Coaching or mentoring

I've been consciously recalling coaching and mentoring experiences because early last week I got an email saying: 'We are seeing that internal coaching becoming very popular in China as a way to develop talent. I am wondering what the difference is between coaching and mentoring. I see in some companies they are both the same while in the others are quite different. Is there any clear definition of coaching, and mentoring?'

I know there is often confusion between the two and one of scenarios I rediscover I've used in some of training programs I've facilitated on coaching/mentoring is about this confusion: 'The training department has a very hard time helping people distinguish between 'coaching', 'executive coaching' and 'mentoring' – we offer various courses in all three. The terminology is much the same for both and they're all about helping people develop their skills and careers on the job. Maybe it's us who are confusing people. After all, does it matter what you call something? Surely getting the right results are what it's all about.'
I think that it does matter what something is called and how it is defined, because it helps shape participant expectations, and provides a framework for developing approaches that will get to the right results via a choice of possible routes. I see a clear distinction between coaching and mentoring.

A few times in my life I have been unemployed and job hunting. These have been difficult periods but on two occasions I've been helped by a career coach. Once the coach was paid for by the company I was leaving. (I was one of the 10% who lost my job as part of a reduction in workforce), and the other time I paid for the coach myself. These relationships – me as coachee and the other person as coach – needed us to be able to like each other and build rapport and respect, but essentially they were business relationships with a defined duration, and a specific goal with trackable success measures attached. In these instances the goal was for me to get a job: and I did.

I've also myself trained as a wellness coach and been paid by clients for coaching them to achieve their wellness goals. So I've experienced both sides of the coaching fence. Coaching is usually provided through someone professionally trained and certified in coaching skills, for example through the International Coach Federation. The role of the coach is:

  • Providing the structure, accountability, expertise, and inspiration to enable client to learn, grow, and develop beyond what s/he can do alone.
  • Helping the client identify and clarify the priorities and areas for development.
  • Partnering with their clients to help them go from Point A to Point B and clients define Point B often drawn from organizational member feedback or suggestions
  • Employing a diverse array of assessment, psychological, and behavior change tools to empower clients to take charge, connect with their deepest motivators, and learn how to grow and change.
  • Scheduling coaching sessions, weekly or as needed, by telephone or inperson, individual or group, for three months or longer to help clients clarify where they want to go, and work with them to get there.
  • Supporting clients in their making sustainable changes in self-understanding, self-concept, and behavior.
  • Receiving a financial or other reward/recognition for being a coach.

(This is a slightly adapted Wellcoaches definition)

Then I started to think about the times I've felt I've been mentored: this was more difficult as it meant reflecting on the various people who have been instrumental in helping me get to grips with various career and life choices – not as part of a paid contract, but as part of an informal guide, supporter, questioner, challenger relationship. In fact as I've been thinking about mentoring I think about a terrific manager I had for seven years. He had a way of listening carefully, saying 'hmm' in a non-judgmental way, helping me work through the organizational politics, finding resources when I needed them, and generally giving me confidence to achieve things I didn't think I could do – including going from London to New York for 6 months to make an organizational video which went on to win a Cinema in Industry Bronze Award.

Mentoring does not require the mentor to be professionally trained or certified. Often the mentor is simply an experienced person with good listening and communication skills, the conventional approach is that the mentor is a more senior organizational member than the mentee, but there are many excellent examples of peer to peer mentoring and upward mentoring (where the mentor is hierarchically junior to the mentee). Within organizations there is usually little formal tracking or measurement of a mentor's role which is:

  • Providing an informal forum, often unscheduled for dialogue, discussion, and reflection
  • Taking cues and direction on the topic from the mentee (sometimes called the protege)
  • Helping the mentee develop new insights and personal discoveries through open questions
  • Employing a good range of communication, listening, feedback and rapport building skills – built from experience and not necessarily professional qualification
  • Being available to talk on an as-needed basis – which may be frequent or infrequent depending on mentee need
  • Guiding the mentee in making good choices and decisions that he/she is comfortable with
  • Gaining the effective relationship (rather than formal recognition) brought about in being able to help develop the mentee's confidence and skills.

Coaching and mentoring programs
Within organizations coaching is usually a formal 'program' run as part of a talent development strategy. The objective is to improve organizational performance via improving individual performance. In this context coaches are often from third party organizations, are qualified in their role, and assigned to a coachee for a defined period. The two parties meet regularly – often weekly or bi-weekly for the period. In some cases coaches and coachees choose each other and in other cases they are simply assigned.

Mentoring within organizations can be:

  • Structured for particular categories of people – I once co-ordinated one for women returning from maternity leave and/or re-entering the workforce after a long parenting break – we found individuals 'buddies' who had been in a similar situation and had experience of what it was like
  • Unstructured but organizationally supported – again I worked in an organization where we had a mentor 'bank' and matched mentors with people who were looking for informal support in their career management
  • Totally ad hoc where people just find their own mentors and the relationship is not tracked for any benefits emerging

Again the purpose is to help individuals develop themselves but with the idea that organizational performance will also be developed.

Example: coaching or mentoring?
Also this week I was copied into an email saying:

'We are asking everyone to be part of leading in our company and we are working to support you in seizing leadership – an approach which we believe leads to a dynamic, energizing, and exciting work-life experience. Our aim is to support holistic project success, collaboration, and freedom within a framework. This means we must be skilled and able enough to draw each and every one of us into the heart of the action to discover and deliver excellence at all scales and complexities.'

It echoes the leaders everywhere approach that Gary Hamel is currently talking about. (He also has a nice 'cheat sheet' plus challenge on it). If you were asked to design a program to support this intent of 'leaders everywhere' as illustrated in the email quote, would you support it via a formal coaching program, or an informal mentoring program, or both? How would you set about finding out what an appropriate recommendation would be? Let me know.