What’s the difference between a mentor, coach and advisor?

Mentor. Coach. Advisor. We often hear these three words and job titles in the business world in a myriad of conversations, articles and reports. However, what do they actually do and why is it important to know the difference between them?

Firstly, they are all different. The roles can be fluid which is why there is often some confusion over the differences in approach but fundamentally, the roles have different skills and attributes which have their own benefits to clients and supporting businesses. It is crucial to understand which role covers what aspects to ensure that you engage the correct person to support you – or that you market yourself (if you are a mentor, coach or advisor) in the right area.

If you’re looking for someone who has ‘been there and done that’, a mentor could be the best option. However, if you want someone to help you clarify your goals and encourage and challenge you to achieve those goals, look to a coach.  An advisor, on the other hand, and often a business consultant, may well have particular specialisms where they can provide information and direction.  Is the distinction becoming clearer?

From a personal perspective and my own experience, I doubt it! All three ‘titles’ have usually undergone training, had experience of business or corporate life and will have an intention to want to help you to succeed. So how do you know who to work with and how to bring someone on board to help you and your business?

Much of this relates to personal chemistry and that sounds as though it is going to be harder to assess. Leaving that aside, temporarily, I would always recommend that you think about what you are looking to achieve from this relationship. Make a list – is it important to you that they have an understanding of your sector? (it shouldn’t matter, but if you are new to working with a coach, mentor or advisor it is important to understand the credentials of someone and that can translate to sector experience or the leadership level of people they have worked with previously, for example). Do you want to know who else they have worked with? Do they have any previous clients who would provide a reference? How long have they been established or qualified? The potential for this ‘list’ could go on….

Are you looking for help with a particular project or something longer term? There is an assumption, clumsily worded here by me that mentors are for months, coaches are for concerns and advisers are for answers, suggesting that when we want to know what to do quickly we will go to an adviser and we can make a decision about the advice or consultancy we receive. When we need to have something ‘fixed’ or we are looking to be better, work through a specific problem or project, then a coach will help us do that. If we want the longer term relationship, a mentor internally from within the business or externally procured, is the best route.

But we are still making assumptions. In that list of things to think about, don’t forget to articulate how you are going to judge whether the relationship has been a success. What impact do you want this relationship to have? Metrics are important, but don’t forget that it will mean that you need to rate and personally assess aspects such as your own self-confidence alongside leadership and management skills. Proficient support will be able to translate that into a specific return on investment – even if it does relate to the so-called ‘softer’ skills.

And now you are armed with your checklist. My assertion is that actually the key aspect of any of these relationships is about trust. I’ve personally worked with all three – mentors, coaches and advisors (as well as providing those services to others) – and I know that credentials help get the relationship started, but it is about my immediate and ongoing relationship with the individual that secures the deal (or not). If possible, I would always recommend a chemistry session: a get to know you short meeting where you can ask questions and find out what you need to know about them, whilst working out whether you could work with the person. Most will offer a shorter session to enable you to do this. Be yourself, ask questions and listen. Perhaps think about these three things:

  • Who is talking the most? (it should be you as the potential client)
  • Can I see examples of how this person would be working with me? (you will know it when you see it!)
  • Do I think and feel that this person will be able to support and challenge me to grow personally and develop my business? (an intuitive or ‘gut’ response)

Answering those questions might lead you to put aside your checklist or use it to validate your choices. Whatever the outcome, you will know that you have carefully chosen to work with this person – this mentor, coach or adviser – and have the start of a professional relationship that will help you move forward. 

Whether it is a quick answer/signposting, short-term/project-based or a longer-term business support relationship, I would always suggest you consider inviting or procuring someone to walk with you on that business development journey.  It makes the difference between success and failure, growth or stagnation, personal discovery or disappointment.  Good luck!

Rachel Mallows MBE
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Rachel Mallows MBE

Rachel Mallows MBE is a Northamptonshire businesswoman with over 30 years' experience in delivering training, coaching, mentoring and business support. Rachel is the founder and Managing Director of The Mallows Company Limited, a Bozeat based business with a regional remit, providing careers guidance to adults and in schools; training, mentoring, project management and consultancy to SMEs and larger businesses of all sectors. Rachel was awarded the MBE for her services to Business and Entrepreneurship in the Queen's 90th Birthday Honours List in 2016 and was made a Deputy Lieutenant for Northamptonshire in the same year.

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