Everyone should avail themselves of coaching and mentoring.  The question then is when you need a coach or a mentor.  A simple checklist will help the decision-making process, and at the same time help to make a clear distinction between what you should expect from a mentor or a coach.  The seven yes/no questions can be used to distinguish between whether you need a mentor or coach are:

  1.      Do you need to work on a specific problem area or behavior?

Coaches typically address specific problems. For example, how can we make our retrospectives more productive?  Mentors will typically take a broader and more diffuse approach.

  1.      Is there a need for an immediate tactical improvement in performance?

If Lebron James, Stephen Curry, or  Cristiano Ronaldo need to make a change in their game for the next match, they are going to get a coach.  Coaches address the here and now, mentors take a longer-term view.  For example, a coach can help a leader learn to run a storytelling session to generate user stories. On the other hand, a mentor can help a leader with leadership style or the direction of their career.

  1.      Is the behavior or area being changed measurable in the short-term?

Coaches will focus on collecting immediate feedback to ensure that change is occurring and so they can help the person or persons they are coaching adapt. For example, a coach helping a team meet their iteration/sprint commitments will be able to measure the impact of changes the team agrees to make.  A mentor helping a mentee with growing as a leader over time will have far less to tangibly measure. Mentors, because they are taking the long view, will have access to less short-term feedback.  This also means that both coaches and coachees can and should agree on the impact of the proposed change and agree to be held accountable for those changes.

  1.      Does a team or group need to address a performance issue?

Coaches can provide input and feedback to groups. For example, the offensive linemen on my local American football team has a coach that works with them on techniques. Coaches are often engaged to help teams or sub-teams get better at specific aspects of their job.  Mentorship is almost always based on forming a personal relationship between two people to change the larger trajectory of their career or life.

  1.      Is the need for transactional help?

Coaches provide transactional support.  Examples of coaches providing transactional support can include all of the scrum ceremonies, leadership, team, and personal interactions.   The transactional nature of coaching is similar to the specific area question but highlights the fact that when a coach addresses the issue they move on to something else. Mentoring is based on a longer term relationship and the overall trajectory a person is following. 

  1.       Is there a need for real-time feedback to change behavior?

Coaches react to inputs as they happen (or in as nearly real-time as possible). The agile mantra “inspect and adapt” is a coaching mantra, not a mentor’s mantra.

  1.      Is the needed input job focused? 

Mentors typically address the whole person inside and outside a specific job and on a longer-term arc. Coaches address job-specific behaviors.

In many cases mentoring and coaching are conflated leading to a confusion in the roles or confusion when the coach or mentor changes behavior.  The distinction should be more clear-cut.  If you can answer the seven questions with a strong yes, you are looking for a coach.  While you might hire a coach on a long-term basis, even in this case they are delivering specific help, transactionally over a long period of time.    I recently saw an ad on a major business social media site suggesting that people could sign up and buy mentoring in 15-minute increments.  I suspect that someone confused the word mentor with the word coach.

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