Have you ever faced a tough work situation where you thought, “I wish I had someone to talk this through with who isn’t my boss or my spouse, someone knowledgeable and objective who can help me see what is really going on and choose what is best to do?” You have heard about coaching and mentoring, but what is the difference and how can they help?
A tale of two executives
Diane had just been given an exciting new career opportunity as an acting assistant deputy minister. Her job was to oversee the integration of four large business lines into one cohesive branch. If she succeeded, she would be a strong contender to fill the job permanently. Each of the business lines in her new branch was an organization in trouble – underfunded and understaffed with morale at rock bottom. Some had programs that were mission critical where operational failures would have serious consequences. Diane had a strong track record, but she had never been given anything this complex and high risk before.
Alex had just been promoted to director. Several of his direct reports had previously been his colleagues. One of them had acted in the director position for close to a year before Alex won the competition. He was not taking Alex’s promotion very well. Alex was an expert in his field. But he did not have a lot of management experience. His team was calling him a control freak and Alex felt he was losing their respect.
If you were Diane or Alex, what would you do? Most people just square their shoulders and jump in. Often they succeed. Sometimes they don’t.
What if you could take on difficult assignments with comfort and confidence? What if you could grow as a leader, not by trial and error, but by systematic reflection on who you want to be and what you need to do to bring out the best in yourself?
Coaching versus mentoring
The International Coach Federation (ICF) defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” The ICF defines mentoring as “guiding from one’s own experience or sharing experience in a specific industry [or government] sector to support someone in his or her career development.”
Executive coaches are trained in skills and techniques whose purpose is to support clients in looking at their beliefs and assumptions, what may be holding them back and how they can build on their strengths to become better leaders. They seek to bring out more of what the client already knows to find new ways of seeing a situation and expand the range of choices for action.
Coaching focuses more on who you need to be, not just on what you need to do to get the results you want. Techniques include active listening, powerful questioning, and sharing observations and methodologies to stimulate new insights. Coaches do not need to be experts in their client’s area of business to be effective.
Mentors are generally more senior and experienced in a particular business or area of expertise. In their book Mentoring in Action, David Megginson et al. identify two types of mentoring: sponsorship and developmental.
Sponsorship mentors are more influential and hierarchically senior. They actively champion and promote the cause of the protégé. They give the protégé the benefit of their wisdom. They steer the person through acquisition of experience and personal resources. The primary outcome is career progression and good advice is central to success.
Developmental mentors are more experienced in issues relevant to the mentee’s learning. They can be peer mentors, for example. The process is one of mutual growth. Through sharing knowledge and expertise, the mentor supports the mentee in learning to do things for him or herself. The primary outcome is professional development.
The principal difference between the two types of support is that coaching is about personal transformation whereas mentoring is about showing the path. Coaches push leaders to transform themselves beyond what they thought possible. Mentors share their experience and wisdom to help leaders navigate obstacles and avoid pitfalls, and in the case of peer mentoring, build expertise.
How do you choose?
Deciding on whether you need a coach or a mentor depends on what results you want. If you want to: obtain practical advice or deepen your technical knowledge; develop your networks; or understand the culture of an organization and how to work strategically to get the job done, then mentorship is a good choice. If you want to: think more deeply about your leadership style; challenge your view of how the world works; and practice new behaviours in a safe environment, then coaching is for you. And, of course, you can always do both.