Are You Mentoring, Consulting, Coaching, or Being a Friend? Hot Takes From a New Coach


A lot of us consider ourselves coaches. Calling yourself a coach is an increasingly popular way to frame people-management and leadership styles. Ask someone what their definition of a coach is, and you’ll get a variety of answers. In my life, I’ve had many friends, just as many consultants, and several mentors. Less frequently, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a coach and experience a true coaching conversation. So, what is this elusive idea of a coach, and what does coaching look (and feel) like? I’ve been reflecting on the differences between these roles since starting my coaching certification program with iPEC several weeks ago. Let’s start with a mentor.

The mentoring relationship is reciprocal and — if it’s authentic — blossoms out of a mutual friendship and respect of one another. Simon Sinek has a great clip on this. As a mentor, you illuminate a path for your mentee often by basing your guidance on your personal experience. A mentor’s agenda, insofar as you have one, is to help your mentee learn the ropes and, in the process, you learn from one another.

Similarly, consulting is characterized by collaborative problem solving, which may or may not be based on personal experience. At Thought Ensemble, we pride ourselves on welcoming and valuing diverse perspectives to achieve the best outcome. The crucial difference between consulting and coaching is this — when you’re in consulting mode, your agenda is to solve someone’s problem. This approach is often our default stance, especially in a professional setting. Consider the last time someone came to you with an issue — did you tell them how to solve it? Or did you ask open-ended questions and encourage them to solve the problem using their own resources?

A related category is that of a friend. Friendship is based on a shared history in which you get to know another person’s likes, dislikes, hopes, and dreams. As a result, friends have expectations of one another, which makes it difficult to be a naturally objective listener. As a friend, you often have an opinion (or several) about your friends’ lives — and they probably feel the same way about you!

Like all of the roles above, a coach is focused on helping people. The cornerstone of coaching is to support people in shifting their mindset to realize their own power and inherent worth. This is precisely why coaches never give you the answer. As a coach, you believe people have all of the resources and answers within themselves to achieve their definition of success. The client is the expert, not the coach.

It is helpful to think about these roles (mentor, consultant, friend, and coach) as hats that you can take on and off. None of these definitions are either/or. You can flex between all of these roles over the span of a relationship and even within one conversation.

So, are you mentoring, consulting, coaching, or being a friend? Which hat will you wear next?