to be successful. We reverently called these people our “mentors.”

What’s changed?

"Coaching & Mentoring" written in white
Licensed: Adobe Stock

We’re still ambitious. We’re still eager to learn, to be successful, to connect with the right people. We still crave that tap on the shoulder from someone who will show us the ropes. But the taps don’t come as often these days, and they rarely come unsolicited.

Business is more complex now. It takes a wider range of experiences, capabilities and connections than ever before to be successful. We all still crave a “mentor” but we use the word to mean a variety of things. What is it that we really want?

Thankfully, the rise of executive / professional coaching in the last few decades sheds some light on what we crave. There has been a division of labor in the realm of developing leaders.

For some professional development, we need a coach. A coach is a trained and experience leadership development expert who helps you be successful in business. A good coach helps you with the “blocking and tackling” of being a better leader. They provide perspective and insights. They challenge you to see your blind spots. They help you articulate your values and keep them in focus. A good coach will help you build the right team, develop your ability to influence, bolster your confidence, better manage your time, achieve work / life balance, and learn how to manage a challenging team or a difficult boss.

But there are some key areas of success that a coach can’t help you with. Twenty percent of success is building and leveraging the right relationships. A coach doesn’t know who the movers and the shakers are in your company or in your industry. And even if your coach did know who you need to know, he or she can’t make the introductions. Further, a coach won’t know the nuances of your company or your industry. They won’t know the insider secrets that often mark the difference between mediocrity and being remarkable.

Enter, the mentor. A mentor is someone who helps you be successful in this business, in this company, in this industry. A mentor is a seasoned leader who knows how the company works. They know the right people and, when you are ready, can and will make introductions. They know the industry and have honed their instincts over the years. They can pass on that knowledge and wisdom that only comes from a lifetime of experience complete with their fair share of stumbles and failures.

An engagement with a coach is a peer-to-peer relationship consisting of two people both doing what they do best. A relationship with a mentor is one in which the grateful student learns at the feet of the master. Hans Solo was Luke Skywalker’s coach. Obi-Wan was his mentor.

Don’t burden a mentor with the things that a coach can do. Hire a coach to work on the fundamentals of developing into a great leader. Concurrently, seek out and build relationships with mentors who can help you with the insights and the connections to be successful in your business. It’s the perfect division of labor.

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