Professionelle resources

A Mentor or a Coach?

By Galia Barhava-Monteith

I’m a mid-range marketing executive in a large New Zealand fast-moving consumer goods company. I’ve been here for a few years and have enjoyed myself. I’m quite ambitious and would like to keep progressing to a more senior role. However, I feel like I need some more development before I can achieve that.

There aren’t many senior women in my company and most of them are located in Australia. I’m struggling to find someone in my close work environment that I can learn from.

I’m aware of the concept of Executive Coaching and Mentoring. I think this is probably the way to go for me. However, I’m not sure what they actually do and what the differences between them is, nor which option would be best suited for my needs. Can you help?

We’ve often been asked about the functions of, and the differences between, coaching and mentoring in professional settings.

We find that women, in particular, are very keen to explore these possibilities. This might have something to do with the observation that women often feel quite isolated and lonely in organisations where there are few women role models. Having a more independent relationship seems like an excellent solution.

In order to identify the most suitable solution, you need to figure out what your needs are. Do you need:

a) Development of specific skills and competencies such as communication or leadership?

b) Someone who can help you navigate through the politics and ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of your company?

If you said “yes” to ‘a’ you might want to look into Executive Coaching. If you think ‘b’ is what you need, you’ll probably benefit more from a Mentor.


Mentoring has been defined as:

The supportive development of an individual employee through the use of an experienced person.

Mentoring is about creating an informal environment in which one person can feel encouraged to discuss their needs and circumstances openly and in confidence with another person who is in a position to be of positive help to them.

To us, mentoring is having an informal relationship with someone who is not your direct boss and who is knowledgeable about the ‘ins and outs’ of your organisation. This person does not necessarily have to be more senior or even older, and does not have to be a woman. A good mentor can help guide you through the ‘unspoken rules’ of your company and help you work out things for yourself, which you might not otherwise be able to do.

We believe that the best mentors are those who don’t tell you what you should do. Through talking with them and discussing situations, great mentors help you see the answer for yourself. The best mentors we know are excellent listeners.

Types of Mentoring in Companies

Mentoring can take many forms and varies from an employee-initiated relationship with a senior and well-respected executive to a structured, company-initiated mentoring programme. Most commonly, mentoring takes place within the organisation between two employees of the same company. For a lucky few, the mentoring relationship lasts throughout their working career.

Some companies establish mentoring schemes where they match up juniors or new starters with more senior people. This arrangement can be found in some of New Zealand’s larger law firms and professional services firms.

In this case, the mentoring programme is structured and has defined outcomes and objectives. Typically, mentoring as an intervention is considered when either skills/knowledge or a motivation issue is the driving force in the performance problem or opportunity. It may well be the case that your company does have some sort of a mentoring programme that you are unaware of, and this might be an option to explore.

Finding Your Mentor

If your company does not have a formal programme, you can still initiate a mentoring relationship if that is what you seek.

Remember that a good mentor does not have to be someone in your field of work, or more senior to you. A good mentor is someone who can help you with the specific realities of your company.

Things to think about when choosing a mentor:

  • Does this person understand my company well?
  • Is s/he someone who I respect and value?
  • Is s/he a good listener?
  • Can I trust her/him?
  • Will s/he be interested in a mentoring relationship?

Once you’ve identified someone who fits the bill, you could approach them. If you know the person reasonably well, you can take a more informal approach. Ask them for coffee. Think in advance about how you can best communicate to them what it is you’re seeking. Make sure you tell them why you think they will make a good mentor and see how they feel about it. In my experience, most people are quite thrilled when asked to be mentors.

When you don’t know the person all that well, a more formal approach will be appropriate. I’d suggest that you write to them, briefly outlining what you’re seeking, and why you think they will be a good mentor. If you don’t hear from them, then try one follow-up in person about three weeks after you sent the letter.

Remember, a mentoring relationship tends to be long term and relatively unstructured. If you feel you need to work on specific skill sets or competencies, like listening, communicating or leading, then you should explore the possibility of getting your company to pay for an executive coach.

Executive Coaching

In our view, Wikipedia offers the best, most concise, definition of executive coaching:

Executive Coaching is a one-on-one training and collaborative relationship between a certified or self-proclaimed coach and an executive interested in improving him/herself primarily in career or business-related skills. The process typically lasts between three months and one year, depending on the type of intervention, and consists of face-to-face developmental discussions aimed at performance improvement or developing a particular competence. The coaching is meant to be practical and goal-focused and may concentrate on avoiding professional de-railers or working through organisational issues or change initiatives.

Good executive coaches begin the intervention by collecting thorough feedback from the people their clients interact with on a daily basis, including staff, boss, clients and in some cases family as well. They should provide you with honest feedback that you might have never received otherwise. Good coaches ensure that the feedback you receive is specific with actual examples to illustrate the point made.

This feedback is key to the success of the intervention. With a realistic picture of your strengths and weaknesses, you can work with your coach to ensure you are well placed to face the challenges ahead. A good coach will work with you to set a limited number of well-defined, performance-related goals and then help you achieve them. Coaching should have a limited time horizon and should be targeted and practical.

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