Mentoring v Coaching: leading or listening?

A friend of mine once lamented "a significant problem in communication is the belief that once we've labeled something, we've solved it." This remark came on the heels of a conversation we were having about dealing with personality instruments and other psychometrics used in the leadership development world. He takes a strong position against many of these "tools," insofar as their ability in and of themselves to produce real fruit. Certainly gave me something to think about.

So what does that have to do with the subject of this blog? After nearly 30 years of experience in leading people, among the many conclusions I've personally drawn is this one: as leaders, we struggle mightily with discernment between speaking and listening. When to give solicited or unsolicited counsel and when to simply ask questions and seek understanding. When to provide direction and when to allow "freedom to choose."

Essentially, when to mentor and when to coach.

...and to my friend's point of contention, just labeling one a certain name or other won't produce fruit for those involved. If anything, the lack of distinction between these two "skills" causes more confusion today than help. They are used interchangeably and without individual regard.

It's time we drew a line - not for the purposes of arguing over terminology, but as a response to leaders who want to best serve their followers and the myriad situations they face throughout their careers. Finally, it will require our understanding of each skill and not just the accepted labels.


Mentoring, in its basic form, invites questions from the protege (or mentee) with the expectation of answers, counsel, advice given from the mentor's view. Inherent in the relationship is the belief that the mentor does, in fact, have the "right" answers and/or has the experience sought by the protege. It is a perfectly natural and oft-times welcome partnership in the pursuit of professional development. For many mentors, it satisfies the desire to share lessons learned and potential paths with those identified as "high potential" within the organization. And, most often, the protege is ready and willing to hear those thoughts and take action.

So is mentoring ever a bad thing? Not necessarily.

However, the challenge many leaders face is in determining whether their followers are truly looking for answers to be given to them. Simple law of averages would suggest many do not want counsel at all; rather, they are looking for the opportunity to share their answers...their plans...their strategies. They're looking for an ear. Someone who wants to truly understand their narrative and remain committed to listening and asking questions that lead to clarification and understanding. Even if the follower doesn't realize that is what they want.

Enter the coach.

The coach is not interested in giving answers. They're not interested in sharing their experiences and recommending courses of action. Instead, they endeavor to provide a structure where the coachee can describe their challenge (or objective), sound out a plan to address/solve it, and walk through behaviors they believe are needed to get the ball in motion. Picture a person in front of a mirror, sharing their issue and the mirror helping them give shape to the specifics...without judgment or ownership.

The mirror (coach) merely helps the coachee "buy-in" to their own message...their own conviction...their own path to achievement.


Both approaches are vital to the health of any organization. True leaders find themselves in daily situations that call for action of one sort or another. The leader who seeks to provide his/her answers all the time will inevitably short-cut an opportunity for their follower(s) to take initiative themselves. Discover their own answers. Become fully engaged and "bought-in."

Might I encourage you to take a deliberate look at your team and ask this question: who needs me to lead them and who may be waiting for the coach to appear? Get to know your people and that will surely lead you to knowing when to wear which hat. When to listen and when to speak.

The fruit will speak for itself.

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