Do I need a mentor or a coach?

Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

All kinds of interesting topics are sparked each week in the Buffer Slack Community. The other day, SEO guru and all around amazing human Areej AbuAli asked a question that really got me thinking:

“What’s the difference between a mentor and a coach? Yup, I know there are tons of articles on that but what’s your personal experience on it and how does one know which one they need?”

Early in my career, I had read dozens of blog articles about the power of mentorship. Naturally, I came to the conclusion that I had to have a mentor to have any chance of success. “Get a mentor” was now on my to-do list!

Over a casual dinner, I outright asked a woman I admired, “Will you be my mentor?”

It didn’t go as I had planned.

Neither one of us knew exactly what I meant, and there ended up being a lot of pressure on both sides. Looking back, we were better off as friendly acquaintances who casually discussed challenges at work once in awhile. I learned it’s ok to admire what a powerhouse woman is up to in her career without jumping into a mentorship relationship.

Further into my career, I landed on seeking out informal mentorship with people in my network and saved the structured business growth for paid coaches. I have worked with three coaches so far. Two of the coaches made a huge impact on my life. I realized the third coach was not a fit after four one-hour sessions. I chalked it up to a learning lesson, and there was no long-term contract.

To answer Areej’s question about how to know when to seek out a coach versus a mentor, I shared my experiences and noted what I felt was the difference between the two:

After reading my thoughts, Areej had a fantastic follow-up question:

“How do you approach mentors and ask them to ‘be your mentor’ if it is more of an informal process?”

First, I shared about my experience from the mentor side. Then, I shared what it has been like as a mentee.

Mentor

All of the mentoring I do today comes via meetings with founders at two startup accelerators I mentor for in the United States. These founders don’t have to hunt for mentors – they are given introductions straight away as members of the programs. Pretty awesome, right? As a mentor, I typically meet with founders 1–3 times during their 3-month cohort for 30-minute Zoom calls.

Pre-meeting, I like to be sure I understand why I am the right person to help with a specific challenge the founder is facing. If a founder says they want to talk broadly about marketing, I ask for more details so I can come prepared for the meeting. I always want to make sure we end the call with action items that will impact their business immediately.

I’ll say something like:

“Let’s meet for 30 minutes to see how far we can get. Take a look at my LinkedIn profile to see if any experience I have stands out to you. I can share more about it on the call. When it comes to marketing, what are two specific challenges keeping you up at night that you’d like us to focus on? That way, I can come prepared with ideas to make the best use of our time.”

Asking these questions pre-meeting takes a bit of extra time for both parties, but I find the calls are much more productive all around. I recently decided to no longer take non-paid, “general” calls with those seeking my broad advice. If an entrepreneur isn’t willing to be specific or I’m not clear on why we are having the meeting, I won’t take the call.

Mentee

When I have approached someone I would like to talk through a business challenge with, I ask for 20–30 minutes of their time and share the specific problem I am facing. I avoid phrases like “picking their brain” or “getting coffee to chat.” I let them know I respect their time and why I think they would be the best person in my network to help with the problem at hand. Being direct and clear aligns expectations straight away. People want to feel helpful rather than walking away from a visit feeling like nothing was accomplished — except an empty coffee mug :)

If it’s helpful, here’s a quick script to structure your ask:

“I see you have x experience. Can we meet for y minutes to chat through z problem I am facing?”

Today, it’s clear to me the times I would benefit from working with a coach versus moments when a meeting with someone who has been in my shoes––a mentor. If I aim to have measurable growth toward a clearly defined destination and need someone who will keep me accountable, meet with me regularly, and apply broad knowledge to my specific business problem, a highly-recommended coach is probably the person who will deliver. If there is particular challenge I am facing and I know someone in my network has overcome a similar trial with grace, a quick mentor meeting may do the trick.

We have amazing conversations just like this one each day over at Buffer’s Slack Community. Come join us! And if you are not using Buffer to manage your social media, you can see what all the fuss is about here. [referral link]

Jacqueline Jensen is a COO, former venture-backed startup founder, TEDx speaker, author, and Royal Society of Arts Fellow.