Mentor or Business Coach?

Exploring the Vital Distinctions
by Dina Emser

While business coaching is seen as a fairly recent phenomenon, mentoring has been around for a long time. The first reference to the term “mentor” is in Homer’s Odyssey. Mentor was the name of Odysseus’ friend who he left to protect and teach his son, Telemachus, when he went to Troy. A mentor is a trusted guide or advisor who is sometimes older but always more experienced, and is willing to help another individual develop his or her knowledge and skills.

In order to be effective, mentors must be confident in their own expertise and bring as much interest and commitment to the relationship as the mentee does. Typically, mentoring relationships are voluntary, and money is not exchanged. The payoff for the mentor is the good feeling of helping someone else along on his or her professional path.

Many of us have experienced the supportive feeling of having a mentor, even if it was not a formal relationship. Think of a person in your life who was encouraging to you, someone you looked up to and respected, or someone you aspired to be like. It may have been your parent or the parent of a close friend, a teacher, a coach, or a supervisor or boss. Mentors give us examples to model ourselves after, and many times, they guide us specifically with a skill set we need in order to be successful.

There are many groups that specialize in providing mentors to business professionals, but there are also groups who mentor students, women and young people in leadership. Some examples include Big Brothers Big Sisters, who match up young people with adult mentors. The Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) provides resources for small businesses including mentoring conversations and business articles. Women in Leadership and the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) both have local chapters in Peoria and provide an informal platform for women to connect with others who have more advanced skills and experience in leadership and business. There is no certification required to be a mentor, although there are numerous books and articles that can give mentors information about how to increase their effectiveness with the assignment.

Coaching began to show up in the public arena in the mid ‘90s. It borrows from the fields of humanistic psychology and philosophy, and has traces of mentoring, consulting and counseling. Coaching builds on what is known about motivation and behavioral change, but rather than focus on pathology, coaching seeks to build on what is healthy and productive in people as a foundation for creating a meaningful life. 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.”

Unlike mentors who are typically asked to mentor someone as a “side-by-side” process of doing their own daily work, coaches often work independently of organizations and can work with individuals, workplace teams or groups. A coaching relationship is usually a paid arrangement by which the client pays a fee to the coach for some number of in-person or phone meetings for a number of months. Corporations such as IBM, Boeing and Deloitte & Touche have seen the benefits of coaching and developed programs with internal and external coaches who provide ongoing support for executives and employees at all levels.

A coach, unlike a mentor, does not need to have specific expertise in the business or profession of the client. The coach uses experience and knowledge of a process of inquiry and powerful questions that encourage the client to understand that they have choices, and that they may choose how they will respond rather than react to their personal situations. Reacting relies on a set of behaviors that we have been socialized to use since childhood, and often no longer serve us as adults. Responding comes from a more purposeful place where we get to look at the current situation and choose a response that feels more helpful and expansive. When people have choice, they feel ownership and power. With feelings of ownership and power, they have more energy to move themselves forward towards their goals in ways that also honor their values and uniqueness. Coaching is a holistic approach, which seeks to help people function at their best.

Other differences in the processes of mentoring and coaching are the ways in which listening occurs and power is shared. A mentor listens through her own filter of life and professional experience. After all, the mentee is expressly interested in the mentor’s perspective—that’s why the relationship exists. The mentee seeks advice and the mentor gives it. There is inherent in this arrangement a one-up and one-down difference in power.

A coach listens in a global way, not only for what is being said, but also for what is not being said. Rather than seek to connect to her own personal experience, the coach listens to connect what the client is saying to something that has been shared in the past, or to a client’s strengths, or perhaps values. A coach listens to hear what perspective the client is currently holding about a particular event or decision. She may then ask questions to expand the possible ways the client could respond. The ideas and knowledge come from the client, not the coach. In this way, the two are equal. The client is the expert of his or her own life. The coach brings expertise about the process of coaching. Each has equal power to propel the relationship forward. A coach partners with the client to navigate change and to go for greatness in any and all areas of his or her life. Although a coach may sometimes have an experience that relates to that of the client, it is not the coach’s job to give advice.

In 1999, when coaching was in its infancy, there were three organizations that were initially sanctioned by the International Coach Federation as accredited coach training programs. Today there are around 55 or 60. Many professionals call themselves coaches, or list coaching as one of their services, but it’s always a good idea to ask a prospective coach where they received training and whether or not they are certified. Coaches specialize in many areas as well, so if it is important to you that your coach understand your training and background, you can probably find someone with that experience. As with a good mentor, a personal referral is a great way to find a business or personal coach who will be a good fit for you.

Great mentors and coaches help others achieve their goals, practice the skills required to advance in their careers, grow their self-awareness, and create great lives. Both are incredibly valuable, and although their focus is different, anyone would be lucky to experience the best of both worlds. iBi

Dina Emser is a professional development coach who was trained and
certified by The Coaches Training Institute in 1999, and is a member of the International Coach Federation. Her website is dinaemser.com, and she can be reached at
dina@dinaemser.com.

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