What’s the Difference Between Mentoring vs Coaching?

As more and more organizations are bought into an Agile mindset and Agile values, the need to transform at the individual level becomes more important than ever before, because only through individual transformations can an enterprise reap the full benefits of organization-wide business agility. Agile coaches, ScrumMasters and even managers are key to making the transformation to every member of an organization. That’s why mentoring and coaching are crucial today. The only problem is that few understand the subtle yet powerful distinction between mentorship and coaching.

Lyssa Adkins sits down with Agile Amped to dispel confusion around these two roles — or perhaps it’s better to think of these as hats that an Agilist wears at different times to achieve different ends. In this our most popular podcast (with nearly 3,500 views), we answer the question “What’s the difference between mentoring and coaching?”


Michael Tardiff: Hi, I’m Michael Tariff with SolutionsIQ, and we’re here at Agile2015 outside of lovely downtown Washington, D.C. I’m sitting here next to the lovely Lyssa Adkins from Agile Coaching Institute. Hi, thanks for coming.

Lyssa Adkins: Hey, so glad to be with you.

MT: You already did one session earlier this week and you’re doing one this afternoon at what time?

LA: At 3:45, in the Potomac C room.

MT: If you’re watching this before then, go. If not, at the end Lyssa will tell you how to get in touch to continue, or start your own conversation with her. At the first session you did something I’ve seen you do before in front of thousands of people — you’ve done something that’s hard to do one on one, which is coach, and then show the difference between coaching and mentoring. How does that work? How do you do it?

LA: Well, it was really great, because two of our alumni of our courses agreed to be — one was a coaching client and one was a mentoring client — so they knew what they were getting into in terms of how that goes. I did 15 minutes of coaching with one, 15 minutes of mentoring with the other, and it created such clarity for the audience, like, “Oh, that’s what professional coaching looks like. I thought it was just trying to manipulate people with open questions.” Actually, that’s not what people think, but it’s often what people are doing in the background. And so it was really important for them to see it. I know when I saw professional coaching for the first time, my mind was blown. I was like, “Oh, that’s really different, that’s a different approach.” There were 400 people in the room, and you know I didn’t pay attention to them.

MT: So it’s as if it was just you.

LA: It’s as if we were in some huddle room off the side in a conference room, in some corporation and someone had came to me with a problem and I said let’s just duck in here for a minute and talk about it.

MT: So, you were fully present with them.

LA: Yeah, and presence is a professional coaching skill, and so is listening fully. And so with those things on board, it’s easy just to be there with that person. And of course I’ve done enough demos now of this to know, you know, we’re gonna land this thing in 15 minutes, we’re taking the person through this general process of how this arc of the conversation goes. And I said to both of them at the beginning, and you know it’s true, “Don’t let this be some kind of fakie demo. Let it be good for you, let it be real for you. Don’t commit to an action, if you get to an action, don’t commit to it unless it’s real.”

MT: Right.

LA: So that makes it all the more impactful, not only for them but for the whole room, to see that you could move a conversation. You could move a problem that clearly in 15 minutes for someone.

MT: So, for the folks who weren’t there, what did they see in the difference between the coaching interaction and mentoring interaction?

LA: Well, both people brought real Agile problems, real problems they’re facing in their Agile transformation, real stuck points for them. In the coaching one, the idea is to coach the person, not the problem. If you coach the person, they’ll solve their own problem. So we work on both the doing aspect — what’s this person gonna do about their problem? — and the being aspect — who are they being, that’s gonna enable their doing? And so I’m using skills like fully listening, asking powerful questions, a lot of self-management.


MT: Management of your self.

LA: (Management of) myself — of these thoughts that come in my head, I wanna give advice. But I think, you know, “Giving advice here is not gonna be as useful as sticking with this person and helping them explore what’s really holding them back.” That’s kind of what coaching looks like, it’s following the other persons agenda, not mine. And in mentoring we still have a focus on their agenda, but now — in addition to this coaching skills — you can add, offering advice, giving resources, telling stories about your experience, maybe teaching about a model you think might be useful. And so it’s much more about selecting from options and the other person come up with options and primarily the way Agile Coaching Institute teaches mentoring is still: end with professional coaching. It doesn’t matter as a mentor if you have the most brilliant idea on the planet, if they’re not willing to do it. Or they give you lip service and say, “Yes, I will” because they feel like they’re some kind of guru and that they need to say yes, but then they actually don’t do it.


