Why Your Mentoring Could Be Hurting — Not Helping — Your Team

Coaching and mentoring are not the same thing, and not knowing the difference could be hurting your business

Good leaders like to think of themselves as mentors and coaches for the people on their teams. But, they may not realize one very important point: Mentoring and coaching are entirely different things, and serve different purposes for different people.

What’s more, if you mentor someone who should be coached — or vice versa — you could be hurting their career growth. If you’re an entrepreneur, this means you’re hurting the growth of your business.

Want to make sure you’re taking the right approach with the people you lead? These tips will help.

• Understand the difference.

Coaching and mentoring are often used as interchangeable terms, but they are very different. Picture the words “teach,” “advise” and “show.” Those all define the actions of a mentor. A mentor teaches specific things, provides answers, gives advice based on their experiences and expertise, and shows their mentees how to do things the way they would do them.

The actions of a coach, on the other hand, bring these words to mind: Guide. Support. Empower. A coach guides someone to come up with their own solutions and make choices. They build on what the coachee already knows, using their experience and knowledge to help cultivate the coachee’s independent thinking.

• Understand when it is right to mentor, and when it is right to coach.

The best time to mentor an employee is when they need knowledge that only you can provide: When they are new to a company or job; when they have to learn a new skill and you are the “expert” who can teach that skill; or when they lack the ability or confidence to perform a specific task.

A person is ready for coaching when they’ve already got a solid handle on their job and its expectations. When they need help, a coach steps in to provide more than just instruction. A coach asks the right questions, helping the coachee explore an issue and discover the solution for themselves.

Think of it this way: A mentor provides an employee with a foundation of knowledge. A coach helps them discover how to use that foundation.

• Talk the talk.

Mentors and coaches use different language, and it’s important to know how to communicate in each role.

A mentor gives direct feedback and instruction — “This is what I want you to do,” or “I had a similar problem, here’s how I handled it,” or “You should do this.”

A coach, on the other hand, asks questions instead of making statements. Open-ended questions like, “What would a win look like for you in this situation?” and “How do you plan on moving forward?” These types of questions help the coach determine what information the coachee is missing, and helps the coachee make discoveries for themselves.

A good rule of thumb is the 80/20 rule: In every coaching interaction, the coach should only speak 20 percent of the time, while the coachee should spend 80 percent of the time talking — exploring, analyzing, discovering.

• Understand why it’s important to know the difference.

Some leaders fall into a familiar trap: They mentor the people on their teams, but never transition out of that role. They are excessively hands-on, micromanaging, treating their employees as if they don’t know how to do their jobs. This can lead employees to feel frustrated and demotivated, like their managers don’t trust them. They might think they’ll never be entrusted with further responsibilities and that their growth is stunted.

A coaching approach, on the other hand, builds confidence in employees and fosters trust in the relationship.

If you’re an entrepreneurial leader, the “permanent mentor” trap can be especially damaging. In the early stages of your business, you tend to do it all. But as your business grows, the size of your team does as well. That team needs to be developed to be as strong as you are — if not stronger.

It’s in this case that it’s even more crucial to embrace a coaching mentality. Mentorship is still important when your direct guidance is needed. But always make it the goal to transition to a coaching mentality. This allows entrepreneurs to let go and allow their team, and their business, to grow.