#37: Mentoring vs. Coaching vs. Teaching

In the last Mektup, I talked about proactive mentorship and what makes a mentor great. Let's continue with coaching and teaching and the differences between all three.

Mentorship is the first step any engineer takes. Almost all senior engineers are somehow expected to mentor others. And rarely expected to be a mentee at the same time. There is a mispercep­tion that senior engineers do not need to be a mentee, but I disagree with that. Everyone—including principal en­gineers and CTOs—needs mentoring in one area or another. There is always room for improvement, and finding a mentor is one of the best growth strategies.

The mentoring relationship often starts with a need; you need a mentor, or someone else needs you. Although the beginning is a bit awkward, it can become a great relationship. As I said in the last Mektup, mentoring helps both sides grow because the focus is on long-term career development. It's a knowledge exchange and lear­ning collaboration. Let's demonstrate this to understand better.

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Mentor has a piece of knowledge in a topic. The mentee is interested in acquiring this knowledge and experience. They have some knowledge, but they want to learn more.

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When their relationship starts, their common knowledge is often small.

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After some time, their common knowledge grows. As the mentee consumes and learns more about the topic, the mentor also grows their knowledge.

When a mentor starts sharing wisdom, their understanding of the topic deepens. Mentee's questions challenge the status quo in the mentor's mind and nudge them to rethink, research more and learn more. Over time, the mentor's knowledge grows together with the mentee's. That's the beauty of mentorship. It's bidirectional. Mentor ↔ Mentee.

Now, let's look at coaching and teaching—unidirectional relationships. A coach guides you, and a teacher teaches you. Well, it's not that simple, but in short, it's what happens. Contrary to mentorship, where you figure things out together, in coaching, the coach asks questions to help other people find their own way. The coach gives small nudges to guide or course-correct. The focus is on a specific skill. Of course, a coach also learns during guiding. Yet, their learning is different from learnings as a mentor. A coach learns from the coachee's experiences without being involved in them. The main work is on the coachee; they follow the suggestions and recommendations of a coach. If the coachee doesn't put the effort and work on improvements, the relationship fails. The same applies to teaching.

In teaching, the teacher is informative. They directly share knowledge; they are the ones who took the same journey as a student before and currently sharing what they have learned over time. Think about yourself in a classroom. There is a teacher who explains a topic to you. The student is in listening and consuming mode while the teacher is in informing and narrating mode.

What separates all three—mentoring, coaching, and teaching—is who the active side is.

In teaching, the teacher is active; they do the main work (Teacher ➡ Student). They prepare for the class and pass their knowledge to students.

In coaching, the coachee is the active one. The coach asks questions and gives suggestions or small nudges, but the work is on the coachee; they have to do the work and follow their own path (Coachee↩Coach). In mentoring, both sides are active. Although the mentor has some knowledge that mentee doesn't, they both actively contribute to the topic. It is why engineers are expected to mentor but not expected to teach or coach.

On the other hand, leaders are often expected to coach people together with mentoring. The point of leadership is helping people figure out problems by themselves, and that's the definition of coaching. I will write about coaching in detail later, but the difficulty with coaching is learning to stay silent and not give guidance all the time. The best coaches (and leaders) I worked with rarely gave advice but always asked questions.

Depending on your needs and plans, you have to decide what you're looking for. My recommendation for all engineers—regardless of their growth path—is to start with mentoring. Help someone grow by being a mentor, and find yourself a mentor who has been in your place before. Never stop your mentorship re­lationships in your career. As both mentee and mentor are active, you'll always learn something from both sides.

If you're planning to move into more management roles, find a junior or graduate engineer you can try coaching. Read "The Coaching Habit" by Michael Bungay Stainer and learn how to stay silent and ask better questions.

If you're into teaching others, that's a role you can always do anytime in your career. There are always people who are less knowledgeable than you. The best way to start is to give talks in your company about topics you know.

Be aware of the key differences between mentoring, coaching, and teaching and which one you want. Pick one and follow your own path. Doesn't matter which side you're on (the active or passive side); you'll grow immensely.

One important note; never start either of them if you don't have energy or time. It's crucial that mentoring and coaching sessions are frequent and consistent. Don't leave someone halfway because they will be frustrated, and it is never easy to find a new person halfway. Be reliable and trustworthy, and share what you learn on your journey.

P.S. I wrote this 2,5 years ago. All of them are still valuable lessons.

Newsletter Last Updated: Aug 9, 2022