The rise and rise of coaching and mentoring

Mentoring and coaching have been around since the ancient Greek poet Homer scripted his Mentor to advise Odysseus on a tricky family project around 2500 years ago. And now these two learning techniques are flavour of the month when it comes to management and leadership development. Reg Birchfield reports.

Mentoring and coaching have, when you think about it, been around forever. We learn from listening to and talking with others. The process is now a bit more formalised and is, it seems, gathering steam in the executive education market. Their rise in popularity seems to parallel our increased focus on self.

Managers bent on personal success or simply being more effective at work, increasingly opt for one-on-one development rather than being subjected to one-on-many training. It’s a significant shift in the delivery of personal development programmes.

The move to individualised learning is gobbling up increasingly large chunks of organisations’ personal development budgets as managers seek, and employers pay for, the longer-term commitment of a coach or mentor. Going on one or two training courses each year no longer cuts the management development mustard.

But there’s a lot of confusion out there about the differences between coaching and mentoring, says executive coach and NZIM facilitator Phil Hartwick. “Depending on whom you talk to, what book you read and which expert you consult, you’ll get different interpretations of what exactly is coaching and what’s mentoring,” he says.

Hartwick, like the majority of the sources consulted for this story, defines coaching as shorter term and more skill focused. “The need (for the support) might be driven by the coachee but, it’s more often driven by the organisation or the coach after identifying an individual’s (skill or competency) weakness,” he adds.

In reality there’s no universal definition of either of these terms and therefore or the differences between them. Hartwick, along with most authors on the topic, calls mentoring a longer-term relationship that’s driven by the mentee and is based on asking good questions. It’s more concerned with helping the executive determine what goals to pursue and why.

The confusion isn’t helped by individuals who put themselves out there as ‘executive coaches’ and somewhat subvert the mentoring process by taking the question-asking approach rather than focusing on the specific objectives focus of coaching. Pure mentoring, according to most experts and literature on the topic, follows an open and evolving agenda and usually deals with a range of personal issues.

“Mentoring is often about the coachee deciding what he or she wants and, because it’s paid for it’s called coaching. If it’s unpaid and voluntary it’s called mentoring. But they are doing many of the same things,” says Hartwick.

To satisfy both the individual and the organisation that’s paying the bills, it’s essential to clarify what exactly the buyer is seeking. Neither coaching nor mentoring is about teaching, instruction or being told what to do. Their essence is facilitation. Organisations must, therefore, have a good fix on what it is they want for the individual before engaging a coach or recommending a mentor.

NZIM considers coaching to be skills development and usually a short term process. It’s more often driven by a coachee’s manager in response to perceived organisational needs. “We talk about mentoring in its pure form,” says NZIM General Manager Tait Grindley. “It’s completely driven by the mentee and the mentor is there as a sounding board to help the mentee solve problems. It’s not about giving them all the answers or teaching them anything new. We try to make the difference between coaching and mentoring quite clear.

“A mentor may sometimes coach where it’s useful but, we advise not to do much of that.

Similarly, a coach might sometimes use the questioning or problem solving techniques of a mentor.”

What, if anything, is the consequence of this confusion?

Hartwick believes organisations generally know what they need. But they often don’t know what to call the solution. “It’s a nomenclature problem. It is, therefore, easy enough to work around,” he says. “What it’s called isn’t important. But whoever’s offering the programme must be absolutely clear about what the organisation or the individual wants. Everyone must understand the need to provide the right solution.”

Why have coaching and mentoring programmes become so popular?  

Hartwick suggests it’s about getting more individual and immediate-need learning. “It’s also longer-term and provides access to someone who is independent and who brings a different perspective to the process,” he adds. “It’s not always easy to find the right group training course to meet an individual’s needs.”

Mentoring and coaching are also about confidentiality and they focus exclusively on the individual. Those realities are appealing. It’s not about everyone else in the room. Participants don’t have to share or compete with others.

People also enjoy taking an hour or so out from their busy work day to focus on how they work. They like to talk through their particular, individual issues, says Hartwick. “It’s about talking through the things they face at work and how they deal with them. It’s about having open and honest conversations without any negative repercussions.”

Increasing organisational complexity might also be contributing to coaching and mentoring’s increased popularity. There’s no obvious research to support this hypothesis but Hartwick doesn’t discount it.

The bigger driver seems to be that they’re now more acceptable as a personal development option. The most senior level executives now resort to mentors and coaches. In turn, they encourage managers at lower levels to use them. “Management and leadership development is becoming increasingly bespoke,” says Hartwick.

Coaching and mentoring are both now part of the rapidly growing personal development market.

Hartwick predicts, however, that the providers of these services will soon need to be certified. “There are too many executive coaches out there with no credentials or legitimate reasons for making the claims they do. That’s going to change as it has in the United States and in Australia,” he adds.

He doesn’t think accreditation will be regulatory-based. It’s more likely that the organisations that buy coaching and mentoring services will insist on some form of certification. “Organisations that pay for their employees’ development want to know that the coaching and mentoring they pay good money for are up to scratch. They want some assurances about the quality of the people delivering these programmes.” Some government agencies have already created rosters of both internal and external coaches who they vet before they allow anyone to use them.

Popular they may be, but there’s a paucity of global research about the extent to which professional coaching and mentoring programmes enhance individual or organisational capability. There is, according to Hartwick, plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that they work. “It’s certainly not difficult to convince organisations that coaching and mentoring makes a difference,” he adds.

What Hartwick finds trickier is convincing managers that they need to adopt a more coaching-based style of managing. “Most managers think they are already doing just that when in fact they’re not,” he says.

The importance of coaching to effective management was identified last year by some internal research undertaken by Google ( Google had, since its inception, been sceptical of the value of managers. Its research found, however, that the single most important managerial competency that separates highly effective managers from average ones is coaching.



Reg Birchfield FNZIM writes on management, leadership and governance. Email –[email protected]

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