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The Differences Between a Mentor, Advisor and a Coach – and How to Land Them

The Differences Between a Mentor, Advisor and a Coach – and How to Land Them

Career expert, Zak Slayback explains how to best learn from your instructors and reveals helpful tips to follow in order to be successful.

For all the talk that the professional development industry gives “finding a mentor,” very few quality mentorships look anything like what people think when they hear “mentor.” And very few professional development “experts” take the time to explain why you would want to find a mentor and how you would go about doing so. Even worse, the word gets thrown around so much that much of what is talked about as “mentorship” is really just advice or teaching.

It’s better to think of the people you can learn from as mentors, advisors, and coaches. Understanding the differences between all three helps you focus on what really matters and develop the relationships to help you create value better and get ahead in your career. Each one plays an important role in your own personal board of role models, or the Cabinet of Models, as I discuss in my new book How to Get Ahead.

Mentors: Learn From Being Around Them

A “mentor” is a professional a few years ahead of where you are in your career and skilled in complex skills you need to learn. You don’t find them from “mentorship events” and they don’t “mentor” you in any active verb sense of the word (e.g. Joe can be your mentor without you “being mentored by Joe,” a mentor is a person, not an activity). You find them by working near them and under them.

These people have complex skills, character, and ambition you want to learn. This is tacit knowledge and pattern recognition, much like the ability of a skilled craftsperson to tell an authentic item from a fraud with a quick glance. These are not easily taught in a classroom, seminar, or through textbooks. Much like how you learn a language faster through immersion, some professional skills develop faster through being near and working with people with those skills. You identify and learn from mentors so that you may develop this knowledge and these traits faster.

For example, one of my mentors (who would bristle at being called such, as mentorship is a state, not an activity) developed the ability and character to make big, multi-million dollar bets on companies by working in a global macro hedge fund with one of the world’s leading venture capitalists. Had he not worked in a place like that, he may have spent many more years developing the character to make a judgement call on a company and deciding to invest millions of dollars.

Advisors: Listen to Them

Advisors are skilled, knowledgeable people who can offer wisdom or advice as you advance in your career. These people know complex skills and they have enough experience to pull on a bastion of knowledge and offer feedback, critiques, and helpful elucidations along your career.

Unlike mentors, you don’t necessarily work with advisors. They are the least-formal of the role model relationships you have. You may speak with them once or twice on the phone; get lunch with them once a year; or meet them every couple of weeks to catch up. The defining characteristic here is that they offer wisdom rather than the opportunity to learn tacit knowledge.

Landing an advisor comes down to proactively reaching out to people and developing sincere relationships. Unless you’re listing somebody in a public pitch deck, this relationship need not be codified with a “will you be my advisor?” kind of question.

Teachers, Consultants & Coaches: Study What They Teach

If mentors offer an opportunity to learn that which cannot be taught in the classroom and if advisors offer advice and wisdom, teachers and coaches offer explicit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is that knowledge which can be taught through textbooks, lectures, and seminars.

Unlike a mentor or advisor, a skilled teacher or coach need not be fantastic at the skill they teach (though this doesn’t preclude them from being a teacher). Instead, they’re skilled in pedagogy, or the skill of transferring knowledge.

As a native Pittsburgher, one of my favorite examples of this is Chuck Noll. Noll led the Steelers from being a mediocre backwater NFL team to being the winningest in the League. But Noll himself was a mediocre football player (for the Browns, at that!). Noll didn’t need to be skilled in football to coach football. He needed to be skilled in coaching and have a believable grasp of football strategy and tactics.

When finding a teacher, consultant, or coach, look for somebody with references and testimonials who charges for their time and can believably pass muster in explaining how they know or can teach something.

Each of these people can help you accelerate your professional success and your career, but you need to know how to approach them and treat them properly.

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The Differences Between a Mentor, Advisor and a Coach – and How to Land Them
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Zak Slayback is a career expert, writer, and venture capital professional. He writes at ZakSlayback.com and creates career development material at GetAheadLabs.com. He's a principal at 1517 Fund, a venture capital fund that invests in technology companies run by young founders working outside of tracked institutions like academia. His writing and strategies have appeared in Fast Company, Newsweek, The Muse, and the New York Observer.