Coaching v Mentoring

By | August 14, 2014

Reading David Lowe’s excellent post The Rowing Coach, got me thinking about the differences between a coach and a mentor, and the role someone like an Agile Coach or Scrum Master may take when working with teams or organisations. Should they purely be a coach, solely be a mentor, or some combination of the two?

Doing a quick poll of Google showed me that there was no real consensus out there as to the definitions of these two terms.

From my experiences, and from talking to other coaches, a coach works with individuals or groups to help them identify and achieve their goals. It is assumed that the people being coached, whether they’re an individual or a group, already have the knowledge about how the goal can be achieved and the Coach’s role is to take them through a line of questioning to get them to articulate these steps. This is done without the coach influencing or giving their own opinion on the subject.

Taking the example of the Rowing Coach, where the team want to ideally row faster, the coach asked “What could be better, Ellie?”. In a development team, where the team want to get to Continuous Delivery for example, the team’s Scrum Master or Coach may ask “What steps need to be taken to get to that desired outcome?” In both instances it is clear to see that it is assumed that the coachee has the knowledge, and that they will be able to articulate what needs to happen, in order for them to get closer to or even indeed achieve their goal.

In my opinion a coach only needs to be an expert in coaching and not necessarily an expert in the subject.

A mentor, however, is usually a subject matter expert and provides guidance and possibly some direction to the group or individuals. This could also be in relation to the mentee achieving their goal but this is not always the case. This can be seen as the mentor giving advice based on their knowledge and previous experiences.

So going back to the Rowing Coach, from his previous rowing experience the coach says “It’s good here, here and here … but we could flatten this out”. Likewise, if we go back to our team looking to get to Continuous Delivery, a team coach might say something on the lines of “We need to focus on our test automation strategy, so that when we are releasing more frequently we are confident that our software is reliable”.

So in my mind, while the differences between the two maybe subtle, there is a distinction between coaching and a mentoring. However I don’t think we as Agile Coaches or Scrum Masters should get hung up if we are giving advice (mentoring) to our teams or organisations as opposed to purely coaching them. A healthy balance between asking coaching style questions and providing guidance based on previous experiences will ensure that teams move effectively towards meeting their goals. The key is to work out in which situations to coach and in which situations to mentor.

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