Do you know the difference between a coach and a mentor? Both are increasingly popular forms of supportive guidance, but there are key differences. Knowing which you are looking for will save you valuable time and money, as well as helping you increase the chances of your being satisfied with the services you receive. You don’t ask a French chef to bake you churros, n’est ce pas?
I actually see coaching and mentoring as two points along a spectrum that goes from psychotherapist to trainer.
Trainers are most directly skill focused. They teach you how to do something in order to fulfill a specific job function. The communication is almost completely one way, from “expert” to “trainee.” The only questions you ask are ones directly related to your understanding of the material they have decided you need to know. The only questions they will ask you are those meant to determine how thoroughly you have mastered the material they believe you should know in order to be considered competent in the field.
Teachers are similar to trainers in that they come with a pre-prepared curriculum representing what their expertise tells them you need to know for competency, but they are more holistically involved in teaching you not just this material, but how to learn in general. They use the material both to impart direct knowledge and the ability to acquire new knowledge after the student’s time with them is done.
Mentors also impart direct knowledge of the field they are supporting clients in. Notice for the first time now we are talking about clients instead of trainees or students. Professional mentoring, unlike “Big Brothers, Big Sisters” type of mentoring, is generally a more collaborative relationship in which the client holds buying power. The mentor is still clearly the expert and the client the one who is to receive knowledge and guidance, but the mentor is also aware that the client has set some goals of their own, and that it is the mentor’s job to either help them achieve those goals or help them develop better goals that they will help them achieve.
Mentors tend to be directive, much like teachers, but they also bring in some of the coaching/counseling end of the spectrum in how they work collaboratively with those they are helping. They learn the client’s aims, then leverage their own vast knowledge of the field to accelerate their client’s progress toward success. They may even connect the client with valuable resources (people, places and things) they have at their own disposal that would benefit the client. This is often an ongoing relationship for a certain life/ business development period.
Consultants are even farther along the spectrum toward coach/counselor. Like mentors, they come with some very specific knowledge and resources that they impart directly to their clients, but their is a much more significant aspect of collaboration, goal clarification, motivation examination, and analysis of where the client is getting stuck beyond just their lack of “know how” in the field they are working in. Both the how and the why are considered, with a goal of delivering meaningful results, in a measurable way, within a contained period of time.
Often the work is done on a project or program basis, where there are clear deliverables agreed to in advance, and then the consultant marshals all the skills, resources and talents they have to work creatively with the client to achieve those results. You tend to know when you’re done, and can then decide whether to pursue another goal, transition to mentoring, or end the relationship as “needs fulfilled.”
In addition to communicating expertise like the other professionals in this article, consultants will also do some part of the work for you, depending on the type of consultant they are. For example, an implementation consultant will analyze your current business process, design the technical solution to achieve client objectives, then implement the new technology for the client and re-train their workforce to do their jobs in the new and better way. In my small business consulting work, I sometimes help clients set up websites, online shopping carts, etc. or secure good marketing or operations help. A consultant’s goal is to collaborate with clients however necessary to achieve program/project objectives.
Coaches focus much more on motivation, inspiration and emotional support in achieving goals that are largely set by the client. They may know nothing about the client’s field, which for what they are doing can actually be a benefit, since they are less likely to transition the conversation from a search for understanding to the presentation of solutions. Consultants get paid for solutions. Coaches get paid for insightful questions and carefully timed inspirational interjections.
Coaching can be goal oriented, but is often more open-ended, depending on the type of coaching you are receiving. A life coach may work with you for years on various parts of life satisfaction. A business coach may work with you until you feel your business is standing on its own two feet. A business coach is less likely than a business consultant to teach you how to make a business successful based on what they know about what has made other businesses fail or succeed.
The coach is more focused on drawing out your knowledge and internal resources than on helping you figure out how to outsource some of your workload, get funding, document your processes, or sell your business. Both will first help you clarify how big you want your business to get and whether you want to someday sell it or stay involved indefinitely as your life’s passion.
Counselors are just a step away from therapists or coaches. They are not as achievement oriented as a coach, where goals tend to focus on worldly accomplishments. Counselors are much more oriented toward solving problems than creating desired futures.
When you move to a new city and are having a hard time adjusting, and the kids are acting out, and your mate hasn’t got time for you because they are in a new and more demanding job, you probably want a counselor. They will have insight into what people in that situation are often facing, and will be able to share information with you from their expertise, while also helping you to express your emotions, so that the energy can begin to transform and release. This will then allow you the inner strength you need to meet the challenges you face emotionally, and apply the techniques and solutions the counselor presents to see if they create the resolutions you desire.
Therapists are also more problem focused, like counselors, but they are the least likely to offer much guidance or advice of any kind. There are different schools of counseling theory, but for the most part, the current norm in the field is to put the onus on the client/patient to do the talking. The therapist tends to ask questions more than they make comments. Comments tend to be designed to confirm clear understanding by the therapist of what the client/patient is saying.
Notice I say client/patient. That is because the relationship moves back toward a dichotomy between “knower” and “searching” in many forms of therapy, though certainly not all. Some therapists will refer to the people they see as clients and some will refer to them as patients, depending on the theories they are operating from of what brings health.
Unlike the situational problems the counselor deals with, the therapist is brought in for deep-seated mental structures that are undermining the client’s life, and which may have been there since childhood. These structures are part of the client’s core identity, and so resistant to change, bringing up survival issues when even confronted. A great deal of training, experience and skill is needed to help clients truly heal, change, and grow through therapy, and it tends to be a longer term relationship (often 5-10 years).
I’ve presented each of these points along the spectrum in isolation for the sake of clarifying the core of each, but in practice, people tend to merge at least a couple of them together. Consultants often wind up doing a lot of coaching, because they find that clients sometimes lack the faith in themselves needed to see an objective through without encouragement from someone they respect that they are in fact worthy and capable of success. Coaches over time develop lots of experience with a certain problem and share those insights/resources the way a consultant would. And so on.
I have done each of these jobs over the last 20 years (except teaching), and definitely draw from all of them, according to what my intuition tells me the person before me most needs right then. The point of creating spectrums isn’t to pigeonhole people, but rather to clarify different ways of relating, and the strengths of each. That way when you are looking for someone to help you, you can organize your search around people intending to primarily work the way you are looking to be helped.
And if you are a professional just entering one of these fields, this will help you clarify what skill set you are drawing from, so that you can be more intentional about what you are doing. This will also assist you with continuing education. If you are a life coach and find that your clients often require the skills of a counselor, for example, you may want to either pursue education in that field or develop referral partnerships with those specialists, instead of trying to fill a role that you are not trained to fulfill. The more you understand the various skill sets of the “self-actualization” field, the more competent a professional you can be.
Indigo Ocean Dutton, MA
Conscious Business Development Consultant at Awaken Business Consulting and Aspiratech.net. Indigo is a prolific entrepreneur and author with an MA in Counseling Psychology. She worked several years in the field as both a therapist and counselor, and has also worked as a behavioral health specialist, technical trainer, and business consultant. Indigo founded the Aspiratech corporate business technology consulting firm and the Phone Buddies Peer Counseling community, among other enterprises. Indigo specializes in helping introverts and other highly sensitive people financially succeed in their businesses in a manner that sustainably fits their personalities and ends their sense of overwhelm. She is the author of “Micro Habits for Major Happiness” and “Being Bliss.”