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Coaching and Mentoring: Does It Matter Which?


Graham Yenn
Continuing a month long look at coaching and mentoring is Graham Yemm, one of the founding partners of Solutions 4 Training Ltd who wonders why practitioners are concerned with making the difference between the two disciplines so black and white.

The recent trend of a rise in the use of coaching, whether by external or internal coaches, is a great thing for encouraging greater development of individuals and groups. However, I do think it has also led to the pedants of the world leaping into worrying about the semantics of the difference between coaching and mentoring. My stand on this is that there are some differences and that there are frequently grey areas where they overlap. At the end of the day, does it really matter which is being used so long as the intent is to support and help to develop a person?

Some schools of thought suggest that mentoring is more about “pushing” and providing answers and coaching is a “pull” style, encouraging people to develop their own answers. There may be some truth in this and at the same time neither is absolutely the case. (Julie Hay, in Transformational Mentoring adds a very useful third option called development alliances.)

Mentoring has probably been around longer than coaching. Although rooted in legend, the origin of the term comes from the name of an ancient Greek, called Mentor. He was entrusted with looking after Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, when the king went off to fight the Trojan wars. Mentor was chosen because of his wisdom and experience to guide Telemachus and encourage him to grow up and develop in the right way. Essentially, it was about the older, wiser person providing guidance for the less experienced “mentee”.

The concept has worked very well throughout history. From apprenticeships with master craftsmen, the great artists with their studios of young “learners”, to knights with their squires, we have many examples. Today, many of the professions encourage a mentoring process as part of the development of newcomers and for ongoing continued professional development (CPD) too. A number of organisations have formal or structured mentoring schemes with various strengths and weaknesses to them.

Many people have had the benefit of mentors in their lives, or do currently. We often seek out someone whom we respect, or whose experience we value, to get their guidance. This may be an ongoing process, or evolve into one. Another way we acquire a mentor is when someone who is older or more experienced, possibly a boss in our early career, continues to take an interest in our development and assumes the role informally. These situations just ‘happen’ rather than being planned.

Mentoring has its own skill set and it does not involve telling the mentee what to do, or what you would do! Nor is it about taking responsibility for their actions. (Coming into what I think of as one of the grey areas with coaching and mentoring.) Good mentors will adopt a supporting, encouraging, facilitative role and not a directing one.

For many years the idea of coaching was: “Instructing, training or guiding performers or players (or teams thereof) in a particular activity or endeavour.”

Whereas now it is thought of as: An ongoing, committed partnership between a player/performer and a coach who empowers that person or team to exceed prior levels of play or performance.” from “Coaching and the Art of Management,” by Everitt and Selman.

There might be times when a coach is offering some options or direction, but essentially the latter definition is about putting the accountability to the coachee.

Within organisations, the emphasis is increasingly on line managers to use coaching to develop their staff. Commendable and logical in itself – but not always practicable! Some years ago, when doing a project to identify what makes great coaches, I discovered that a key component of these top coaches was their sense of purpose, coupled with their own beliefs and values. These influenced their whole approach to what they did – and how. When taking this model into organisations, I find that many line managers would need to make some real personal change to achieve this.

They did not, and often do not, sign up to be coaches! Many of them can make good mentors though! Some will become effective coaches with the right skills training and support – and role modelling from above. How often do these factors all come together?

Although there is a strong argument for continuing with the growth of coaching, and improving the skills of those involved, there is a case for encouraging the use of mentoring too. Many managers will find this easier to do and for people at all levels we can benefit from someone helping our development, whether through coaching or mentoring. At the end of the day, does it matter which is being used, so long as the focus is on providing support and development?

Graham Yemm is one of the founding partners of Solutions 4 Training Ltd. He can be contacted through [email protected] or T: +44 1483 480656.


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