Carl Dierschow

There’s a lot of confusion over the words “teacher”, “coach”, and “mentor.” I run into this all the time as a professional business coach.

I’ve discovered that it’s not so much the word you use, but the nature of the relationship you have with someone to help meet your goals.

So why should you bother seeking out any of these? The ideal is to be self-made, right?

It’s about having the humility to know that you need to learn and improve. The question is: improve what, and learn from whom?

If you mostly want to fill gaps in your knowledge, find a teacher. I find that books and online resources often give you plenty of facts, but that’s different than integrating them together into true knowledge.

If you want to focus on skill development, a coach can be the most help. Whether it’s technical skills or soft skills, it might be helpful to create a “muscle memory” so that things which were difficult become easier, even second nature.

A mentor, though, is most powerful when you’re looking to follow the trail that someone has blazed before you. They have experience in that particular domain, and also know what it’s like to go from newbie to expert.

A recent example for me personally is when I wanted to start up some “mastermind” groups. I had tried my hand at it about ten years ago, but learned that I was really just wandering around trying random ideas. I didn’t really have a strategy or cohesive plan at that point.

So I called upon another coach I know with more experience. I participated in a mastermind group she facilitated – quite masterfully – and worked with her on the design I was envisioning. She opened my eyes to all the behind-the-scenes work she had been doing to make it valuable and appear effortless.

I’ve found that mentoring relationships work best when you have a specific goal in mind. Not just “I want a successful career because you appear to be happy with yours.” For those focused on career development, useful goals might be:

  • I’d like to work for a global, well-respected company that will support my growth.
  • I’m getting burned out, so I’d like to transition into a different direction which takes advantage of my skills.
  • I’ve always been interested to see if I can make a living as a musician.

I hope you’re getting the idea that your goal drives not only what you want to focus on with a mentor, but also who would be a great person to work with. Each of these examples would lead you to seek out a different person.

So here are the steps you need to figure out if it would be good to work with a mentor, why, and who would be ideal for you:

  1. What am I dissatisfied with that’s causing me problems?
  2. What’s my goal for my better future – accomplishments, feelings, what needs to change?
  3. What specifically do I envision talking about and doing in the mentoring relationship?
  4. If you can’t state it clearly in 60 seconds, then continue working on the first three until it becomes clear. You’re probably too early to ask for a mentor.
  5. Who do I admire for having achieved many of those same things?
  6. What would I do to make it worth the mentor’s time and energy to work with me?
  7. How can I create the opportunity to ask them outright?

I’ll get into setting up the successful mentoring relationship in a later article. For now, when you’re wondering IF a mentor would valuable, and WHAT you’d do with them, this should suffice. Focus on:

  • What exactly do I need to develop?
  • What’s my goal?
  • Is there a person who embodies that development and has mostly reached the goal?

By the way, once you’re clear on what you want and why this person is the right mentor – it’s much easier to ask them! It doesn’t have to be slick and polished, just honest and transparent.


Carl Dierschow is a small business coach homed in Fort Collins, Colorado, USA. He specializes in leaders and owners who strive to better society and the planet through thoughtful business practices. He is currently available for free coaching sessions for those whose organizations are struggling with the impact of the pandemic. Feel free to connect with him here on the Foundation platform!


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