Overrated Mentors, Underrated Coaches

Mentoring and coaching often get thrown into one bucket. On the surface they sound pretty similar; practices that help people make progress. 

However, go down a layer or two and there are a host of differences (I wrote about these here).

Broadly speaking, mentors are people who have trodden a similar path to the one currently facing the mentee. They’re often successful people who are in a position to dispense wisdom, advice, and guidance.

A lot of people are seeking mentors. But mentoring has a few big problems associated with it.

First, it’s hugely inefficient. It doesn’t scale. And while this is a challenge for many kinds of professional services, the issue with mentoring is two-fold: mentors tend to be successful, busy people with pressures and constraints on their time and just don’t have the capacity to mentor all the people who want to be their mentee; and the mentoring relationship almost always needs to be 1:1 to be effective. Thus, there’s a big supply issue.

Second, it’s an unbalanced exchange – some of the best mentor/mentee relationships are two way, in that both people take on both roles, but generally they’ll be one way. There’s no problem with this in itself, but because of the first problem, the mentor is going to have to choose who to mentor. If, as is likely, she chooses the brightest and the best, where does that leave everyone else who’s in need?

Third, people who are successful aren’t often very good at teaching those who aren’t. Not many of them use or possess teaching or coaching skills. If you wanted to improve your running technique, would you hire a well-known athlete like Usain Bolt, or his far less-known coach?

By now you may be thinking the answer is to avoid mentors and hire a coach instead. Coaches have more capacity, can work across a broader range of needs, and are well positioned to set people up for success.

Perhaps. But bear in mind that these are totally different skill sets. 

Mentors have been there, done it, experienced success first hand.

Coaches know how to guide people towards the behaviors, routines, and mindsets to find that success. But they may not have experienced it directly themselves. They may not have been players in the game.

A healthy dose of skepticism helps when choosing on either side (whether looking past brand and signaling value of a mentor, or a coach not being able to walk the talk), but my take is that for the vast majority of people coaching is going to be more immediately impactful, actionable and accessible than finding a mentor.

In either case, how do we know if someone is worth working with as a mentor or a coach?

Here’s one simple heuristic.

They’ve done good work themselves, or the people they’ve mentored, guided, taught or coached have done good work.

Even better? Both.

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