What is the difference between coaching and mentoring

Written by Alistair Gordon, 21 Jun 2020

What’s the difference between mentoring and coaching? Can they work together? And what are the desperate downsides to poor mentoring program set up? Today’s best leadership development programs exploit both to accelerate the capabilities and careers of high potential employees. And importantly, increases the leadership brand of the mentors. Alistair Gordon explains how to get the settings right.

Coaching and mentoring are a super leadership development combo – they can work brilliantly together - but only if the settings are right. Here’s a scary, true story.

When coaching goes very wrong

HFL was commissioned by a leading Australian organisation to build a high potential development program for individuals who were being readied for their first leadership roles. ‘John’, general manager of one of the company’s best performing divisions, had been nominated by the organisational development team to play a starring role in the program in two ways – firstly as a guest senior leader speaker and secondly as a mentor. We were all excited to have him involved – his reputation for getting results and turning around struggling divisions was legendary.

As the lead designer and facilitator on the program, I was tasked with briefing John on his appearance in front of 20 high potential individuals, who had been drawn from across the business. I began to explain the sort of contribution we wanted, what we had seen worked best: a 30 minute sharing of his leadership journey, the great lessons he’d experienced along the way, his insights and then opening the conversation to questions.

“So, you are telling me what to say and do, are you?” John asked me, in a brisk and direct style. “I want to do a session about leadership.”

I explained that as the whole program was about leadership, I was concerned that John might include content we’d already covered. John got aggressive, told me he’d talk about “what he damned well pleased”, and hung up.

This is what coaching is, and this is what mentoring is.

John arrived at the workshop and proceeded to lecture the group about important leadership traits, for nearly an hour. He made it clear to the group that he was an outstanding leader, and he lived up to all of the leadership traits he was describing. Active listening was one. Understanding your audience was another. Being humble was a third trait. The most amusing trait I remember him claiming to live and breathe by was being short, sharp and to the point.

As the minutes ticked by, John’s leader brand took a battering. He covered material we had talked through extensively on day one. His assertive, hectoring delivery demonstrated a complete lack of self-awareness. The audience was quiet for 10 minutes, and then the restlessness began. Most restless of all were the two people who worked in John’s division. You can guess why.

The invisible mentor

Further personal and leadership brand damage occurred in the months that followed. Encouraged by John’s corporate reputation and track record, two participants had signed up to have him as their mentor. At the beginning of the second workshop, we checked in with participants on how they were finding the mentoring experience. For most of the cohort the experience had been wonderful. They reported mentors being generous with their time. Those who had selected John had a different story – times to meet agreed and then changed or cancelled because he was “busy dealing with a crisis”. The participants had been disappointed but had thought this would be a common experience, until they heard from everyone else.

The internal sponsors of the program were unable to have a robust conversation with John because he was significantly more senior and was a results star of the business. It fell to me, quite rightly as the external consultant and facilitator of the program, to talk to him. This proved difficult. After several ignored emails and phone calls, I left a voice mail saying we were reallocating his mentorees to other executives. This elicited an immediate “how dare you” response but I won’t bore you with the details.

Positive examples

I should quickly contrast this negative example with the countless positive ones we’ve experienced. Most senior leaders have a hugely positive impact on their mentorees, and also report that they too get a lot from the process. Mentoring brings a quite different flavour to the participant journey than pure coaching. It enables participants to build connections across the business and at a more senior level, to learn from others’ mistakes and successes, build commitment to the organisation, and increase their visibility (and therefore likely retention) outside their immediate division.

Attracting the right mentors and shaping a successful program

Adding a mentoring stream to the program is far from a simple, risk free or low maintenance exercise. Attracting the right mentors from senior leadership cohorts, who want to be involved for the right reasons, is tricky. Shaping the right matching procedures, rules of engagement and qualification criteria require a great deal of diplomacy and tact – and occasional bouts of assertiveness.

It’s vital to clearly communicate, ahead of time, about what’s expected from mentors. Senior leaders need to be properly briefed about the benefits and dangers of volunteering for a mentoring program. It’s an opportunity to extend their positive leadership brand but can also put them at risk of ruining it. Mentoring is about real commitments to real people, who are very influential as a group. Strong boundary rules need to be set – areas where mentors cannot tread. The first sensitive issue here is criticism, either direct or implied, of the mentoree’s manager.

Mentors need to be kept abreast of what’s happening with other mentorees on the program. From our experience, in a cohort of 20 participants, at least one of the mentoring relationships will come off the rails and the program directors need to be ready to deal with the fallout.

Sometimes it’s necessary to have difficult conversations with senior leaders who have got the wrong idea about their role as mentors, or who are not fulfilling their commitments. These are never fun, and have the capacity to damage relationships.

In the four years since my ‘John’ story, HFL’s primary rule is clear: if the prospective mentor can’t find the time to commit to a 30 minute telephone briefing or doesn’t think they need to, then they should not be included in the program. By applying this rule, we are saving everyone from a lot of time and effort and trouble.