Methods in Mentoring is a bimonthly column produced in partnership with the National EMS Management Association. Visit www.nemsma.org.
Most people find their mentors at work, or at least within their industry. Often those mentors are colleagues, coworkers, or supervisors. That makes sense—work is where we spend most of our time, and to be successful in our professional lives, we tend to turn to those who have come before us for advice, support, and guidance.
But one downside to having a mentor who is a coworker or supervisor is that at some point the aspirations, desires, and challenges you discuss with your mentor may be distinctly at odds with their own work goals and/or job responsibilities.
Let’s say your training captain has become your mentor. He or she knows of and supports your aspirations to advance into a training role within your agency. But as time goes by and opportunities for advancement do not present themselves, you become frustrated and start to explore other career options.
If you tell your training captain about the options you’re exploring, how will that affect future employment decisions at your agency? Will you be passed over for promotions because of what you shared? Will your mentor, an employee at the same agency, view your career challenges through his or her own eyes, or even use the information that you’re looking elsewhere to further his or her own career or give you advice based on personal goals?
While most of our friends, partners, coworkers, and supervisors have good intentions, it’s almost impossible to be completely objective in their guidance and not let their goals, desires, challenges, or important news affect them. We are human beings, and what we go through ultimately impacts others. Though they support us, mentors are not immune from this.
Invested But Impartial
The obvious answer here is to make sure your mentor is not a coworker or supervisor. But it’s not always that easy. Identifying a mentor doesn’t just happen overnight—even through matching services, such as NEMSMA’s—and we don’t always have control over whom we look up to, want to learn from, and feel comfortable confiding in. It takes time to build trust and confidence with a mentor and may take a few tries before you find the right match. Or you may find you identify several different mentors based on different aspects of what you’re seeking to accomplish.
But what if you could find someone invested in your success yet completely nonjudgmental and impartial to your triumphs, challenges, and desires? That’s the role of a coach.
Coaching is not therapy or consulting or even mentoring. It is a professional (i.e., paid or hired) partnership between a coach and the person being coached, wherein the coach uses evidence-based strategies to help the person being coached reach certain goals. Coaching manifests as a dialogue through which the coach and person being coached work together to generate important insights, gain clarity, and make decisions to improve performance.
This dialogue allows the person being coached to determine their own answers and action steps, allowing them to not only solve immediate issues but also develop the capacity to keep improving. In other words, coaching is about helping people improve their own capabilities and effectiveness so their results and performance improvements last.
Similarities and Differences
Coaching started as a recognized profession in the early 1990s and, as it gained media attention, led to corporate success stories and facilitated personal and professional transformations around the world. The rate at which people work with coaches today has grown exponentially, and thousands have gone on to become certified coaches across many different disciplines.
Coaches, like mentors, come in all different shapes, sizes, and flavors. There are leadership coaches, career coaches, life coaches, business coaches, event coaches—the list is endless. And just as in mentoring relationships, it can sometimes take a few tries to find the right coach.
While coaching is different from mentoring, there is substantial overlap. Many coaches have a great deal of experience to share, and the best mentors generally coach as well. However, when we share personal goals or aspirations with our mentors—especially if they are partners, close friends, coworkers, or supervisors—they may not be fully honest or willing to ask us probing questions to analyze our motivations because they do not want to risk the relationship. They mean well, but sometimes we need someone more objective and with less to gain to force us to dig deeper.
Another difference is that while a mentor is found or identified, a coach is hired. As a result, coaching allows people to express themselves in a nonjudgmental environment with the confidence that the person with whom they’re speaking supports them completely. A coach puts your success first, without regard to how your aspirations affect them. And unlike your boss, manager, coworker, friend, or mentor, a coach does not need you to impress them, nor do they have anything to gain by your choices.
Coaching also provides many of the components that are missing when we set out to achieve our personal and professional goals: accountability, motivation, challenge, encouragement, and unfaltering support. A coach will challenge you to ensure you’re making firm choices you can stand behind and ask deep and inspirational questions that force you to dig for answers and chart the best course forward.
The coaching relationship is authentic because it truly focuses on you and what you want to achieve, regardless of how it affects anyone else around you or what those people might think. Most important, a coach will work with you to turn your goals, dreams, and desires into achievements, without concern for how it personally impacts them.
Impartial Sounding Board
Coaching and mentoring are not mutually exclusive and can be used together effectively. On the one hand, a mentor can show you the ropes, help you navigate a particular industry or profession, and give you advice (often based on their own experiences) for how to succeed.
On the other hand, a coach will serve as an impartial sounding board, even in an industry or profession they often know nothing about, helping you find answers within yourself. You will look up to and try to emulate a mentor, while a coach will help you navigate through the advice and counsel both your mentors and life experiences provide.
Fratto JM. Professional Life Coaching for All Walks of Life: A Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a Life Coach. National Coach Academy, http://www.nationalcoachacademy.com/walks-of-life.
Neitlich A. The Way to Coach. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016.
Allison J. Bloom, Esq., FACPE, is an EMS industry attorney, current treasurer of the National EMS Management Association (NEMSMA), and a fellow in the American College of Paramedic Executives (FACPE). She is a nationally recognized author and speaker on legal, compliance, and risk-management topics. She is founder and lead advisor at 2050 Advisors, LLC, an executive leadership and career transition coaching company. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.