Product Leadership Marty Cagan

Coaching vs. Mentoring

To continue on with the coaching series, one question that frequently comes up is the difference between coaching and mentoring?  Is there even a meaningful difference?

I don’t know if there’s any definitive authority on these terms, but many years ago I was taught the Bill Campbell view on this question, and I have used his distinction in my own work.

First, it’s important to point out that both coaching and mentoring are good.  The world would be better if we had much more of each.

I try to mentor as many people as I can that want it, although long ago I realized that I needed to focus my efforts on one-to-many techniques.  Initially I would agree to meet for an hour, over a coffee, once a month with essentially anyone that asked, especially if they were from an underrepresented group.  But it didn’t take long before the number of these requests started to get out of hand.  But by then I had already started to notice that many of the same themes kept coming up, both with my own direct reports, and with those I was mentoring.  So I started working on one-to-many mentoring activities that were higher leverage. Writing these articles is a prime example.  Same with the books.  Giving community talks.  AMA sessions.  Teaching some public workshops.

However, I only coach a select few people at a time, which in my case is done through my advisory work.  This coaching is generally one-to-one, so it is much more time-intensive, but also much more personal.

But here is the key.  When I mentor, I try to share my honest opinions and reasoning, but I know that I have no control over whether the person listens, or whether that advice even applies in their particular circumstances.  So I don’t lose any sleep over how this works out for each person.

But with coaching, I know that if the person I’m coaching ends up failing, that’s very much on me.  As a coach, I’m signing up to ensure that person is prepared for the tasks at hand, and it’s my reputation on the line as well.  So I do stress about whether their particular product strategy is solid, or whether the person is prepared for an upcoming executive review or a board meeting.  Just as their manager should.  As Bill Campbell said, “You can’t be a good manager without being a good coach.”

Bottom line is that as a coach I have some real degree of accountability.  As a mentor, I don’t.  But again, I consider both helpful.

As the years go by, I find coaching and mentoring to be rewarding in ways even beyond how much I love actually building products.

I recently read a very inspiring article by Arthur Brooks that deeply resonated with me, and I realized that I’m not the only one that has discovered this.  

Now I also realize there’s probably some confirmation bias going on here, as the subtitle of the article is “America needs more than innovation; it needs wisdom” and that’s something that I also believe.

Most people are all too aware of the downsides of aging.  But this article highlighted one of the upsides. I would encourage everyone in the tech industry, of any age, to read and consider this article.  

My only caveat is that while I do believe in the core argument of this article, I have known quite a few exceptions in my career – of very young people showing extraordinary insights and wisdom, and of course older people that remain completely clueless.

But if you have had a good career and been fortunate enough to have contributed to some great products, it’s encouraging to see how you can continue to contribute in new and in many ways, deeper levels.