The Difference Between Coaching and Mentoring (and why you should care)

When asked, most managers will at least vaguely acknowledge that they are responsible to “mentor and coach” their staff.  But what does a mentor do and what is coaching? They often use those terms synonymously without much thought about the difference between coaching and mentoring. Managers who know how and when to use each approach are better able to effectively develop their team members and motivate them to improve their performance.

There are certain situations in which a manager must tell staff what to do and other situations where they must instead lead with inquiry to encourage employee autonomy. Being able to recognize those times may mean the difference in helping others make positive changes, versus having them stubbornly dig in their heels to spite you.

There are three distinct roles a manager may assume to direct and develop others: trainer, coach, and mentor. Here’s a brief description of each one and how they can help you improve the performance of others.

What Is A Trainer?

Managers must be trainers to teach their staff new skills. When acting as a trainer, a manager’s objective is to make sure an employee learns “the correct way” to do things. There is no room to allow an employee to discover on their own the best way to install an electrical system. There is a right way to do it and there are many wrong ways. It needs to be done 100% right, for obvious reasons. When training an employee, a manager is imparting their superior knowledge of a specific field in a directive fashion. They may set up a safe environment for the employee to experiment in, but the trainer has a clear agenda and is in control of the learning experience.

Managers should act as a trainer when they need to teach their staff basic requirements for the job, and when there is a correct way of doing things. But beware of making this your ‘go-to’ approach. Managers who act authoritatively and who frequently feel compelled to tell others the “right” way to do things will come off as a know-it-all, lose credibility, and will squash employee innovation.

What Is A Coach?

What is the coaching process? This is where one person helps another to achieve specific goals through direct observation, feedback, and open-ended inquiry.

Coaching is typically difficult for managers who are used to telling their employees what to do. In fact, many managers who attempt to coach an employee often become frustrated because coaching usually feels completely counterintuitive. Such befuddled managers may think to themselves, “I know what this employee needs to do, it would be far more efficient if I just tell them what to do.” The problem is this: although it will almost certainly seem far more efficient to tell an employee what to do, it will just as certainly be far less effective. People have this funny habit of not doing what they’re told. In fact, people often resent someone else telling them what to do, which is why we instinctively recoil at the word “boss.”

Coaching isn’t simply asking questions and hoping the person does what we want them to do. That’s called manipulation. A coach sets aside their own agenda and asks questions that allow others to discover their own solutions. This may not produce the exact change that the coach thinks is best, but it’s likely to move the person being coached in the right general direction.

For example, if a structural engineer is continually over budgeted hours on projects, their manager might ask questions such as “When you notice that you are falling behind, how do you usually respond? How is that working for you? What tools or resources might help improve your efficiency?” These questions and others can initiate a dialogue that is more likely to produce better results in the employee’s performance than a manager who takes a disciplinary approach.

What Is A Mentor?

What does a mentor do? A mentor helps a less experienced person advance their career and develop their managerial and strategic acumen. They help their protégé navigate the complexities of their career development by offering specific advice, asking probing questions, and telling stories of how they overcame similar challenges. A mentor may introduce their protégé to influential people that the protégé would not otherwise be able meet on their own.

Typically, mentors do not directly observe the performance of their protégé, although they may help their protégé establish metrics to measure their own progress. Perhaps most importantly, a mentor provides a safe environment for a protégé to talk about any issues that they feel may affect their own professional and personal success. For this reason, it is not advisable for protégés to have a reporting relationship (directly or indirectly) with their mentor.

For instance, a new entrepreneur might ask an established business owner to mentor her. The seasoned business owner may be able to advise the new entrepreneur on what marketing activities produce the most leads, or share how they overcame feelings of self-doubt that often accompany new ventures. The right mentor can provide an outlet and a resource that cannot be found in any other business or personal relationship.

Are You A Coach Or A Know-It-All?

After the initial training is complete, the best way to change employee behaviour is to coach them; that is, lead with inquiry rather than assertions or pronouncements. This also happens to be the quickest way to become the most influential and respected person in the room. But leading with inquiry is a really tough skill to master.

Think about the last meeting you attended, or the last discussion you had with one of your staff (or your spouse or child, for that matter). What percentage of the time did you lead with inquiry verses an assertion? Is it possible that you could be more influential if you led with inquiry more often? If so, how will you remind yourself to occasionally set aside your own agenda in order to help others discover their own solutions?

Adapted in part from Succession Planning That Works

About Michael Timms

I help organizations develop leaders at all levels through succession planning and management training. I’m the author of Succession Planning That Works, the ultimate succession planning guidebook & toolkit, and I speak about how to develop leaders and engage employees for higher performance.

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