What's in a name? The difference between a mentor, consultant, and coach

G. Rabalais - January 31, 2022

Have you ever been asked by a faculty colleague for advice because you are either in a formal leadership role (division chief, department chair, dean, medical director, etc.), or because you are a senior faculty member and respected clinician? This request could be for career planning advice, the development of a line of research, becoming a more effective leader,a clinical problem with a challenging patient, or a current problem they are facing at work. Some facultywho seek advice may need mentoring, some need you to function more as a consultant, and some may need a coach. But what are the differences between these three roles that you could play? How do you know what they are asking for, or, more pointedly, what they really need to address the issue that they are seeking help with? 

The distinction between the roles of mentor, consultant and coach may not be obvious at first glance.But they are different, and as we are asked for advice, we need to discern just what they really need before we jump in. Of these three we are probably most familiar with the mentor and consultant roles as we perform our duties as faculty members. Let’s tease these out first.  

Mentoring generally defines a relationship between junior and more senior faculty members. It is usually focused on succession training, and most simply, mentoring seeks to help someone ultimately do what you do. The mentor is seen as the one with the answers because of their seniority and personal experiences. Mentors allow the mentee to observe their interactions with others, ask questions, and provideguidance for career planning. Mentor-mentee relationshipsuse regular sessionsto meet and discuss issues generally over a longer time frame.

Consulting is a role we are likely the most familiar with as it relates to our work as clinicians in a specialty area. As in clinical medicine, the consultant faculty member deals with problems to be solved at the request of another individual. The consultant is not focused on succession planning for a junior colleague. Rather,they provide strategies, expertise, and methodologies to solve a problemlike what an external business consultant might provide. Again, the faculty member as consultant is seen as the person with the answers as they stand back, evaluate a situation, and then tells the person asking how to fix the problem. There is no personal or long-term commitment as there might likely be in a mentoring relationship. Once the consultant has provided the recommended solutions, strategies,etc., the interaction is complete.

Coaching is a field that is quite different from mentoring and consulting, and the coaching profession has developed certification programs for coaches to standardize the approaches used for this unique role in the service of others. In short, a coach is future focused as they engage the client (recipient of the coaching) to bring them to a higher level of functioning. Rather than being seen as the person with the answers, the coach is viewed as a partner to support the client as they seek to create a better future for themselves. The coach helps the client by discovering answers from within, and only rarely provides advice from the coach’s personal experience.Unlike mentor and consultant relationships, coaches have a relationship with the client that is collegial and resembles an active partnership. The coach must be a focused and engaged listener as they help the client identify challenges, workwith the client to turn those challenges into victories and hold the client accountable for reaching their desired goals. 

Now What? 

By having greater clarity of the differences between the roles of mentor, consultant, and coach, we can better discern what a colleague needs when they seek our advice or help. A junior colleague who wants to aspire to your role as department chair probably needs a mentor. A colleague who has a specific problem in their line of research likely needs you to serve as a consultant. And finally, a colleague who is transitioning out of a leadership role may need a coach who partners with them to surface how they want to structure their next career stage while providing an environment that facilitates their growth and holds them accountable for reaching their goals. As colleagues seek your advice, take time to discern what they really need. Doing this well moves us along the journey to make UofL a great place to learn, work and invest.