Mentoring: What is it and how is it different from coaching?

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Wendy Axelrod, who is an executive coach, mentor coach and author of a handful of books around mentoring. She shared her thoughts on what mentoring is, how it’s different from coaching, whether it’s appropriate for someone to mentor someone who is older or more experienced than them and what an organization may want to consider if they’re thinking of starting a mentoring program.

Introduction 

Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, which is a podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, I’m your host. And I’m also the Co-founder of an organization called Endurance Learning. Today, I am joined by Executive Coach, Mentor Coach, and Author, Wendy Axelrod, and we’re gonna be talking about mentoring

But before we get to that, I do wanna let you know today’s podcast is brought to you by Soapbox, which is an online tool that you can use for about 5 or 10 minutes, and you can take care of about 50 or 60% of the work when it comes to developing a live, instructor-led training. So basically, you go to www.soapboxify.com, you set up an account, you tell your computer how long your presentation is, how many people are going to attend, whether it’s in-person or virtual, what your learning objectives are, and then boom! Soapbox instantly generates a training plan for you with clusters of training activities that are designed to help you accomplish all of your learning outcomes. And if you don’t wanna just listen to me babble on about it, you can go to www.soapboxify.com and try it out for two weeks for free. All right. We are here with Wendy Axelrod, and Wendy, thank you so much for joining us. 

Wendy Axelrod: It is my sheer joy for joining, Brian. Thank you so much. 

Six-Word Biography

Brian Washburn: Just so much good energy coming from you. So what we like to do, I shared that you’re an Executive Coach, Mentor Coach, you’re an Author, but we like to have people introduce themselves in exactly six words. So how would you introduce yourself to our audience in six words? 

Wendy Axelrod: Make every day a development day. 

Brian Washburn: I love that. And I think that’s a great way to jump into this idea of mentoring. You know, you’ve literally written the book or books on mentoring. How did you get involved in mentoring in the first place? 

Getting Involved in Mentoring

Wendy Axelrod: You know, necessity is the mother of invention. I was president of a professional association in the greater Philly area, and I took a look at what was going on and what our pipeline for future leaders were and there was none. We were very homogeneous. So I said this is the time to start mentoring and bringing folks into the fold. And we came at it from a pretty, oh serious, mindset as talent management, talent development, and strategic HR leaders. So we used a lot of rigor to what we put together as that program, and that was 21 years ago. It’s still going on! 

Brian Washburn: Well, I love that. I love that for several reasons. One is it was just kind of something that developed out of necessity. And, two, is it must have been developed well because it is still going on. And we were just having this conversation before we hit record, but I’d love to hear your thoughts. I think a lot of people use the word “mentoring” and the word “coaching,” and sometimes even “supervising” interchangeably. Can you give us a definition of mentoring and share your thoughts on how it’s different from other support roles like coaching and supervising? 

What is Mentoring? And How is it Different from Coaching and Supervising?

Wendy Axelrod: Yes. As a matter of fact, Brian, I’ve had all three positions, and I’m currently a coach and a mentor, so happy to do this. And the distinction between them, I think, is maybe even more important than the definition of mentoring per se. 

It is good to have an intentional pathway that you are on, including goals and a regular structure for how you meet.

But mentoring is using a well-formulated relationship as the basis for moving forward for a person’s growth and development. And in that relationship, you are both volunteers, and it is good to have an intentional pathway that you are on, including goals and a regular structure for how you meet. And we see that there are much better results when there is an actual, even if it’s just the two of you, a program. If it’s company-run, of course, there is one, there is that structure. So, that’s a light touch on the first part. How does it get distinguished from coaching and from supervising or leading? First of all, mentoring, as I mentioned, it’s a voluntary relationship. 

Brian Washburn: Mhm. 

It won't work well if you're pushed into it and some companies do that.

Wendy Axelrod: It won’t work well if you’re pushed into it and some companies do that. It should be a volunteer relationship, which means you are at it because the relationship is growing, and you feel wonderful about coming into your regular meetings. And there’s a trust that is in place and it’s not performance outcome-oriented. 

With coaching, the type of coaching I would talk about is like executive or leader coaching, it’s a paid role and there are results that are expected. That’s pressure on both people. I mean, it works. And also with executive coaching, there’s very advanced skills that need to be in place and lots of certifications. 

