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The Wise Sage and the Trail Guide: Executive Coaching vs. Mentoring

Both mentors and executive coaches can have profound impacts on their clients. However, the two function in very different ways. If an executive coach begins to function as a mentor, clients lose the benefit of having an executive coach who asks powerful questions. And, if a mentor functions as an executive coach, the mentor is not providing the mentorship that they agreed to provide. It is essential for executive coaches and mentors to understand what their role is, and what it is not, to ensure they have the greatest impact on others. What is the difference between executive coaching and mentoring, and how can coaches and mentors ensure they are performing their best in their respective roles?

The Sage and the Trail Guide

To identify the differences and commonalities between mentoring and coaching, it is essential to understand the roles of each profession.

Mentoring: The Trail Guide

“One of the greatest values of mentors is the ability to see ahead what others cannot see and to help them navigate a course to their destination.” - John C. Maxwell

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) defines mentoring as “an informal association focused on building a two-way, mutually beneficial relationship for long-term career movement” (Reitman & Benatt, 2021). Mentoring is often between two individuals within the same organization and has an emphasis on the mentor giving the mentee “advice on professional development,” “career goals,” and “work-life balance” (ATD, n.d.). Mentoring is the elder advising the grasshopper. It’s receiving direction and guidance from a mentor who has already been where the mentee wants to go and can advise them on how to get there. The mentor functions much like a trail guide would for a hiker. The trail guide has already walked that exact trail, knows what steps to take, and can give exact directions and advice to a hiker.

Executive Coaching: The Wise Sage

“Coaching is releasing a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.” - Sir John Whitmore

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential” (ICF, n.d.). The ICF outlines in their core competencies that executive coaches help their clients “build on” their own “ideas and suggestions,” ask powerful questions, evoke discovery or action, increase clarity, and encourage movement towards their goals.

Executive coaches help their clients find the root causes of their challenges through reflection, question asking, and insights. They also help clients create action plans. The executive coach does not directly advise the coachee, but rather asks questions, provides insight, and encourages reflection. This helps their clients identify how they can get to their goals and overcome their own challenges. In this way, an executive coach is much like a wise sage, helping a leader overcome their challenges. While they may have not have faced the exact same challenges as the leader, they know what questions to ask to guide the leader towards greater insights and solutions instead of offering specific advice like the mentoring trail guide. While the trail guide directs, the sage teaches and inspires.

Differences between mentors and executive coaches

Previous experience

Mentors and mentees are often from within the same organization (ATD, n.d.). Mentors have walked the exact path that their mentee wants to walk and have often accomplished very similar if not identical career goals.

Executive coaches, however, are often hired from outside of the organization for business leaders. While experience as a CEO or business leader is especially beneficial for executive coaches, it is not mandatory for an executive coach to have experience in the exact same industry as their client. Instead, a basic understanding of business and executive leadership is necessary (Stanaland, 2021).

For example, a mentor with experience in the oil and gas industry would need a mentee who wishes to succeed in the oil and gas industry. However, an executive coach with ample training and experience in the medical industry can coach a business leader from a variety of different industries. Mentors function like a trail guide who knows the exact trail well. According to Carol Wilson, mentors act “as people who impart their own experience, learning, and advice to those who have less experience in the particular field” (n.d.). On the other hand, executive coaches are like the wise sage that asks questions, inspiring a leader to find solutions unique to their client’s industry and situation.

Diving deep

Mentors and mentees focus on goals that have already been identified prior to the mentoring relationship (Reitman & Bennet, 2021). Unlike mentors, executive coaches are able to dive deeper into their clients’ goals (or lack thereof) and find their root source of challenge or inspiration. Dr. Robin Buckley states in his 2021 article that executive coaches help business leaders “articulate and refine” their goals and dreams often by asking questions to help their clients identify their genuine goals and vision for their future. Like the sage that encourages others to examine the reasoning behind their behaviors and their goals, the executive coach helps identify the purpose and goals of a business leader. The mentor, like a trail guide, works with previously established goals and ambitions, helping the leader reach the trailhead.

“A coach has some great questions for your answers; a mentor has some great answers for your questions.” - Unknown

Giving advice

Because mentors have very similar if not identical experiences to their mentees, their primary role is to give advice and information to their mentees. The Association for Talent Development states that mentors “provide information” and make “suggestions” to their clients, helping them achieve identified goals.

