Coach & Mentor; How & Why

There is a subtle contrast between coaching and mentoring.  On one hand a coach teaches the specifics of something, or how things need to get done. While on the other side, a mentor focuses on why you should (or have to) do things.  It would be tempting to say these two archetypes are just different sides of the same coin but I believe this would be an oversimplification.  I think there is more value in seeing coaching and mentoring as two distinct skills that overlap and complement each other, not as a binary role that is either off or on.

Because a coach teaches you how to do something the lessons are often very task focused.  This breaks down further to include what you need to do the task, when it needs to be done, and where it needs to be accomplished.  The mentor contrasts this by teaching you why it’s important to know these things in the first place.  For example, tying knots is a fairly simple task that a coach can teach you the basics of.  In very little time you could understand the fundamentals of hitches and bites… but why even make the effort.  The role of the mentor is to convince you that knowing these knots in the first place is an important skill to have.  Maybe your coach is a search and rescue team member who uses compelling stories about high risk rescues that required the use of the knots you are learning?   Now the coach is also filling the role of the mentor by imparting the skill and helping you understand why you need it.  I learned how to tie a one-handed figure eight on a bite because of this coach and mentor experience I had when I was 16 years old in the Sierra Nevadas outside of Truck, and it has paid off more than once as I’ve traveled around the world.  I was lucky enough to learn from a coach that was also subtly mentoring me.

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A coach’s power is derived from their expertise in the field of instruction, while a mentor’s power  is built from the level of trust established in the relationship.  When these two sources of power are combined there is great potential power to influence someone’s actions and beliefs.  By combining the coaching and mentoring processes we are able to more fully empower people with the skills they need and the proper motivation to practices, refine, and grow their personal Skill Tree.

I would argue that for any lasting learning to take place there needs to be both coaching and mentoring.   There has been a great deal of discussion in leadership circles about the best way to engage people within these coaching and mentoring relationships.  One of my favorite perspectives comes from Simon Sinek and his concept of Start with Why, and in an ideal situation starting with why can build a very strong foundation.  But I have also found, in my own experience, that sometimes starting with what needs to be done and how it can be done will open the door to a deeper more reliable why.  It absolutely can become a “what comes first” scenario.  To avoid this just remember that learning what to do enables you to take action, which is required to be successful, while on the other hand understanding your why will increase your motivation to take action… but lacking the skill to actual do the task will lead to failure.  Bottom line: they are not mutually exclusive so pursue both.

What are you thoughts?  I would love to hear from you.  Come on over to our closed facebook discussion group to share your insights.  Or you can email me directly at  You can also sign up to receive The Friday Huddle, a short weekly email from me that gives you the tips, insights, and musings that have gotten me through the week.

Live Skillfully




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