MT: Until sitting here listening to you describe the difference, I would have thought coaching was harder, but you just made mentoring sound even harder. Cause you can give advice but…

LA: Its not like it’s free reign to just cram your information toward that other person and make them swallow it.

MT: So how do you balance?

LA: That’s that self-management thing. Some of the thoughts that happen in my head, when I feel myself getting enamored with my own idea and mentoring and I’ve said it once and they haven’t quite taken it and I find myself saying it again, I think “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Back up here, chick. They’re not ready for your idea.” And I might say that: “Seems like you’re not ready for my idea.” That’s cool. (I’ll) get (that) from them. They’re like, “Yeah, it’s a good idea but it really doesn’t kinda fit” — and they’ll tell me why. But if I don’t catch myself, that ambition I have to have them go my way…

MT: Yeah, that’s the hard part.

LA: Right? Right? Then they’re gonna just give me lip service, or think that they actually agree and find out later that, no, they really don’t want to do that.

MT: I was taking with Christopher Avery yesterday about catching yourself, how do you, when you have that “I’m gonna help them whether they like it or not” moment — how do you catch yourself?

LA: They’re are a couple phrases I constantly say in my head. One of them is that this person is already naturally creative, resourceful, and whole. They don’t need me to fix them. That’s one. The other is, if you throw out another idea, that’s just another opinion. We got plenty of opinions in the world! That’s another thought that comes into my head. And besides those thoughts that bring me back, just having presence with the person, in both cases coaching and mentoring, and the intention to serve them more than me. That’s what really does it for me.

MT: I’ve found what you taught me — this person is creative, resourceful, and whole — being the thing that helps so much. I’m not trying to fix them, they already are fixed.

LA: Everyone is doing the best where they are. And sometimes you have great ideas, but your ideas are ten steps ahead of where they are. It’s not very useful to keep yelling from the sidelines, “Come over here! Come over here!”

MT: When we were starting, before we started filming, you mentioned the Competence Cohort that ACI is starting in September.

LA: I’m so excited about this, yes. We’re finally at the point where we’ve trained almost three thousand people now in our primary courses: The Agile Facilitator and Coaching Agile Teams. And those cover off the learning objectives in the Agile Coaching and Facilitation learning path. Now we all know that classroom knowledge does not necessarily equal skill when you get back to work. Plus, plenty of the things we teach in our classes are really hard to do when you get back to work, it’s not the same. The environments are not necessarily set up for it.

MT: It’s not the same…

LA: It’s not the same. The Competence Cohort is based on our own experience in our own professional coaching certification programs. It’s a ten month program, where you are really practicing, immersing, dicing and really pulling apart the skills you learned in the five days of training. And there’s a real compulsion to bring it in to your daily work, which really helps people ground in it. And along the way, if people are interested, we build people up to the level where they have demonstrable skill because we actually do supervisions. People bring in recordings of themselves coaching, mentoring or facilitating or teaching, and they get assessed against a known set of competencies we’ve been working on in the calls and they see where they are, and they get another shot at it. That builds them up to the level of equal to or even above what’s called ICAgile Expert. And so along the way, if people want that certification, it’s easy for them, it’s like an administrative task to get that certification, because its built in to our pathway. Our program is going to be accredited by ICAgile and then it doesn’t stop there, though — because what Agile Coaching Institute creates are transformation coaches. So there’s an additional four-month piece and a ten month overall, and the last four months starts with the residential of the people you’ve been with in your Competence Cohort on the phone, now you’re in person. Isn’t that incredible?

MT: That sounds fantastic.

LA: I know.

MT: I want to do this.

LA: I think you should. You’re gonna get deeper skills in transformational facilitation and transformational coaching.

MT: Excellent, and that starts in September?

LA: It starts on September 21st, there are still a few slots open. You have to have taken the courses, like you have. Then you go on four months of quests to bring in all that new skill you have.

MT: I can’t wait.

LA: I know. And at the end of all that, it’s ACI’s first certification — which we’re finally ready to say we have our first certification because it’s based on real competence — it’s called the Certified Transformational Coach Teams Level. So, multi-team program-level certified transformation coach.

MT: So, I want to talk to you for 20 more minutes but Joanne won’t let me. If folks who are watching want to start talking to you, how do they get in touch?

LA: Go to agilecoachinginstitute.com and my email is lyssa@agilecoachinginstitute.com — and learn. The website is a good place to start and see what we have to offer and see if it matches what you need.

MT: Thanks so much. Thanks for coming.

LA: You’re welcome.