A recent article in Fortune Magazine focused on the difference between coaches and mentors in the business context. The author treats these two roles as if they serve very different purposes; mentors may not be experts in the mentee’s area of expertise but they have quality experience that can be shared; coaches on the other hand have specific expertise that will benefit the person coached. Mentors are reactive; coaches are proactive. The mentor relationship is open-ended whereas the coach relationship focuses on a particular set of problematic issues that need to be resolved. The article includes this key sentence: “You’re sometimes lucky enough to find individuals who are both.”
Well, stated most politely, I vehemently disagree – both in business and in athletics. Let me explain.
There is no questioning the importance and value of mentors; most successful people can identify several individuals who have, over their lifetime, served as their mentors. But, finding and developing a relationship with a mentor is not easy; mentors do not just appear out of the woodwork. The relationship between two individuals needs to be nurtured; trust needs to be built.
In my experience, mentors often have expertise in the areas of interest of their mentees; think about faculty-student relationships. It is often the shared interests that bring people together. Looking at the origin and definition of the term “mentor,” the words “trusted counselor” appear, furthering the idea that this is a reciprocal relationship that needs to be nurtured. Sadly, many folks do not have mentors, not because they would not benefit from them but because no one has stepped up to the proverbial plate to be one. And, potential mentees often do not know how to look for and find quality mentors.
Now, coaching starts with the premise that one person can help another develop a designated set of skills. Clearly, in athletics, those can be the physical and technical skills and rules of the game being played. But, coaching is vastly more than skill development. Coaching is also about motivating and psychological readiness and in the case of a team sport (which life is too), how to work well with others. Coaching is not only proactive, although it is certainly that. Coaches debrief players in athletics all the time; that is often how one learns – from one’s mistakes. The same can be said in the business context.
Quality coaches that can truly help someone are also hard to find; strategies that work for one person might not work for another. Coaching is a reciprocal relationship too. The dictionary definition speaks about coaches imparting knowledge and skills in a wide range of contexts. Importantly, the word coach, if we go back far enough, refers to the vehicle used to transport a person from one place to another and it morphed into the same action and activity without the actual vehicle! Sadly, like mentors, coaches are not all good and they are often assigned rather than selected.
Now, the Forbes article suggests that the role and function of mentors and coaches – while they can (rarely) be housed in the same person – are vastly different and should not be confused. That is not necessarily so at all. Coaches are mentors, and mentors are coaches. They are not always simultaneously working in both roles but make no mistake about it: coaches mentor and mentors coach. This is true in business and in sports. And at least in college sports at the DIII level, a coach that does not mentor would not last long at some institutions.
But, here’s the troubling part. We know the importance of mentors and coaches. We know when the relationships work, the individual in need of mentors/ coaching benefits. The value of mentoring is even more significant for and has a high positive impact on low-income students. There are matching programs rising up across the nation to meet the needs.
Several things have happened that wreck havoc on finding coaches/mentors for low-income students. First, high schools are cutting athletic programs and that means those coaches who could mentor will not be available for those students who first find their way on a court or field, rather than a classroom. Forget about fitness for a moment and appreciate the interpersonal deprivation. Then, in a totally different twist, we have recently seen what appears to me to be a growing number of middle and high school and college coaches behaving terribly toward students and in their private lives (alcohol consumption in excess; pedophilia; voyeurism). This not only eliminates the coaches as coaches but as mentors as well. Want a name or two to refresh your recollection? Sarkasian.
So, we need to make sure of two things: (1) that young people – across the income specter — in business and athletics have access to relationships with quality coaches/mentors; and (2) that coaches/mentors take both their roles seriously and keep well within the boundaries of ethics. Is this that hard? Sadly, the answer to that question seems to be yes.
Karen Gross is the former President of Southern Vermont College, an NCAA DIII institution fielding 13 teams. She was the president of the college's Athletic Conference, the NECC. She also served on the NCAA DIII Presidents' Advisory Council. A lawyer by training, she represented an NFL quarterback (decades ago) and is a serious professional and college sports fan. She currently is senior counsel to a crisis management firm in DC where she specializes in education. A Red Sox fan, she knows a lot about losing and winning. Her son, now a professor, is a former NCAA Division I athlete.