With Martin G. Moore

Episode #183

Mentors, Coaches, and Trusted Advisors: What’s the difference?

There’s an inordinate number of passionate, dedicated people all over the world who coach, mentor, and advise others. Many do this as part and parcel of their day-to-day roles as leaders, but some go even further to actually make it their career.

So what’s the difference between coaching and mentoring? What are the pros and cons of each? How about a trusted advisor? If you’re coaching or mentoring others, how would you know when to deploy different techniques and approaches?

In this episode, I unravel the mystery of the different types of advisors, with a particular focus on external mentors and paid coaches. And I explain why a trusted advisor who’s very close to you may be able to give you the most valuable insights of all.

Find out more about working with me in a mentoring capacity here.

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Episode #183 Mentors, Coaches, and Trusted Advisors: What’s the difference?

Many leaders I talk to feel as though they need some additional support to enable them to grow and develop, but they’re not sure what that support looks like. I get a lot of questions about mentoring and coaching, and I figured it was time to develop a one stop shop to make these answers available to the whole No Bullsh!t Leadership community.

There have always been coaches and mentors, but the profession of coaching experienced explosive growth in the early 21st century, as a concept started to really get a foothold in mainstream business. There are an inordinate number of passionate, dedicated people all over the world who mentor, coach and advise others. Many do this as part and parcel of their day to day roles as leaders, but some go even further to actually make this their career.

So what’s the difference between coaching and mentoring? How would you know if one of these would be useful to you? How about a trusted advisor – what’s the difference? If you are providing coaching or mentoring to others, how would you know when the right time is to deploy different techniques? In this episode, I unravel a mystery of how this all works, so that hopefully you’ll find it easy to work out what to do. If you are coaching one of your people, when it’s time to bring in external support and what options might be beneficial to you now or in the future.

  • I’ll start with a brief description of the three advisor types and what problem they’re designed to help solve.

  • I’ll then compare and contrast these roles, taking a look at the pros and cons of each.

  • I’ll finish by sharing some of my experiences and insights from a lifetime of being mentored and mentoring others.

So let’s get into it.

Before we start, I just want to make it really clear that I’m going to cover a lot of ground in a very short period of time. I’m bound to leave out some critical things, and I’ll probably include some stuff that’s superfluous to many of you.


Let’s start with a quick overview of mentors, coaches, and trusted advisors:

  • A mentor shares their experience, wisdom and expertise to help their mentee improve their effectiveness – and this can be both their performance and their potential.

  • A coach provides support to help their charge reach targeted performance levels. This is usually through asking questions and leading the individual to their own conclusions rather than sharing knowledge and wisdom as a mentor might.

  • A trusted advisor is someone who offers observations about someone’s performance or behavior without fear or favor. Often it’s the observation itself that matters most, but they can also offer suggestions for how to change unhelpful behaviors or strengthen positive behaviors.

Think of a trusted advisor like a sounding board who enables you to tap into an independent perspective because they can see things that you may be unable to see yourself – this really helps to increase self-awareness. When I picture a trusted advisor in my head, I always think of the character played by Robert Duvall in the original movie classic, The Godfather. His character, Tom Hagen is the family consigliere. He is the voice of reason: logical and gentle, an island of sanity and truth amidst the violence and duplicity of the Corleone family.


But let’s focus first on coaching and mentoring. What do they have in common? They can both be either formal or informal arrangements. Informally, you’ll find that you spend time coaching and mentoring your people as part of the day to day leadership dialogue. In turn, you may be coached or mentored by your boss or someone more senior in the organization. There are also formal arrangements, and this is what we’ll put most of the emphasis on in today’s episode.

In this case, a coach or mentor is acquired from outside of your management line or outside your organization. There’s a thriving executive coaching industry globally. This generally comes in the form of an independent firm providing a paid service to assist someone with their individual performance. In contrast to coaching, mentoring tends to be performed pro bono by more senior and seasoned leaders who have some experience worth sharing.

