This article is designed to provide an overview of the current mentoring and coaching situation. It attempts to clarify the differences, and give providers and receivers of these services some guidance on best practices.
In recent years there has been a significant rise in the demand for mentors and coaches. The driving forces behind this are: executives, managers and other specialists are increasingly expected to demonstrate that they are undertaking significant professional development; the workplace and business employment environment is becoming even more competitive; the influence of the emerging industrial nations is forcing radical changes in the skill mix required of managers and other professionals in the developed countries; the diversity of personal and professional skills, knowledge, and expertise needed to be successful in today’s global business environment. As this demand has increased, so has the diversity of roles played and the range of services offered. Indeed, there are so many variations and combinations of mentoring and coaching, that it is increasingly difficult to differentiate between them and almost impossible to categorise the variations available.
Workplace mentoring is, despite appearances, a structured, organised, element of the organisation’s training and development activity. It is, however, usually quite separate from organised training activities and from the formal appraisal process carried out by the line-manager. This formal, hierarchical relationship that exists between a person and their line-manager is usually not a suitable vehicle for a mentoring relationship. Mentoring generally takes the form of a confidential, one to one relationship, where a more senior person, at least one position higher than the line-manager of the person being mentored, helps a more junior one to make progress, usually as part of a planned development programme, such as management fast-tracking, preparing for a more senior post, or leading a phase of workplace activity, such as a project. The mentor offers guidance and advice, in a supportive and non-threatening manner, but in a format and style which is designed by the organisation’s human resource department and then monitored by that department. The aim is to provide the recipient with support that will enable them to move forward confidently and to achieve their personal workplace objectives and also the objectives set for them by the organisation.
In an organisational setting, coaching has traditionally been part of the supervisory role played by line-managers, or more experienced employees, who show less experienced colleagues how to carry out an activity, or set of activities, competently. This is by default part of the cyclical process of developing an individual’s skills, evaluating their performance, appraising their progress, carried out by the line manager. If the line manager does not carry out the coaching personally, they will have arranged for an experienced employee, usually within the same team as the person being coached, to deliver the coaching. In this context, coaching is, in effect, the teaching of a skill until the skill is learnt and can be consistently performed, independently, to the required standard. Although the majority of this type of coaching is delivered by people who are more experienced, it is not always the case that they are more senior. Often, because the coach is explaining or demonstrating a skill, or process, the coach can be a younger person, but someone who is capable of passing on their skills to others who are less experienced in that activity.
Today, the traditional roles of mentors and coaches can still be seen in action. However, in many organisations, and particularly in most business sectors apart from the heavy industries and manufacturing, there has been considerable change. The main changes have been in the widening of the range of coaching approaches and the merging of mentoring and coaching into one approach, generally under the title of Coaching. Despite the best efforts of some academics and management gurus, senior managers in some organisations, and the human resource purists, the terms mentor and coaching, and the roles, are now used interchangeably in many business sectors. The main reason for this is that individuals are demanding and expecting their mentor-coach to have a wide range of skills that encompasses the best features of both categories. Many organisations are also establishing mentor-coaching systems that also combine the best practices of both. The result is that, increasingly, the terms are in effect synonymous, and what one individual or organisation will label as Mentor, another will label as Coach.
Also, many individuals are arranging to work with a personal coach, whose role is a combination of mentor and coach. This is similar to the relationship between a sports person, for example athlete, and their persona coach, and that between individuals and their personal fitness trainer. In the business and professional development world, the result is a hybrid of mentoring and coaching that most people now label as Personal Coaching.
The ideal mentor is a person who has been trained in mentoring techniques, and has a blend of appropriate work experience, qualifications, and general business knowledge, that can be used to guide and advise a particular mentee. In addition it is very important that the mentor is a person who has an enthusiasm, if not a passion, for helping others to develop, fulfil their potential, and achieve their and the organisation’s objectives.
The ideal coach is a person who has been trained in coaching techniques, has a broad range of experience and expertise, has knowledge and understanding of current business activity and trends, and an understanding of how an individual’s career and professional development should be tailored in order to assist that person in being successful in achieving their development objectives.
As can be seen, there great similarities in the two roles, and, as a result, the differences are virtually indistinguishable and they are now frequently combined. Both are expected to have appropriate knowledge and experience, both must be skilled in: listening actively; communication techniques; being able to understand the work and personal environment of the person being coached; building a rapport and developing a relationship; asking appropriate questions; directing the coachee to other sources of help when appropriate; identifying, agreeing and setting goals; helping to devise action plans to achieve the goals; helping to monitor and make adjustments to the plans; and finally, knowing when it is time to end the relationship.
A coach works with individuals and organisations to help them to achieve higher levels of performance and-or specific goals. The coach will, by necessity, take into account past performance and events, but focuses on actions and goals for the future. The approach is action oriented, focusing on where the client is now, where they want to be in the future, and how best to get them there. This framework is familiar to those involved in strategic planning or project management, as it is the foundation of both. The coach takes this simple, structured approach, and builds on it to develop a plan of action that will enable them to help their client achieve their objectives.
For individuals, the benefits can be many, including helping the individual to: avoid making mistakes in their business or personal lives; achieve more, in less time; minimise current problems; effectively prepare for potential difficulties; be happier with their personal and-or work life; achieve career or personal development targets; change career or career direction; become more effective and influential in all areas of their life; be more attractive to others, in their career and professional development and-or their personal life.
For organisations, the benefits are similar. They include: learning from a person who has a broad range of knowledge; obtaining independent, unbiased, objective, advice and guidance; gaining improvements to productivity, quality levels, customer satisfaction, shareholder value; gaining increased commitment and satisfaction levels in operational and management staff; improved staff retention; supporting other training and development activity; visible evidence that the organisation is committed to developing and improving; establishing an effective process for organisational development.
The role of mentoring and coaching has changed radically over recent years. However, the changes are generally accepted as being positive ones, and today coaches are accepted as an integral feature of the development process, both for individuals and for organisations. As always, great care must be taken to ensure that the coach and any process that is undertaken is appropriate for the particular client, but with this caveat, it is now clear that coaches have an important role to play in the development of individuals and organisations in today’s business world. As the pace of change and the complexity of business activity increases, it is certain that coaches will continue to play a key role in helping individuals and organisations manage that change and complexity more effectively.