My first coach was hired for me before I knew anything about coaching. Because I was constantly upsetting the status quo, my bosses couldn’t figure out what to do with me.
I seemed to break all the rules put in front of me, and when my mentors at the time tried to provide me with a one-size-fits-all solution to my problems, I could never get excited about executing on their suggestions.
But my coach was different. My coach asked me powerful questions, waited to hear what I thought the solutions were, then dared me to go out and do that thing, even if it had never been done before. When I shared with her that I had a fear of public speaking and standing in front of the room, she forced me to grow and take responsibility for my own experiment to get over my fear, trying out different tactics until I landed on something that worked.
In this way, I blazed through the upper limit of what I (and my mentors) thought was possible, reaching new heights while inventing a new set of rules.
Mentoring and coaching are not the same, though they can be frequently confused by managers and HR in companies today. Each has its unique place supporting leaders and it is important to draw a clear difference between the two.
Mentors primarily help by sharing their past experience – what worked and what didn’t – to inform decisions today. When you work with a mentor, you are likely benefiting from the wisdom of someone who has gone before you and will tell you what they did to succeed.
Right now, leaders are navigating uncharted territory. This year alone, it’s estimated that 1.7MB of data will be created every second for every person on earth. Imagine that: With so much data at our fingertips, global companies are now facing unprecedented challenges while asked to solve some of the world’s most complex problems. Most of the experts or mentors we would look to for guidance simply haven’t been up against these challenges.
In other words, what got us here won’t get us there.
Enter coaching. The coach’s primary job is to help the leader find a way to be the most productive, highest-potential version of themselves. In whatever sector or business, the goal is the same: Arm the leader with vital, cross-situational skills to activate their full potential and help them perform no matter what challenges come their way.
Coaching is about up-leveling the person and their thinking – not fixing the problem.
Google’s Eric Schmidt, when describing Bill Campbell – one of Silicon Valley’s greatest coaches – in his book Trillion Dollar Coach said: “Bill didn’t work the problem first, he worked for the team. We didn’t talk about the problem analytically. We talked about the people on the team and if they could get it done.”
Great leaders need both mentors and coaches. Mentors will tell you what worked for them. Coaches will develop your thinking and help you get to the next level of leadership. A coach will challenge you to get clear about what works for your current environment, and a mentor will tell you about what worked in the past, or in similar situations.
So when do you need a mentor and when do you need a coach?
With coaching, you are required to generate the answer for yourself first. When you are asked to find your own answer – instead of getting a ready-made solution from a mentor (or book or a boss) – you can make powerful choices that are grounded in experience and learn from your own mistakes.
The business world we find ourselves in today is disruptive, constantly changing, and dynamic. It requires we draw on leadership resources like coaches to help us get better at powerful decision making. We are all now embedded in new and chaotic territory, building complex solutions that have never existed before. Make sure you have a coach in your corner before doubling down on a mentor. Ideally, you’re lucky enough to have both.