Let’s take a quick dive into coaching. This is generally what I like to call content free guidance. Coaches listen to you and they support you. They ask the sorts of insightful questions that enable you to tap into your own resources, knowledge, and experience. They encourage you and they motivate you. They give you alternative perspectives to help shape your worldview. They don’t generally give you guidance on how to solve your problems or do your job better. They rely on developing your capacity to function and solve problems rather than imparting their wisdom on you. And they sometimes even hold you to account for making the changes that you commit to making. But it’s non-directive, and in business, it’s generally designed as a short term intervention. Although the industry now has university degrees and other qualifications that coaches can acquire, the industry itself is largely unregulated in most countries.

Mentoring is subtly different from coaching. For a start, it’s much more directive. The whole intent of the process is for the mentor to impart their experience, wisdom and expertise onto the mentee in order to give them greater perspective, to help them improve their performance. And even to harness their future potential. Mentors typically offer their services pro bono – that is, for free. It’s a common way for more experienced leaders and executives to give back and to pay it forward. Mentoring is by design, This is different from coaching, which now has a fairly well worn certification regime in many countries.

One of the really important things about an effective mentoring relationship is that it should be independent of your leadership line. I’ll explain more about this later on. Some companies set formal mentoring programmes so that their up and coming junior employees can tap into the wisdom and experience of their more seasoned colleagues. But most mentoring relationships are struck informally by an individual approaching a highly respected or admired leader who is somewhere in their field of vision and asking if they would be prepared to mentor them.


Now, a coach or a mentor can definitely become a trusted advisor to you, but I use the term trusted advisor slightly differently. I want to make an important distinction here: when I say trusted advisor, I’m specifically talking about someone who works directly with you. They get to see how you perform and behave in the heat of battle day to day. The biggest hole in both coaching and mentoring is that your coach or mentor only know what you tell them. You provide your perspective on the events you are part of, the decisions you make and the interactions you have. We all color our stories with rationalization and we overlay our intent to justify our actions. This can paint a really different picture to how other people experience our behaviors and performance.

The trusted advisor is someone who can reflect to you the things that you can’t necessarily see for yourself. This can provide an essential, somewhat confronting path to greater self-awareness. For me, a trusted advisor would usually be one of my direct reports. Why? Well, they get to see me perform frequently in all contexts. They hear what I say in both one-on-ones and group meetings. They get to know what drives me, what makes me tick. They experience my persona in good times and bad. They often see me deal with other stakeholders: my boss, the Board of Directors, for example, with customers, and with suppliers. They see me when I’m on my best behavior, and when my guard is completely down. They have the perfect vantage point from which to provide feedback. The key question is, will this person be confident and strong enough to give me honest feedback without fear or favor? If the answer to that question is ‘yes’, it can be the most valuable of all the advisor relationships that you seek to help you improve.


Let’s just talk about the pros and cons of coaches, mentors, and trusted advisors. We’ll start with coaching again. We’ve already said that coaching is not directive. The reason this is important is that it’s the client who arrives at their own conclusions. They are expertly led to make their own observations and their own decisions on what they should change. This can be extremely effective in extending the half life of any changes that someone makes. The change that you choose to make yourself, based on your own recognition of issues, is much more likely to stick than change which is driven by someone else’s opinion of what you might need to do differently. But this path can also be very slow – quite often, I’ve seen the speed of change that could only be described as glacial. Now, there are really three potential problems that you need to consider if you’re thinking of engaging a coach:

1. The coach quite often won’t have any real experience themselves in leadership or business

This limits what they can offer – which is why the content free non-directive approach is so critical to maintain for a coach without that experience. Now, this is not to say they can’t be incredibly valuable. The two most impactful advisors in my career weren’t necessarily the most experienced in business, but more on this shortly.

2. Most companies tend to use coaching only as a remedial strategy 

In other words, they’ll hire a coach for someone to try to fix a problem with their performance that’s already been established, rather than to proactively enhance an already high performer. I think the opportunities to take coaches into that other realm are still enormous.

