Mentors, Coaches and Teachers

When the student is ready, the master appears.
Buddhist Proverb

Lots of entrepreneurs believe they want a mentor. In fact, they’re actually asking for a teacher or a coach. A mentor relationship is a two-way street. To make it work, you have to bring something to the party.

A Question from the Audience
Recently when I was at a conference taking questions from the audience, I got a question that I had never heard before. Someone asked, “How do I get you, or someone like you to become my mentor?” It made me pause (actually cringe.) As I gathered my thoughts, I realized that I’ve never thought much about the mentors I had, how I got them, and the difference between mentors, coaches and teachers.

What I do today is teach. At Stanford and Berkeley, I have students, with classes and office hours. For the brief time in the quarter I have students in my class, at worst I impart knowledge to them. At best, I try to help my students to discover and acquire the knowledge themselves. I try to engage them to see the startup world as part of a larger pattern; the lifecycle of how companies are born, grow and die. I attempt to offer them both theory, as well as a methodology, about building early stage ventures. And finally, I have them experience all of this first hand by teaching them theory side-by-side with immersive hands-on using Customer Development to find a business model.

At times, the coffees, lunches and phone calls I have with current and past students are also a form of teaching. Most of the time students come with, “Here’s the problem I have. Can you help me?” Usually, I’ll give a direct answer, but sometimes my answer is a question.

In both cases, inside or outside the classroom, I consider those activities as teaching. At least for me, mentorship is something quite different.

As an entrepreneur in my 20’s and 30’s, I was lucky to have four extraordinary mentors, each brilliant in his own field and each a decade or two older than me. Ben Wegbreit taught me how to think, Gordon Bell taught me what to think about, Rob Van Naarden taught me how to think about customers and Allen Michels showed me how to turn thinking into direct, immediate and outrageous action.

At this time in my life, I was the world’s biggest pain in the rear, lessons needed to be communicated by baseball bat, yet each one of these people not only put up with me, but also engaged me in a dialog of continual learning. Unlike coaching, there was no specific agenda or goal, but they saw I was competent and open to learning and they cared about me and my long-term development. I’m not sure it was a conscious effort on their part, (I know it wasn’t on mine,) but it continued for years, and in some cases (with my partner Ben Wegbreit) for decades. What is interesting in hindsight is that although the relationship continued for a long time, neither of us explicitly acknowledged it.

Now I realize that what made these relationships a mentorship is this: I was giving as good as I was getting. While I was learning from them – and their years of experience and expertise – what I was giving back to them was equally important. I was bringing fresh insights to their data. It wasn’t that I was just more up to date on the current technology, markets or trends, it was that I was able to recognize patterns and bring new perspectives to what these very smart people already knew. In hindsight, mentorship is a synergistic relationship.

Like every good student/teacher and mentor/mentee relationship, over time the student became the teacher, and this phase of relationship ends.

How Do I Find A Mentor
All this was running through my head as I tried to think of how to answer the question from the audience.

Finally I replied, “At least for me, becoming someone’s mentor means a two-way relationship. A mentorship is a back and forth dialog – it’s as much about giving as it is about getting. It’s a much higher-level conversation than just teaching. Think about what can we learn together?  How much are you going to bring to the relationship?”

If it’s not much, than what you really want/need is a teacher, not a mentor. If it’s a specific goal or skill you want to achieve, hire a coach, but if you’re prepared to give as good as you get, then look for a mentor.

But never ask. Offer to give.

Lessons Learned

  • Teachers, coaches and mentors are each something different.
  • If you want to learn a specific subject find a teacher.
  • If you want to hone specific skills or reach an exact goal hire a coach.
  • If you want to get smarter and better over your career find someone who cares about you enough to be a mentor.

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21 Responses

  1. Steve
    Thanks for this post. It was sent by one of my former mentees who now mentors me! I could not agree more with the great advice you give. After all it is about giving not getting. I teach mentoring workshops and I am asked this question:”Will you mentor me?” It is an awful and offputting question.

    It generated these posts by me.

    For far too many finding a mentor seems to precede, discovering what they want.

    My retort to the question is: “Are you mentorable?” Like the wonderful quote at the beginning of your piece, the mentor appears when the mentee is ready. Cheers John

  2. I like this insight that a mentor relationships goes both ways.

    I always took the perspective that a mentor relationship is more about a specific industry or business and the mentor brings their experience to the table. Teaching to me is more about imparting general knowledge and coaching more about either improving skills or performance in the person being coached.

  3. Just to point out that ‘Mentor’ was the name of a character (do some Googling) and the role of ‘Mentoring’ was so named to imply ‘doing what Mentor did’.

