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How coaching and mentoring can develop individuals to the benefit of business

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Alistair FentonAlistair Fenton, Management and Personal Development Consultant with business growth company Rewards Scotland looks at some of the key differences between coaching and mentoring approaches.




Mentoring may well have become a favoured business buzzword of late, but that does not make it a new phenomenon. Indeed, the term ‘mentor’ has its origins in ancient Greece when, according to Greek mythology, the goddess Athene assumed the identity of a noble, Mentor, to guide and teach Telemachus, son of Odysseus.

Yet while there is some evidence of a raised level of awareness within today’s business community about the benefits to be derived from an individual at the start of his or her career learning first hand from an experienced and trusted advisor, the term ‘mentoring’ is often mistakenly used as a synonym for ‘coaching’ when, although the two share much in common, they are quite distinct participative learning experiences and each is appropriate for its own particular circumstance.

Organisations like Rewards Scotland can help determine which technique is most appropriate to a particular circumstance while proceed to advise prospective mentors and coaches about the various learning tools at their disposal, through which they can impart their skills and knowledge to learners on an individual basis.

While coaching is concerned primarily with teaching learners new skills on a one-to-one basis, rather than a teaching mechanism, mentoring is more concerned with providing a support mechanism to learners. Both coaching and mentoring share the common objectives of enhancing an individual’s personal development, enhancing his or her performance within the workplace and enhancing the individual’s prospects for further progress within his or her chosen career.

Amongst the various qualities required of a mentor, then, are an ability to listen and empathise with learners, a willingness to offer encouragement, sympathy and practical advice, ideas and opinions as well as a respect for a learner’s views and the flexibility to take these on board. Mentors should seek to adopt a supportive hands-off approach allowing others to take responsibility for their own decisions.

In addition to meeting the particular needs of a learner, the benefits of coaching, meanwhile, include: encouraging innovation and involvement within an organisation; providing a mechanism for delegation; improving relationships with and motivating team members while providing a testing ground and grooming for succession.

Coaching is typically delivered to a prescribed agenda and while coaching is usually ‘downwards’, that is, a senior manager coaching a subordinate, this is not always the case. The increasing popularity of flat rather than traditional hierarchical management structures in today’s working environments has led to a corresponding growth in the incidence of cross peer group coaching and, indeed, coaching ‘upwards’ where, for example, a technical expert in one area can provide specialised coaching to a senior non-technical manager. Further, where there is a good working relationship, a team member can coach a manager, for example, on some specialised aspect of work.

The ability for coaching to flow both up and down within organisations, renders it more flexible than mentoring in this respect as mentoring, revolving as it does around a senior role model imparting the benefit of his or her wisdom derived through extensive experience within a particular field, invariably flows downward. Where mentoring scores over coaching in the flexibility stakes, however, is in regard to the structure – or lack thereof – of the development programme, for while coaching typically follows a structured programme of learning to a set timescale, mentoring is often delivered on an ad hoc basis and does not necessarily adhere to a prescribed agenda.

Mentoring also offers more scope for learner development than coaching. This is because the process of drawing upon extensive and relevant experience enables a mentor to provide more of an objective viewpoint than that required of a coach. Rather than seeking to deliver a straightforward skill or a set solution to a particular problem, as a coach would do, a mentor will instead seek to suggest the most appropriate means by which a learner might address a particular issue with a view to realising a solution.

Yet despite their differences, both coaching and mentoring are essentially variations of a ‘buddy’ system concerned with the development of an individual through the conveyance of experience, skills and knowledge. Most organisations, of course, while perceiving a requirement for an individual to participate in a learning programme, will not necessarily be able to determine of themselves which is the most appropriate learning technique.

It is, of course, a mistake for a company director to assume that someone who never raises a problem does not need or could not benefit from a mentor or a coach. Everyone, at some stage in their life or career, can enhance their personal and professional skills with a little help from a coach or mentor.

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