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  • Toby Sinclair

When To Coach vs Mentor | Coaching Skills for Leaders

Updated: Jun 7, 2021

When to coach vs mentor

The big question for many leaders when to Coach vs Mentor.

When a team member seeks out your help it's easy to jump to advice:

"Here's what I would do..."

Always responding this way can cause a few problems for leaders over time.

Firstly, it can create a dependency on your leadership. Instead of thinking for themselves, the team will come to you for answers. They may assume that to go ahead they need your advice first.

Secondly, your advice is not as good as you think it is. By jumping to conclusions your advice might be worse than if your team member had come to their own conclusions. Even worse, due to the manager power dynamic, they might act upon your advice even if they know it's the wrong thing to do.

When I coach and mentor leaders it's often surprising how leaders feel their role is to give advice. Developers are rewarded for solving problems and advising on solutions. Leaders often take this belief into leadership positions. It often takes an event such as an overwhelming workload or stress for leaders to explore other alternatives.

To raise awareness of the choices in a given situation I teach Leaders the differences between coaching vs mentoring


"Let's think through this problem together. I'll share some ideas, from my experience, that could help you."


"Rather than give you advice, let me ask you a few questions. This will help you think about the problem from new perspectives. You'll be better prepared to tackle the challenge yourself."

It's common that leaders don't realise the difference between being a coach vs mentor. So this little bit of knowledge can often open up a new perspective.

Just this week I was working with a leader who was stuck in an advice trap with their team.

As a coach, this was a great example of the dilemma. Should I coach vs mentor?

I decided to start with some mentoring. I share at the end of the article how the conversation went.

To demonstrate the options between coaching vs mentoring I drew this simple matrix:

Like all models, it's an oversimplification of reality. However, it helped this leader understand the different choices in a given situation between being a coach vs mentor.

For a given challenge or goal, you can think about two dimensions.

  • The nature of the challenge: Does it relate to the person's external world (skills, knowledge, things) or their internal world (beliefs, assumptions, mental models)?

  • Their ability to tackle the challenge: Do they have the skills, knowledge, confidence to tackle their challenge?

Using this model you can start to think about where coaching vs mentoring might be helpful and not helpful.


I've found mentoring to be most helpful when the challenge is grounded in the external world and there is an ability gap. A great example is when a software developer is learning to code and they need some guidance on how to write high-quality code. A mentor can give direct advice on how to tackle certain challenges.


It tends to be most helpful when the challenge is of an internal nature. An example is where a software developer has the ability to code but has high imposter syndrome. This might be preventing them from taking on bigger challenges within the team. Here the focus is not on building ability but on helping the person explore their imposter syndrome with coaching.

In general, coaching is grounded in the belief that people always have the ability to overcome their challenge, they just need help finding that within themselves.

“Coaching is unlocking a person's potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.”

Timothy Gallwey

Positive Reinforcement

When the person has the ability and it's a challenge grounded in the external world, choosing coaching vs mentoring can be a bad choice. In this situation is often better to positively reinforce that the person can do it. In these situations, if you coach or mentor it can create a dependence on you. Encouraging the person that they can tackle the challenge without you gives them room to grow.

A bit of both

There are situations where the person is facing a challenge that is grounded in their internal world and they don't have the ability to overcome it. In this case, it's likely you'll use a mixture of coaching and mentoring. As the conversation flows you might start to get an understanding of which might be most helpful.

Moving between the model

The dynamic nature of problems means that you may find yourself moving between the quadrants in a single conversation.

It's common for topics to start focusing on the team members external world for example skill development. However, it is common that their internal world is limiting progress. For example, Imposter Syndrome is impeding confidence in their skills.

How did this help the leader?

In this conversation, when deciding between coaching vs mentoring I started with mentoring. Teaching the Leader the differences between coaching and mentoring.

The second half of the conversation demonstrated how the problems move as clarity grows. Once they understand the differences I asked the question: "What would stop you coaching?" This led to a deeper conversation about the beliefs the leader held about their role. That they had to be seen as the expert and by not providing advice they were scared of losing respect. Our conversation then shifted to exploring the leaders internal world.

This highlights that there is no one right answer. It's not a simple answer between Coaching vs Mentoring. Context is key.

What's important is that great leaders are able to move between the quadrants.

Coaching skills enable you to lead effectively in each situation. Focus on building coaching skills: Active listening, asking powerful questions and self-awareness. These skills enable you to become more adaptable.

I created Switch to help leaders build these new habits.

This video expands more. I'd love to hear what you think in the comments below.


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