And then, the manager, God bless the manager. They have to figure out how to move people along. And, you know, there’s a lot of tools that they don’t have that are really important for them to engage, retain, grow all of those kinds of things. But, they probably, in some ways, have the most challenging of all the jobs because they wanna develop that relationship, and yet they have that performance element that must be accomplished. 

Brian Washburn: Okay. So, as I’m listening to this and as others are listening to this, and when we think of the idea of professional development, the first thing that a lot of us think about is training, right? Or maybe the idea of mentoring also comes to mind, but it’s rarely the first thing. How can mentoring– and I’m really curious about your answer for this with your range of experience from supervising people to writing books on mentoring, right? How can mentoring play a key role in somebody’s professional development?

How can mentoring play a key role in somebody’s professional development?

Wendy Axelrod: I think it’s the ultimate. (CHUCKLES) So mentoring is really about the mentee’s development. Some people think mentoring is mostly about the relationship. Yes, the relationship needs to be in place, but mentoring is a lot about how we can grow that individual. And it’s done outside the bounds of the job. That’s the beauty of it is we’re not restricted to, you know, the work activities, the work goals, things along that line. 

They actually grow the person by increasing self-awareness, letting them share their doubts, their insecurities, exploring those, trying experiments where, you know, a mentee can try something that they'd never think of, or they would never be offered to do at work.

So the mentor can step outside those bounds and really use questions that broaden a person’s self-awareness. They take the time to create a safe space, safe– what I call safe conversational space- where there’s lots of trust. And they actually grow the person by increasing self-awareness, letting them share their doubts, their insecurities, exploring those, trying experiments where, you know, a mentee can try something that they’d never think of, or they would never be offered to do at work. But the mentor helps set that up for them. And the mentor is in the wings, supporting them and talking it through, and pushing them out on the ledge. 

But they always have their back so that the growth can be what I call from the inside out. The growth can be insight-driven and self-awareness driven and also have broader, you know, increased perspective about what they can be, what they can do. And they end up trying out, with the help of the mentor, new ways of behaving, new ways of thinking, you know? Managers mostly want to see you do it this certain way–

Brian Washburn: Mhm. 

Wthin the mentoring relationship, they can try new things, they can experiment, and that's where growth comes from. 

Wendy Axelrod: –this step, this step, this step, and that’s understandable. But within the mentoring relationship, they can try new things, they can experiment, and that’s where growth comes from. 

One of the things that I talked about with a mentor just this morning was the idea that being in a role for years on end and racking up those years of experience, and, you name the job, doesn’t grow you necessarily. If you’re not trying new things, getting honest input where you feel open to the input, and looking at new avenues of getting work accomplished, you might not be growing – years of experience at the same thing really doesn’t mean a whole lot. 

Brian Washburn: That’s a really interesting thought that made me think of a question here. When it comes to the mentor/mentee relationship, is it implied that the mentor always has more experience than the mentee? 

Should the Mentor Always Have More Experience Than The Mentee? 

Wendy Axelrod: The experience that I hope the mentor has is learning what it takes to significantly grow another.

Brian Washburn: Mhm.

Wendy Axelrod: They do not need more experience in the job. And in many companies, they actually don’t pair people who are in the same role. So, if the mentee is in a role, even for 10 or 12 years, maybe they’re somewhat seasoned in that role, but the mentor knows how to facilitate the growth. Then you have a relationship going forward. I want to say, for the most part, it seems that the mentors are more seasoned in their career and more seasoned in their life experiences. That doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. And so maybe an even more direct way to ask that is: is it appropriate for somebody who’s younger or newer to a company to be mentoring somebody who’s older or more experienced within the company? 

Wendy Axelrod: You know, I can think of an example of a young professional woman that has now come into a new role, and she is an expert in her role. She is at least 20 years younger than her primary client, and we could almost say she’s mentoring him. 

Brian Washburn: Mhm.

Wendy Axelrod: But she has a specific set of skills that are finely honed. 

Brian Washburn: Yep. 

Wendy Axelrod: And she is helping him with his strategic perspective. He has tended to see things more tactical and, you know, doing things in a certain way, and she’s opening him up to more strategic perspective. And in that way, even though you could say it’s her job, but she is sort of mentoring him. 

