If you’ve spent any time around the startup space in the last few years you’ve probably come across a raft of advisors and mentors.

Many of them are highly capable and experienced people who can help founders and their businesses enormously.

There are also some who, whilst very much in it for the right reasons, misunderstand the value they bring and what the person at the other end of the dialogue really needs.

In fact, there are so many people now out there with Advisor or Mentor on their resume that these descriptors are in danger of becoming the new Growth Hacker or Consultant, where their original meaning becomes bastardised and the practice itself risks becoming somewhat devalued, tainted and commoditised.

Meanwhile, as the Counsellor and Consigliere, like the original advisors and mentors from ancient Greece, have been around for centuries, other roles have emerged in recent years.

For example, executive and life coaching has experienced considerable de-stigmatisation and a rapid growth in popularity. Whilst there are a number of accredited programs to becoming qualified there’s nothing really stopping anyone calling themselves a coach. Aside from the debate on how important accreditations are in this area, a risk is present that where many rush in the understanding of what these practices really mean becomes lost.

When you’re looking for professional guidance this opens up the questions of knowing what you need and why you need it.

These 4 roles of Advisor, Mentor, Coach and Counsel are more than just semantics or trendy titles to buff up a LinkedIn profile – there are clear distinctions.

Here’s a brief overview of my understanding of each one to help you think about making the choice that suits you best.

Advisor: the subject matter expert

A lot of companies have advisory boards. Take a look at any good advisory board (note: this is not the same as a board of directors) and it’ll include a raft of subject matter experts. For example, a biotech startup will likely have senior biologists on the advisory board, and an ad tech platform may have a former Google Adwords exec involved as an advisor.

An advisor provides advice – they say what they think about the subject at hand.


Mentor: the footsteps to follow

I’ve written about mentoring a few times before. Contrary to some advice (ahem…), mentors don’t need to come from your industry, they don’t need to be older than you, and you can have more than one.

Whilst dictionary definitions vary, I believe what’s most important is they have trodden a path that follows a similar direction to the one you’re taking, and they’ve encountered some of those same hurdles and challenges first hand.

I like to think of mentors as a sherpa or a guide, shining light on the path or paths that can be traveled, but the person being mentored chooses and decides on the direction they want to take.


Coach: getting the best out of people

When you think of the word ‘coach’ you probably first think of sports. What do the best sports coaches have in common? Simply, they’re excellent at getting the best from the people they’re working with. How they do that can vary hugely but the end result is the same – they enable people to unlock and fulfil their potential and produce their best performances on a consistent basis.

A coach doesn’t need to be a subject matter expert nor have left the footsteps to follow. This may sound counter-intuitive but many of the most successful coaches weren’t great players. Some didn’t even play professionally and so aren’t true subject matter experts in that respect.

Great coaches tend to have the ability to lead, to visualise a positive future, and to strategise how to get their charges to realise that future.


Counsel: helping to work out what you’re thinking

What’s the difference between providing advice and counsel? Advice is saying what you think. Counsel is helping to work out what the other person is thinking. It’s an important distinction.

Counsellors often tend to be either lawyers or mental health practitioners.

Good advisors, mentors and coaches will also be adept at helping to work out what you’re thinking, but be mindful of their credentials if a problem is more deep rooted.

They should be able to admit where they’ve reached the edge of their circle of competence and refer you to a specialised counsellor (whether for legal, mental or another kind of assistance).


Some people are able to confidently straddle more than one of these four functions, but generally it’s best not to automatically expect your advisory board member to be brilliant at getting the best from your team, nor a mentor to be an expert in your field.

Take some time to first understand why you’re looking for help and the outcomes you seek.

From there it should become clear which specialism you require. Then it’s about finding the person who’s right for you. That’s a big topic on its own of course, and one for a future post…



Shout out to Chris Howard at The Rattle for providing the initial catalyst for the article.

Advisor, Mentor, Coach, Counsel: what’s in a name?

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