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Mentoring vs. Coaching: Why Faculty Need to Know the Difference

Since Fall 2021, when I began offering coaching services to Duke faculty, this professional development resource generated a lot of interest … and many questions. There is a great deal of confusion about what “coaching” is in U.S. higher education, partly because anyone can conceivably call themselves a coach (and go into business!) without training or credentialing. 

Coaching, however, is a well-established professional development technique. There are equally well-established procedures — thanks to global accrediting organizations such as the International Coaching Federation and the European Mentoring and Coaching Council — for coaching someone to meet their stated goals. 

And although there are forms of coaching (“performance management”) to help people who may be having serious problems at work, the type of coaching I (and most professional coaches) do is intended to help already high-achieving people meet their full potential. Everyone can use help, and I find highly successful people tend to encounter similar challenges. Often our greatest strength (such as perfectionism or our passion for work) can also be the thing that most often gets in our way.   

Faculty may wonder why they’d turn to a coach when they already have mentors to talk to. These mentors might include former dissertation directors and committee members, your department chair, other faculty both within and beyond your department, and other scholars in your discipline. Some faculty members may feel like they have all the support they need from a robust mentoring network. Others, however, may face ongoing challenges in getting all of their professional development needs met. And in these situations, it might be more appropriate and helpful to work with a professional coach. 

Here are five reasons why coaching is distinctively different from mentoring. 

(1) A coach is not your role model, (2) nor will they give you advice.

While there are many ways to mentor someone, many academic mentors tend to rely heavily on both role modeling (“Here’s how you can have a career like mine”) and advice (“Here’s how it’s done”). 

Coaches will not model a career path for you or tell you how to do your job, even if they happen to have a Ph.D. in your discipline. While this might seem like a negative, consider academic mentors may have strong opinions about the career choices you make and how you do your work. Timely, thoughtful advice can be a lifesaver. At other times, it can be disempowering. 

(3) A coach is your thought partner.

A well-trained coach does everything they can to make sure you have room to think clearly and constructively. In a coaching conversation, you do most of the talking, and the coach asks powerful questions to help you advance your thinking. Your coach will reflect back to you what they hear and observe, and offer an objective, detached perspective when helpful. They will help you build confidence and competence in reaching goals and addressing whatever is in the way. 

When you meet with a coach, every single minute of the conversation is focused on you, your needs and your professional goals. 

(4) A coach offers near-absolute confidentiality. 

With very few exceptions, coaches are bound by a professional code of ethics to keep everything they hear to themselves. Mentors may have other commitments, allegiances and agendas that compromise confidentiality, and even (at times) discretion. 

(5) A coach can help you put your unique situation into a broader perspective. 

Mentors may have several dozen mentees (or fewer) over a single career. An experienced coach may have coached hundreds of people (and in my case, hundreds of academics) in a fraction of that time. They can see patterns and trends, what tends to be most challenging for people, and what questions, approaches and strategies most often help people resolve a particular issue. 

Sound interesting? What would you like to discuss with a mentor, but haven’t been able to? If you would like to explore coaching, take a look at the coaching programs offered through Duke’s Office for Faculty Advancement. We are accepting registrations and nominations through the end of April.