3. The coach only gets to see the world through your eyes

We’ve already said this. This can suffer from all sorts of biases: is the problem you describe really the problem? This can be mitigated somewhat by the use of third party feedback instruments like 360 degree feedback surveys. Many coaches actually start here so that you at least have a baseline of how others perceive you. This type of feedback also has its strengths and weaknesses, of course.

With mentoring the upside is that it gives you the opportunity to learn from someone else’s experience. If it’s someone you trust and respect, then you are likely to listen and learn well. As is the case with coaching, you get to choose what to take on board or not. Because mentoring is less formally structured, you get to control the agenda better. To go with this, there’s little downside to mentoring. In most circumstances, the only thing you’re investing is your time. There’s no fixed duration for the engagement, you can meet as frequently or infrequently as it suits you – and, if you’re not getting value, there’s no obligation to keep the relationship going. The biggest downside is the same as it is for coaching (although it doesn’t play such a large part in the mentoring process), the mentor only knows what you tell them, so their advice can lack context. In the case of mentoring, it’s even rarer for mentors to use 360 degree feedback to help give you that baseline.

Finally, the trusted advisor. These relationships can be really tricky to establish. Let me give you my view on who makes the perfect trusted advisor:

  • It’s someone who reports directly to you.

  • They’re a high performer – and I don’t mean you simply get on well with them. I mean, they’re actually a high performer. If they’re not, why do you care what they think?

  • They’re courageous. In other words, they’re prepared to tell you the truth.

  • They trust that you’ll take their input on board and that any critical feedback won’t damage their own prospects or the relationship that they have with you.

  • They are intellectually astute and they have a high EQ.

You may think that these people are as rare as rocking horse shit, but if you’re building a high performing team, you should have at least one of these in your direct reports lineup. If you don’t, I’m going to send you back to Episode #2 of this podcast: Building A High Performing Team. There are two potential downsides with the trusted advisor:

1. They may fall into the trap of telling you what you want to hear in order to further their own career opportunities and standing with their boss. This can be deceptively comforting for you.

2. You may become so close to them that you begin to overlook the ups and downs of their performance, to the detriment of the team. This can have a hugely negative impact on the culture, as it may appear to the rest of the team that you are playing favorites.

I’ve got to tell you, I have fallen into both these traps more than once, but if you get it right, a trusted advisor can be like rocket fuel for your development. Nothing, and I mean nothing, keeps you honest more than timely, accurate, and honest feedback from below.


I want to finish by sharing a few of my own experiences. Coaches can be really effective in helping you to gain insight and to work through strategies for changing the things that you’d like to improve. Having said that, I’ve rarely seen a business coaching relationship radically improve on-the-job performance. My experience is that any gains are typically slow and incremental.

Having said that, two of my biggest life and career changes came as a result of coaching moments. In 2007, I worked with Colin Clark for six months. This completely changed my trajectory from the corporate career path I was on by helping me to imagine doing something different. He helped me to reveal my true nature and purpose. Without this, I would never have embarked on what is now Your CEO Mentor, so that’s monumental, right?

Then much later in 2018, just as we were setting up this business, Rachel Vickery was my high performance coach. Rachel’s background is in elite sport, but she was able to bring me a completely new perspective on the choices I was facing when deciding which career path to choose: to stay in the corporate world, or to take the risk of an entrepreneurial venture? For those of you who are being coached or think of being coached, my heartfelt wish for you is that you find a Colin Clark or a Rachel Vickery.

How about my experience as a corporate Executive and CEO coaching others? Well, if you’ve been listening to No Bullsh!t Leadership for any length of time, you’ll know how strong I am on a leader’s need to challenge, coach and confront. I used to flip between coaching and mentoring. I mean this in the sense of being either more or less directive – think of it in terms of situational leadership theory: a leader has to change their style based on the capability and maturity of the person they’re leading, and this is done on an individual basis. So, for some people who are relatively new and inexperienced, I’d be much more directive than I would be with someone who was running their own race, because they’d been doing it for years and years.

