What's The Difference Between Mentors, Advisors, and Coaches?

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This piece was originally published at The Mission. 

It feels like every day I meet a new person who claims they are a coach, a startup mentor, or asking to be an advisor (full disclosure, I am an advisor to several education startups ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ but that’s because I spent the last 3 years building up an education company), which brings up the question:

What’s the difference between these people?

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Image credit: Lynda.com

I used to have an aversion to anybody who would call themselves a mentor or a coach (advisor always carried a more formal tone to me for some reason). This aversion manifested itself in a form of “those who can’t do, teach,” or asking what it is this mentor or coach has achieved that qualifies them to call themselves a mentor or a coach. It was not until I actually got clear on why people hire coaches, why they find real-life mentors, and why they have advisors around that each made sense to me.

Once each of these makes sense, you have the opportunity to search out specific people to play each specific role. It’s possible that a mentor can also be a coach or an advisor can also be a mentor but, generally speaking, each of these focuses on their own specific domains in their own specific ways.

The best way to think of the differences between each of these categories is to ask yourself, “what role does this person play? To what end? For how long?” In which domains do you expect this person to have expertise? How long do you expect to work with them? On what endeavors?

Mentors

“Mentorship happens organically, and you can’t just force it. Many [people] don’t even know HOW to mentor, and often mentor others by accident. It’s not a mentor’s responsibility to mentor, it’s the responsibility of the mentee to seek mentorship and appropriate it.”
― Josh Hatcher

Mentors are probably the most-encompassing of the three categories and the most amorphous. These are people who can be role models for you in more than one domain. These people may be living a life you want to live or have gone through trials and tribulations you yourself will have to go through.

We can compartmentalize life into a number of categories like career, contribution, relationships, finances, intellectual, health, and spiritual wellness. Each of these categories then break down further and further until you get to questions like, “should I pitch this specific person?” or “should I ask this person out on a date?” The mentor works at the highest level of life in these compartmentalized metacategories. You find somebody who appears to have succeeded (at least more than others!) in their career, contribution, relationships, etc. and seek to learn from them.

The best way to think of the mentor is as a role model. Choose mentors who you would be proud to be. Some mentors can encompass multiple categories and others only apply to one category. Having multiple mentors is fine. As you improve in your development, you’ll need to abandon some mentors for bigger, better mentors.

How to find one: Most valuable mentors aren’t just sitting around in a mentor pool waiting for somebody to announce that they want to be mentored by them. Some of my best mentors would balk at being called such. James Altucher writes in Reinvent Yourself to find a mentor and provides excellent fodder for how you can go about that process. Altucher writes of “virtual mentors” who are people whose works you read and whose lives you study and you learn from them. Multiple people claim Jim Rohn as a mentor, although very few of these people ever spent more than a few days with him. Napoleon Hill considered Andrew Carnegie a mentor, even though he only interviewed him once.

As the quotation that opens this section suggests, understand that the burden is on you to go find a mentor. I cover how to find a mentor in detail in How to Get Ahead When You Have Nothing to Offer.

Time horizon: Medium-to-long term. You can have somebody mentor you for a few months or for decades. As you grow, expect to need to level-up mentors, though.

Expertise type: “Wisdom.” Mentors can have their own domains — business, intellectual, personal, romantic — but their expertise is less a sort of “do this, this, and this to get X, Y, and Z outcomes” and more of a modeling type of expertise. They’ve lived out things you must or want to live out and you want to learn from them how you can get to where they are. Conversations with mentors are the substance of their value. Unlike advisors and coaches, you do not need to come with specific questions or problems to them in order to extract value from their wisdom.

Formality: Can be informal. The best mentors tend to be those people not actively seeking out people to mentor (unless this is part of their charitable giving agenda) because high-value mentors have a high opportunity cost and rarely have the time to announce that they are formally mentoring somebody.

Role Model? Yes.

Advisors

“Don’t ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.”
― Robert Frost

Like mentors, advisors have experience in achieving what you want to achieve. Unlike mentors, their role is more formal and their expertise more granular.

Advisors play the role of offering advice. Whereas a mentor may offer value simply through their explication of experiences or through their wisdom, advisors offer value through giving specific feedback about specific questions. You may get lunch with a mentor and gain years’ worth of wisdom but an advisor is better engaged through a pointed phone call, an email with a set of questions, or semi-regular update meetings.

How to find one: Figure out what the problem is you want to address. Be very clear about this. Are you trying to build a sales pipeline for a SaaS company? Service industrial manufacturers? Land more dates with people younger than yourself (no reason the advisor needs to be business-related)? Get specific. Even if that specificity is just, “build a company servicing X, Y, and Z types of consumers,” that’s better than “build a business.”

