Improved Leadership. Competitive Advantage.

In 1979, Harvard Business Review published a landmark article entitled “Much Ado About Mentors”. Of the 1250 executives that responded to their survey, almost all attributed some level of their success to the presence of a mentor. If you are reading this right now and you don’t have a mentor, then you should stop reading. Reflect. Find yourself a strong and capable mentor. To be unequivocal and clear—there will never be a good reason NOT to possess a mentor. No excuse. While all mentors are, by default, coaches, not all coaches are necessarily mentors. So, we would like to take a moment and highlight some of the key duties that one should expect from a mentor, and also, a coach.

Kathy Kram, out of Boston University, is considered the research expert on mentoring. She identifies some key duties of the best mentors. Notably, she contends that strong mentors will perform the functioning of ‘spotlighting’ for their respective protégés. Spotlighting means helping to direct executive and managerial awareness towards the many good attributes of the protégé. Put differently, a good mentor will highlight and share the wins of those he or she mentors. In a way, a mentor becomes the advocate for the protégé. Another important function of mentors is to protect. Even the very best leaders make mistakes, and some of those may even be big mistakes. To ensure that mistakes never become career killers, it is important for a mentor to protect (not coddle) and shield her protégé from the damaging, and often political, consequences that can occur from an error. We’ve heard someone once say that good mentors not so much build great careers for their protégés as much as they save careers from the dustbin of history. Of course, mentors provide some level of friendship, affirmation, coaching, and counseling to junior leaders.

Mentors differ from coaches along several, important lines. First, mentoring relationships tend to be more personal and intimate. There is often a heavy emotional or affect component to the relationship. Related, many researchers contend that mentors tend to adopt a holistic approach towards their protégés—one that is both personal and professional. Second, mentoring relationships take more time and often last longer than most coaching relationships. It isn’t uncommon for mentoring relationships to last 5 to 7 years; some, we know, actually engage in mentoring relationships that last a lifetime. Coaching, by contrast, is less personal, and more performance focused. Also, and some may contend is a benefit of coaches, they are slightly more detached and may be able to view issues in a more objective or dispassionate light. Using the metaphor from above regarding physical training, a mentor is your workout partner who is just slightly better and wiser than you. A physical trainer is akin to your executive or leadership coach with specialized expertise who can look at your workout regimen without bias and with some level of objectivity.

Our recommendation is to invest in both because mentors and leadership coaches fulfill distinctly different functions. While we can’t fulfill the mentorship role, we’re unsurpassed when it comes to executive and leadership coaching. To learn more, contact Robin Bichy at