Coaching and Mentoring – why the difference matters; by Helen Caton Hughes
I was privileged to attend a conference on mentoring in dentistry last weekend with some great speakers. It was particularly interesting to be reminded of the history of coaching and mentoring and where those terms originated.
It also led me to reflect on why Coaching has become the go-to personal and team development tool – for individuals and organisations - particularly at times of change.
To quote a recent study commissioned by the International Coach Federation: “Using coaching to lead an agile culture is correlated with greater confidence in employees’ capabilities in planning and executing change.”
The coaching/mentoring back story
‘Mentoring’ is a term that’s over 3,200 years old. It refers to the wisdom and advice given from an uncle (Mentor) to his nephew Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. The words of wisdom include telling Telemachus it’s time to grow up. The practical advice addresses how he is going to achieve his goal of finding his father.
Coaching has a shorter history. It originates from C19th students' need to get through their exams at the end of a fun-packed university experience: strong on practical help and low on the wisdom of needing to grow up.
The turning point for Coaching came in the mid-twentieth century. Franz Stampfl MBE pioneered interval training and coached Roger Bannister to his four-minute mile. It’s been associated with high-performance results ever since.
"Strong coaching cultures are more than twice as likely to be high-performing organizations."
Along came Timothy Gallwey in the early 1970s who made a bridge between high-performance athletics and workplace achievements; and the link between external success and internal shifts, through his ‘Inner Game’ work.
My own coaching story started when Gallwey first came to the UK. I attended a training where we worked in pairs, listened to each other and discovered the previously-invisible gremlins sitting on our shoulders.
It wasn’t called ‘coaching’ back then, but the collaboration between Gallwey and the late Sir John Whitmore, was certainly the birth of the £/$multi-billion profession that we see today used by the world’s top leaders, executives and managers.
According to the ICF/HCI report, "strong coaching cultures are more than twice as likely to be high-performing organizations".
So what’s the big deal about the differences?
My own theory about the rise and rise of coaching is based on three key shifts:
- Self-directed learning
- Clear leadership behaviours
- The need for collaboration
From teaching to learning
The shift away from 'teaching' is still not yet fully recognised in the education field.
In my schooldays teachers had books. We had books too. We read the books. We learned what they said. We repeated that back in our exams.
- You got high marks for ‘being right’
- You were marked down for being ‘wrong’
- You were told 'copying' was 'cheating'
Now we live in a world where the knowledge, facts and information are at everyone’s fingertips. Books are lovely; but you don’t need them.
The ability to access information shifts learning to the learner. It requires an internal locus of control. It empowers the individual.
But only if the learner understands the essentials about discovering facts, holding opinions, drawing conclusions and taking decisions.
There's an attitudinal shift to self-directed learning, as well as a practical one.
It’s a whole new paradigm – where the teacher becomes facilitator, sometimes mentor, and also a coach.
The shift from management to leadership
At school I was told what to do. At work the same happened. The workload came in; supervisors and managers shared it out.
It was predictable; we knew what to do and when to do it by. It was a jigsaw puzzle where you found the edges, then used the line between the earth and sky to fill in the middle bits.
In today’s world predictability is out and volatility is in. Jigsaw puzzles are out. Complex problems abound.
In the workplace this requires a different kind of leadership. Individual leader need a strong sense of internal locus of control, not the old-style externally-focused‘command and control’.
Leaders need vision because they need to know and share where they’re going. And where they’re taking the team. The 'what' or 'where'.
They need to feel connected to their own values (part of the internal locus of control), so that when they share their vision they also share its importance. The ‘why’.
Leaders need to know what behaviours are expected of them. We’ve covered the thinking cluster of leadership behaviours, but there’s also the need to inspire others, through that vision.
That means significantly better communication skills, through building other peoples’ confidence, as well as their own. Not just imparting information.
And this is where coaching comes in.
A mentor can tell you how they built their own confidence, or how to present well. But unless the leader or manager internalises that expertise, it only resides at a superficial ‘how to’ level. The 'who'.
A good coach supports leaders to become that inspiring speaker, not telling them what to do (because they know that bit); rather by drawing out their innate skills, strengths and expertise.
The shift from personal success to collaboration
Today’s world requires collaborating across traditional boundaries. The lines between departments, industries or sectors are increasingly blurred.
- A biologist runs a university computing department
- Healthcare services are delivered through public, private and charitable sector partnerships
- New product design teams work with market research departments to develop and launch new products
Collaboration is needed everywhere. Because change is everywhere. Another role of leaders is to involve people, so that they can collaborate.
'Copying' becomes learning from 'best practice'; benchmarks help you identify 'world class' and emulate those standards in your organisation.
Line management is out; matrix management is here; and the even lighter-weight agile or SCRUM management methods are just around the corner.
And where does coaching fit into that?
It can be challenging to collaborate. It takes courage and assertiveness.
Especially if someone hogs the credit for your ideas. Or takes them and leaves you out of the team.
Today’s leadership requires respect and trust for these methods to be successful in times of change and uncertainty. Coaching supports people to model and practice these behaviours, and to assert these expectations from others.
To quote from the ICF/HCI 2018 report: "Addressing leadership style, strengths and blind spots; overcoming resistance; building resilience and change readiness; and finding processes and tools are the most frequently cited reasons for using coaching activities for change management."
This isn’t to dismiss mentoring, by the way. Not at all.
I completely value the insights and advice from my business mentor. I get the equivalent of “it’s time to grow up” and the practical advice on how to deal with specific problems. But while mentoring gets me over the hurdles and helps me fill in the jigsaw puzzle that is our business plan, coaching develops my inner game. It gives me the courage to address the challenges; the power to lead by making others powerful; to take feedback; and the determination to ensure our business succeeds in today’s volatile and uncertain world.
About the author: Helen is a multi-disciplinary author, leadership consultant and coach, founder of the Forton Group of Companiesdelivering leadership, coaching and mentoring qualification programmes internationally.
 “Building a coaching culture for change management” September 2018, publ. HCI and ICF,
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