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How to Choose Between a Mentor and a Coach

If you’re looking to take the next step in your personal or professional growth, one of the best investments you can make is hiring a coach or being mentored by an expert. The one-on-one attention from a professional has a vast potential to level up your game. It can help you carve an advantage for yourself against the competition, upgrade your skills, and improve your chances for success.

However, since a lot of information is readily available on the internet, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you should figure things out by yourself. Of course, there are a few trade-offs and downsides to coaching yourself vs. hiring a professional. As this post by Forbes suggests:

  • Any information you find on the internet might not be quality information. And when you’re not an expert on a topic, it can be exceedingly difficult to pick up the useful facts in the sea of opinions, misinformation, and rumors.
  • Even with the best information, it can be challenging to determine what applies to your specific situation and what might make more sense for someone in different circumstances.
  • Working towards a goal on your own can be overwhelming. You’ve to stay motivated, hold yourself accountable, and learn new information. This can be especially tough when your everyday life and regular responsibilities already demand a lot from you.

If you’re wondering whether you have to hire a coach to be successful, then the answer is no, you don’t. However, if you think whether a coach can help you reach your highest potential, then absolutely, they can. If athletes and sportspeople work with coaches to optimize their performance, then why can’t people who want to excel in their personal and professional lives do the same?

The Difference Between a Mentor and a Coach

After you’ve decided you’re ready to work with an expert to reach the next level in your life, you might wonder how to distinguish between a mentor and a coach.

Jonathan Passmore, in his book Excellence in Coaching: The Industry Guide, defines coaching as “a form of development in which an experienced person, called a coach, supports a learner or client in achieving a specific personal or professional goal by providing training and guidance.” 

On the other hand, Caela Farren, Ph.D., defines mentorship in her essay Eight Types of Mentor: Which Ones Do You Need as “a learning and development partnership between someone with vast experience and someone who wants to learn.” What is Human expands on this by adding, “The mentor is responsible for providing support to, and feedback on, the individual in his or her charge.”

The key difference between the two is professionalism. A mentor offers the value of their own experience but is not professionally trained at helping you change or succeed. Although, in some cases, they may have some basic training in dealing with mentees.

A coach is professionally trained in the skills of coaching, which are based on psychology and facilitation. Coaches often draw on the experience of having seen other clients in similar situations, even if the coach doesn’t have direct experience themselves.

Perhaps, the most critical difference can be summed up in the words of Coach Tony, the Founder of “Mentors are found by chance, and coaches are available right now. So, looking for a mentor means postponing your career growth, often for quite a long time. But, choosing to opt for a coach means embracing the next step to your growth right away.”

How Coaching Works

Contrary to popular belief, coaches don’t “teach.” Instead, they actively listen to you and understand your goals and motivations. Then, they set up a framework for you to follow and hold you accountable. They encourage you from the sidelines, acting as an independent influence. They provide an objective third-party perspective to your issues and help ease decision fatigue by reducing the number of decisions you make on a daily basis.

As Forbes puts it, “Coaches can also provide helpful feedback loops; they can check your blind spots and point out things you don’t know; they can provide accountability as well as confidence or peace of mind when you otherwise would second-guess your choices or instincts.”

Hiring a coach doesn’t mean they’ll do the work for you. You’ll still have to do the work yourself, but they’ll make the journey easier. This might not sound like much, but it can have a massive impact on your life. According to the 2009 ICF Global Coaching Study, 80% of people reported improved self-esteem/self-confidence, 72% confessed to getting better communication skills, and 71% noted better interpersonal skills and work performance after opting for coaching sessions. In addition, almost all (96%) clients indicated that they would repeat the coaching experience given the same circumstances that led them there in the first place.

How to Find Yourself a Coach

Before you go about actively looking for a coach, understand that coaching is not similar to therapy. Counselors and therapists focus on what happened in the past and work with the unconscious mind. Coaches help clients establish a goal with the conscious mind and focus on what can happen in the future. Here’s a step-by-step approach you can try:

  1. Gauge your needs: Understand what kind of improvement you’re seeking and how you can go about it. You should have an idea about what your end goal looks like before seeking someone to guide you. You can do this through reflective journaling, therapy, or conversation with a close friend.
  2. Assess how a coach can help you: Once you determine what area of your life could do better with professional help, try and understand how a coach can be helpful. There are various types of coaches with in-depth knowledge in a specific area of expertise. Work out what you want to focus on, and then go through a coach directory to select the one that you believe would work best for you. Look at their track record, testimonials, and try to understand if they share a similar long-term vision.
  3. Evaluate your coach: Most coaches provide a clarity call or a free session before finalizing on working together. Make sure you open up about what areas you wish to work upon and carefully consider the kind of questions they ask. Based on this and how well they put forward their coaching philosophy, you can understand how best you’d work with each other.