Brian Washburn: Yep. That makes perfect sense. And that’s where I was going with that question. So it’s not out of the question that a mentor is younger or less experienced, with the asterisk that anybody who’s in a mentor role needs to have some good experience and to know how to help somebody navigate maybe a specific area, in order for– 

Wendy Axelrod: Navigate a specific area, but also understand what it takes to increase another person’s self-awareness. 

Brian Washburn: Mhm. Yep. 

Wendy Axelrod: Create trust and openness so that the conversations can flow, so people can open up and begin to see their blind spots. Offer ways to put them in the shoes of others. You know, get them up on the balcony, let them see things differently. If they can do that, that’s cool. 

Brian Washburn: Yeah. 

Wendy Axelrod: I would say, for the most part, the mentors tend to be a bit more seasoned. 

Brian Washburn: Yep. I really appreciate that piece of the conversation. Now we’re starting to run out of time here, but before we do, I do wanna ask, for those people who are listening and thinking, “Huh, maybe we should bring some mentoring into our organization.” What are some of the first steps they should be taking into account?

First Steps for Bringing Mentoring Into You Organization

Wendy Axelrod: Well, first of all, what’s the purpose for this program? 

Brian Washburn: Mhm.

Wendy Axelrod: Companies, or anyone, can have multiple purposes, believe it or not. It is not just about career growth, although it could be. It could be filling the leader pipeline. It could be a DEI kind of, you know, orientation. So know that. Know what your structure is gonna look like, this needs to be intentional. Think about who your mentees and mentors would be. How are you going to identify them? And who in the company is placing value on this? If this is just somebody’s idea, say out of HR, if there’s no big sponsorship behind it, it may not succeed. It’s always good to tie it to business objectives and identify what that value is and have sponsorship for it. 

Getting to Know Wendy Axelrod

Brian Washburn: Before we leave, I do have a few quick questions to ask so that our audience gets to know you just a little bit better. Are you willing to stick around for a few speed-round questions? 

Wendy Axelrod: Of course. 

Brian Washburn: Perfect. All right. So our first question is: do you prefer to read books or to write books? I know that you’ve written several books, and so do you prefer to read or to write? 

Wendy Axelrod: Read, of course, because I already know what I’m thinking about. I want to find out what others think about.

 (BOTH LAUGHING) 

Brian Washburn: That’s hilarious. You already know how your book is going to end. That’s awesome. What is your favorite place in the U.S. to travel to for work or for fun?

Wendy Axelrod: I have two in mind. One is San Diego and the other is Seattle. 

Brian Washburn: Oh, are you just saying that because you’re talking to somebody who is in Seattle right now? 

Wendy Axelrod: No, I knew you were going to ask that question and that’s actually what I have on my paper. Would you like to see it? 

 (CHUCKLING) 

Brian Washburn: No, I will trust you. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Wendy Axelrod: When you leave a conversation, think beyond what the person may have learned or heard from you. Think about how they feel about that conversation. 

Brian Washburn: Mmm. That is such a good– I had a supervisor who once said, “Yeah, Brian, you’re right, but are you effective with how you’re approaching that?” And I think that the way that somebody feels can really overshadow anything else that you may have talked with somebody about. I love that. Before we leave, any shameless plugs for us? 

Wendy Axelrod: I’m sorry. No shameless plugs. Simply that people should feel free to reach out with questions, with suggestions, or if they wanna discuss their interests. That’s it. I’m at WendyAxelrodphd.com

Brian Washburn: Perfect. And do you like to connect with people on LinkedIn or what are there other ways for– 

Wendy Axelrod: Oh, yeah, please! Please, people should connect with me on LinkedIn. That’s perfect. Or drop me an email. 

Brian Washburn: Okay. Awesome. Thank you so much, Wendy. And thank you everybody for listening to this particular session or this particular podcast on mentoring. If you think that other people would find this to be interesting, please do pass a link to this podcast along. If you wanna make sure that you are notified anytime a new podcast is hot off the press, go ahead and subscribe to us on Apple or Spotify, or wherever you’re getting your podcast. Even better, if you went in and gave us a like or a review, that’s how other people would find out about us. Until next time, happy training everyone. 

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