Executive coaches avoid giving advice and instead focus on asking questions and “providing guidance and tools” (Germond, 2021). The International Coaching Federation explains that a core competency of a successful executive coach is asking “questions that reveal the information needed for maximum benefit.” These questions are meant to increase clients’ clarity and encourage them to identify their own solutions to their challenges (ICF, 2021). Instead of giving advice, executive coaches encourage their clients to “explore” their own “ideas and solutions” increasing insight and understanding. If both the mentor and executive coach were advising a hiker, the mentor would offer advice as a trail guide saying, “If you go left you will reach the trailhead in 1 mile. If you go right you will reach a different trailhead in about 2.5 miles” and the executive coach, like a wise sage, would ask, “What are your goals on this hike? What do you know about this trail and how can you use what you know to bring you closer to your goal?”

Similarities between mentors and executive coaches

Connection building

Both executive coaches and mentors offer their clients opportunities to connect and network with others. In many coaching circles, peer advisory groups are used. In these groups, business leaders are able to meet other leaders in their area of specialty and expand their network while also supporting their growth and strategic leadership skills (EWF International, 2020). In mentoring relationships, mentors can offer their mentees “new networking opportunities” within the mentor and mentees shared “field of expertise” (Enekwizu, 2019). This allows the mentee to become acquainted with other executives that are in different areas within an organization (Reitman & Bennett, 2021).

“Mentor and coach others whenever you can. Your teaching will deepen your own learning.” - Lee. J. Colan

Mutual learning

As a mentor works with their mentee, the mentor strengthens their leadership and interpersonal skills (ATD, n.d.). According to David A. Helfer, President of Career Coaching Firm Illumination From Within LLC, mentors learn “new approaches and perspectives” from their mentees while also reinforcing “previously learned leadership skills” (n.d.).

As an executive coach coaches their clients, they learn more about the latest challenges and circumstances in the corporate world. Executive coaches must also continue to learn whilst coaching. The best executive coaches adopt the stance of a lifetime learner. This means that while they are increasing their client’s knowledge and insight through questions and conversation, they are also increasing their own knowledge bank through literature, research, and training programs. Executive coaches have a commitment to lifelong learning and they “never stop learning…about current business trends, how to help leaders tackle issues, and develop their own abilities as a coach” (Vistage Staff, n.d.). Like a trail guide that reinforces his knowledge and develops his communication skills by leading trailblazers through known trails, a mentor also establishes his own leadership and interpersonal skills. Like the wise sage that learns about the changing world around him/her, the executive coach maintains knowledge about the changing challenges of business leaders today.

“I absolutely believe that people, unless coached, never reach their maximum capabilities.” - Bob Nardelli

Desiring development

Executive coaches and mentors alike help their clients develop their careers. Although they do this in different ways, the primary goal of both leaders is to help others. The Association for Talent Development classifies executive coaching as a “powerful development tool” (ATD, n.d.).

As a wise sage, the executive coach helps the business leader develop their goals and create their own practical solutions through powerful questioning and discussion. Like the trail guide that offers direction, the mentor offers their own advice based on experience to lead the hiker down the trail successfully. Dr. Phillips-Jones states in her Skills for Successful Mentoring article that “effective mentors encourage their mentees, which in turn helps increase the mentees’ confidence and enables them to develop” (2003).

Executive Coaching vs. Mentoring Comparison

The main takeaway

While both executive coaches and mentors seek to build their clients up, help them attain their goals, assist in developing their careers, and increase their knowledge, executive coaches and mentors do so in different ways. While executive coaches function like a wise sage that guides leaders to greater insight through powerful questioning, the mentor functions as a trail guide offering their advice based on their own experiences.

Executive coaches ask questions and clarify goals. Mentors offer advice on achieving previously established goals. This difference in role and strategy is important for executive coaches, mentors, and business leaders to acknowledge. Knowing these key differences can help executive coaches and mentors provide the most accurate and high-impact services to their clients. For business leaders, knowing the differences and similarities between coaching and mentoring can help them choose a service that will meet their needs best.

“Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.” - John C. Crosby

“Coaching is the universal language of change and learning.” - CNN


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