Now, figure out who has already done this. Use tools like LinkedIn and Angel List to find businesspeople who have done this. Use Medium to find bloggers who have done this. Put out a call to your personal and/or professional networks, letting them know you are searching for somebody who has addressed this problem successfully.

Once you’ve found these people, be specific about what you want them to help with. Let them know what you are trying to do and how they can help.

Time horizon: Short-to-medium term. The role of an advisor is to help you solve specific problems. The longest-term you would likely have an advisor around would be while building and exiting a company. Advisors may stick around longer but change their role as advisors. For example, you bring on an advisor who has built a video production business with an impressive sales pipeline. You take his advice and build a similar pipeline. Now, the advisor is useful for helping you find potential buyers for the company. He has shifted from being a sales advisor to a general business advisor.

Expertise type: “Advice.” You bring on an advisor because they know more about a specific area that you yourself are trying to learn more about. A startup advisor may have built a company similar to the one you are building, or has experience selling to similar stakeholders, or has technical expertise you need to gain to help expedite your growth. The expertise of an advisor should be pulled on to help you avoid common pitfalls and get around problems they have come across in their own experience.

Formality: More likely to be a formal role than with mentors, but can be played out through less formal means. High-value advisors will be formalized with some kind of skin-in-the-game like equity in a company/project or an incentive structure. This keeps both parties accountable to each other.

Role Model? Yes, particularly for specific areas.

Specific to startups, VentureHacks has a good article on advisors hereAdvisors don’t have to be specific to the entrepreneurial realm, though.

Coaches

“To excel at the highest level — or any level, really — you need to believe in yourself, and hands down, one of the biggest contributors to my self-confidence has been private coaching.”
― Steph Curry

Unlike mentors and advisors, the primary benefit of coaches does not stem from an ability to be a role model. Coaches train specifically in coaching and may not have domain expertise and experience outside of their coaching expertise. One of the best distinctions I ever heard about coaches is that they may not have been the best at what they coach for. This is certainly true in athletics.

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Chuck Noll was a mediocre football player but the best coach in Steelers franchise history. Image credit: The Sportster.

The goal of the coach is to facilitate learning, focus, and results. Coaches are trained in the strategies for achieving the results specific to their domain of coaching. Although they may not have experience generating the results you are looking for in themselves, they should have experience generating these results in other people or organizations.

Coaches divide into their own specific domains. Athletic coaches are the most obvious in modern culture, but coaches may be trained in management coaching, relationship coaching, career coaching, public speaking coaching, systems coaching, or any number of areas.

Good coaches will help you clarify your goals, focus on what you need to do, and find the best strategies for achieving those goals. At the very least, coaches provide some kind of skin-in-the-game and accountability system for you so that you can continue improving and moving forward.

How to find one: Figure out what kind of coaching you need, first. You may need multiple coaches or just one coach.

Once you know what kind of coaching you need, find a reputable organization that trains these coaches or ask for referrals from your high-performing friends.

Do your homework. Due to the low barrier to entry, coaching can quickly become a MLM-like scheme and you may find people calling themselves coaches who have never successfully coached somebody a day in their lives. Referrals work well but make sure they are from clients of the coach and not from other coaches.

Time horizon: Varies. You may only hire a coach to get a specific result (e.g., hire a relationship coach to land a fulfilling relationship) or you may hire a coach for a series of results (e.g., career coaches to grow your business or a life coach to grow your perspective). Usually, you’ll hire coaches for several weeks to a year and can renew your contract with them if you see fit.

Expertise type: “Coaching.” Coaches are trained in strategies for improving focus, asking the right questions, and generating proper results. They’re also valuable for shared accountability and are not there to be your friend or your mentor. Unlike teachers, the role of the coach is not to feed you information but to reframe situations and provide the proper resources for you to make the improvements you need to make.

Formality: Coaches are formalized. You often sign a contract with a coach or their parent organization. You should not look to get a coach for free. Part of the value of hiring a coach is burning your own money and putting your own resources on the line. If you put in $5,000 to hire a coach, you are motivated to extract at least $5,001 of value from your time with them.

Role Model? No, unless you want to become a coach.

There’s some confusion between a coach and a therapist. Tony Robbins offers a good diagram here.


These distinctions helped me move past my bias against the categories and get clear on which I needed in my life. The mentors in my life fulfill a specific role, the advisors fulfill their own role, and a coach helps in the areas needed most for growth.

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I'm Zak. School should have taught you how to succeed at work and build a great career. Instead, it taught you that mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. Thankfully, I teach what school never taught.

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