Summing up, the process of finding a coach can be best expressed in the words of this 2003 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association: “Ask colleagues about their experiences and for recommendations. When selecting a coach, inquire about their training and credentials; ask for a free consultation and for references. Interview at least three coaches before making a selection. A coach with a similar background may provide the most comfortable working relationship.”

How to Successfully Work with a Coach

Once you’ve determined what area of your personal and professional life to work on and zeroed in on a coach who might help, here comes the trickiest part: getting the most value out of each coaching session. Research from Harvard Business Review and lays out a detailed process you can employ with the help of your coach to get the most out of your partnership:

Build a relationship

It’s easier to learn from someone you trust. You can build trust with your coach by being honest about your learning and development objectives and effectively establishing boundaries. Work on self-reflection by profoundly considering the questions your coach asks you.

Set realistic goals

With the help of your coach, set goals that inspire and drive you. Be honest about the time you have available to work on your goals and your ability to stick with them.

Put in the work

Instead of passively listening to something, focus on actively noting what needs to be done, and start right away. Coaching is a two-way street. You can make the most of it if both parties can be partners in learning.

Be open-minded

Don’t let your thinking and assumptions hold you back. Listen with the intent to take action. Be willing to put in the work. A coach isn’t supposed to have all the answers. Hence, it’s essential to be patient and focus on listening. Ask openly if you have anything in mind. Be as honest and open as possible with respect to your growth and challenges.

Recap what you learned via action steps

After each session, document what you’re going to do next. Share your intentions with your coach, so you don’t forget what’s expected of you next.

Stay consistent

Schedule sessions as needed. Check-in frequently via messages to review homework, discuss an update, or ask questions. Don’t hesitate to get on call if the matter demands it. Make your course a top priority and actively work toward accomplishing assigned tasks each week.

Give feedback

A huge part of the relationship with your coach is based on the results you get within the first few days. This can be made better with a timely assessment that focuses on gaps in current performance vs. desired performance and clear communication with the coach.

How to Find Yourself a Mentor

Be aware of what you want from your career and what needs to be done to get there. Approach a possible mentorship as a business friendship. Be casual, friendly, and don’t come across as over-eager. As Sheryl Sandberg emphasizes in her book Lean In, asking, “Will you be my mentor?” to strangers never works. 

You can find great mentors among the inspiring people in your network. They should be people who know how you think, communicate, and approach work. It always works best if these people are already aware of your potential. As Sandberg puts it, “It’s not find a mentor, and you will do well, it’s do well, and a mentor will find you.”

Getting yourself a mentor is a gradual process. They can be people among your professional circle or someone you’ve been interacting with on LinkedIn over time. Respond to their posts, reshare their content, and offer your unique perspective. You can start a discussion or refer new clients to make it apparent what they have to gain from working with you. 

Vicki Salemi, a career expert for popular job search platform Monster, sums this up in an interview with Business News Daily, “It’s not like you’ll be at a conference and chat with someone sitting next to you and say, ‘Oh, will you be my mentor?’. It’s a process. It’s kind of like when you think about friends in your life, how you met them and how maybe over the period of a year or so you’ve gotten to become really good friends … in the beginning, you didn’t say, ‘Will you be my friend?’ That would be completely awkward.”

How to Successfully Work with a Mentor

Be proactive about asking questions and putting your mentor’s advice to work. As this post by Forbes suggests, it’s essential to be great at what you do, ask for more responsibility, and prepare ahead of time to add more value to each session with them. 

Remember that a mentorship is not a one-way street. Show you appreciate the relationship with your mentor by valuing their advice and time. Small gestures like arriving at meetings early or volunteering for optional services go a long way in showing your willingness to work. 

Final Words

For someone with the skills, motivation, and will to make massive improvements in their life, getting help from a professional plays a huge role in defining success. That’s where a coach or a mentor comes in. While a mentor is found by pure chance, a coach can be hired right now.

You can choose the right coach based on the kind of questions they ask, their track record, and the quality of testimonials. You can get them based on recommendations from friends and colleagues or from online directories. While working with a coach, it’s crucial to build a relationship based on trust, set realistic goals, listen with an open mind, be willing to put in the work, and follow up regularly with updates of progress. As the Center for Creative Leadership puts it, “Good coaching challenges assumptions, provides space for reflection, and gives safety for exploration and innovation.” 

Looking for a mentor can be slightly more tricky, as you’d have to rely on your networking and communication skills to find one. Like in the case of coaching, you need to put in the effort and always be on your toes to make the most of the sessions with your mentor.

Whichever option you choose, the key is to be proactive and always willing to work on yourself.