    There is no verb ‘to ment’ and so a mentor is not someone who goes around ‘menting’ to their mentorable mentees. I know mentee has become ‘accepted’ through misuse, but, properly, the people in a relationship with a ‘Mentor’ are protégés or protégées (female).

    Anyway, what would you rather be: a protégé or a mentee? The latter sounds like some kind of marine mammal!

    Stop the nonsense now!

  4. Thanks, Steve. That was a helpful treatment of some differences in the relationships in which an entrepreneur may find themselves and possibly how to think about what they should be looking for. Like any entrepreneur that has been around too long, I’ve benefited greatly from the advice of advisors/teachers/mentors. Over the past few years I’ve spent a fair bit of time the acting as a formal and informal advisor, mentor (in your sense), and teacher (in the Socratic sense). I recently wrote about the lessons I’ve learned in the form of tips for early entrepreneurs interested in getting the most out of these relationships. In the event that it may be helpful to any of your readers, here’s a link:



  5. Wonderful! Unfortunately he is not my mentor, or coach or teacher, but that is my GURU oh it is!

  6. Thanks for the post. Before this post, I was thinking that mentor is like a coach or teacher, but never thought that mentorship is actually two way street. I really liked it.

    However, I always think, why someone need a mentor? For motivation, or industry best practice. Now a days we can do all research over the internet for best practices and for motivation you have to have that spark in your heart otherwise no one can motivate you.

    Therefore, why do we need mentors? May be I am missing something.


  7. A mentor relationship is a two-way street. To make it work, you have to bring something to the party.

    A lot of people don’t realize this, which inspired me to write How to get your Professors’ Attention — along with Coaching or Mentoring.

    I don’t think of the mentoring and teaching as majorly different activities, as you do, but I think a lot of people don’t realize they need to do something special to make themselves worth of investing in.

  8. I made the experience that I went to someone older looking for such an equal relationship and started off with the offer to give something. And I was surprised by the reaction. Nobody actually takes that offer serious. To some people it is even strange, that someone not even half their age comes to them to offer something. Most people think “What can that child offer me?”

    I think that this kind of relationship really just happens as part of a process. If I think a 50/60 yearish guy comes to me telling me what I can learn from him about IT and business will also not be acknowledged that simply. I was just disappointed too often by the inflexibility and distrust of older people into new technologies.

  9. Great post! I think the distinctions are spot on as to defining the “scope” of the engagement. But having been on both sides of relationships for each of the three, I believe the best teachers and coaches bring the same attitude of expecting to learn/gain from their students/coachees as a good mentor would.

  10. More generally- in any good, trusting relationship, mutual empowerment is necessary. Both should learn from each other; not understanding so is a tinge of hubris. I don’t think you can be a good teacher or coach or mentor without listening to and learning from the people you are teaching/coaching/mentoring.

  11. I find that entrepreneurs–at least early stage, new entrepreneurs–often do not distinguish between “mentor” and “advisor”.

    An advisor has a fiduciary relationship, usually to the venture not the individual. While they may act like mentors, first-time entrepreneurs often confuse the personal relationship of a mentor with the corporate relationship and responsibility of an advisor.

    This is a key distinction that programs like MIT Venture Mentoring make.

  12. Steve, I really like your definition of the differences between mentors, coaches, and teachers. However, I am not sure I agree with your conclusion of what must exist for a mentoring relationship to form.

    I think it’s great that your mentors valued your input It’s definitely one kind of mentorship but if everyone felt like they must contribute some knowledge their mentor would value, then half of the people may not even try to find a mentor for fear of having nothing to contribute.

    I think of Mentoring most of the time is a “Pay it Forward” model. I was lucky and still am to be mentored by great people who helped me learn from their experience/mistakes and guide me in life or work. I also “pay it forward” by mentoring other folks that have passion and potential and wants my help. Do I also learn from my mentees? Absolutely, but it’s not why I agreed to be their mentor. Ultimately I think personal rapport, mutual respect and inspiration are what’s critical to make a mentoring relationship work.

    I also think you couldn’t easily agree to be a mentor to that person who asked you because that person didn’t know how to ask. He had no rapport with you and he didn’t know how to express why you and you alone would be a great mentor for him and inspire you to care. How to ask someone to be your mentor is an art form in itself. See my most recent blog post on this topic.

    I look forward to your response.

  13. I thought I wrote an response. Was it blocked because I disagreed?

    Pls at least let me know.



    • Posts with links to other sites get filtered out as Spam. I found it and posted it.

      • Thanks Steve. I didn’t realize. will not post links in the future. Would still love your thoughts on my response. thanks


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  19. Great post Steve! Interesting points about the differences between a teacher, mentor, and coach. I do have one question however. How would one begin to connect with people, teachers, and others who could possibly transition into a mentor relationship if you don’t already have some sort of background together and are not geographically close?

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