I recognise that a leader can’t have a true mentoring relationship with one of their direct reports, because, for a start, you both have skin in the game. There’s also a natural power imbalance. For these reasons, the mentee can’t be completely open – it’s almost impossible – but you should try to mix coaching and mentoring as a leader to get the best out of your people at different stages in their roles and their careers.

the right MENTOR CAN BE incredibly VALUABLE

When it comes to mentors, they have been and valuable part of my career. I’ve had many mentors over my time, often in different specialist areas. For example, I had a mentor who helped me deal with labor unions and industrial relations, one who helped me improve commercial outcomes, and I had one who helped me to handle corporate politics. In each of these areas, my mentor was a genius in that particular area of endeavor, and I learned a huge amount from them. I’d tap into them fairly infrequently, but they were always available to help me out when I had questions or problems that I felt required a second opinion or a broader perspective.

In these days of podcasts, YouTube and social media, mentors are more accessible than ever before. Most of the mentoring I receive these days comes from other people’s podcasts: Michael Lewis, Harvard Business Review, Seth Godin, McKinsey & Company – they all have awesome podcasts that keep me on the leading edge of personal development.

Just one other piece of mentoring I want to touch on: I have to say that the pro bono mentoring work that I did as an executive during my corporate career was patchy in terms of its effectiveness. Some mentees got irreplaceable and untold value from every interaction they had with me, but others simply went through the motions until I challenged them to stop wasting both our time and energy. For any mentoring relationship, it’s really important for you to undertake a chemistry test. Spend enough time understanding who the potential mentor is, and be sure that you’re clicking with their style, their approach, and their areas of focus.


Finally, what’s my experience since becoming a professional mentor since setting up Your CEO Mentor with Emma in the latter part of 2018? Well, as a professional mentor, the first thing that struck me was not many of us around, from what I can tell. There are unlimited professional coaches and finding a pro bono mentor who’s willing to share their experience is pretty easy. Because of my rather unusual experience set, I was not only able to combine coaching and mentoring, but also to add a third dimension: management consulting. So, for some clients, I found myself pulling apart their corporate strategy, advising them on commercial agreements, talking to them about increasing their capital productivity or reviewing their market segmentation plans. I came to learn that every client is completely different in where they are, what they know and what they need. And each of them can need something completely different on any given day, so the flexibility I was able to build in was awesome – but even then, I found that the relationships could still become quite transactional. Because I’m all about value and results, I got pretty dissatisfied with the exchange of my time for our clients’ money.

That’s why Emma and I decided to completely change our engagement model. Now, we only take on a couple of clients every year and we focus on each of them intently. It’s only a small part of our business, so anytime I spend in one-on-one work has to be real quality. It has to deliver high returns for everyone involved. So we went to a long-term engagement model where the client gets unlimited access to me, for a given period of time. This lets me go really deep into their personal issues and their business. And it becomes much more natural and much more value accretive because it’s based on value rather than activity. I basically partner with top executives to become their consigliere: the person they turn to for sense checks, problem-solving support, and that direct, honest feedback without the bullshit. No one who’s at the senior executive level or running their own business can afford to waste time on low value activities.

So now, I feel a lot more comfortable that the one-on-one engagements I undertake actually bring the best of all worlds, in a way that creates long-term value and sustainable change. The prerequisite is the performance of the business has to improve radically because that’s what lights me up. If my client’s business performance doesn’t improve, I’ve basically failed. That’s why now, I only work with people who are in a position to genuinely change their business’ trajectory. That frees up the vast majority of my time to keep producing the No Bullsh!t Leadership content that reaches our incredible listeners all over the world, because that’s how I really love to spend my days.

I hope that gives you a better understanding of what the differences are between the approaches. Mentors, coaches, and trusted advisors can be incredibly valuable in supporting your career growth and development. If you are thinking of engaging someone, try to put them through the filters in this episode to make sure you are seeking the right support for the right reasons. As I said, there are many incredible people out there in all forms of this and some of the people who’ve coached me in the past have truly changed my life. I hope whatever you do in the future, you can find someone like that to help you grow and face your own reality to become a better leader.


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