In Need of a Mentor, Coach—or Both?

By John T. Mooney, ACC, SPHR, Consultive Source Jun 10, 2011

Senior business leaders often confuse the foundational development tools of mentoring and coaching. In fact, ask any 50 employees to define mentoring, and you’ll typically get 50 definitions. There appears to be universal agreement only about the lack of a common definition.

With roots in the early 20th century developmental work of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, mentoring draws from the developmental concept of scaffolding. Scaffolding is an instructional interaction aimed at extending knowledge, reducing task complexity and transferring responsibility, all while providing emotional support.

Mentoring, Relationship Building

Mentoring takes two forms: formal and informal. Formal mentoring provides:

  • Greater appreciation of diversity efforts across corporations, offering increased opportunities for women, minorities and other underrepresented groups.
  • A clear platform to communicate formally an organization’s vision, mission and values.
  • Career development in the cultural attributes of an organization (i.e., corporate politics, how things get done).

Formal mentoring is often characterized by burdensome rules, regulations and requirements, and it might appear “stuffy.” Thus, it is not the ideal tool for all situations.

Informal mentoring, however, happens all the time and can last for days, weeks, months or years.

Informal mentoring is:

  • Dependent on intrinsic motivation.
  • Communication between two employees, where one wants to learn and the other might gain from sharing career experiences.
  • A natural match born out of a relationship and the desire to grow and develop one another.
  • Something that frequently blooms into a lasting relationship.

Social networking tools such as LinkedIn serve to facilitate many such informal mentoring roles.

Coaching Is Holistic Investment

Coaching, on the other hand, is a development tool that serves as a holistic investment in professional development. Use of the term “holistic investment” is intentional: Development involves the whole person—what you see on the surface as well as what is below the surface.

On the surface, behavior is observable and situational, typically communicated in tools such as 360-degree feedback. Below the surface lie thoughts, beliefs and values. But the role of an internal or external coach has evolved from its roots as an organization’s agent for performance remediation to its present focus on development potential of individuals.

Corporate development frequently speaks in terms of competency development. Competencies create a framework for developing talent aligned with strategic or leadership characteristics. Corporate competencies are generally presented as learning goals for development and are different from skills and qualifications.

It is important to recognize competencies and signature strengths developed throughout one’s career and lifespan. For example, using coaching techniques when working with mid-level managers can help ensure that the requisite development opportunities are aligned with corporate or leadership competencies.

Coaching leaders on their personal development is a holistic process that considers all aspects of adult psychological development, including one’s personal experiences from childhood and adulthood as well as his or her current experience and context. Coaching development works to incorporate work and personal life, although leaders frequently see themselves as two personalities—the person they think they should be and their real self. The coach attempts to encompass both perceived aspects (personas) of the leader’s life in the coaching process.

John T. Mooney, ACC, SPHR, is principal of the training and coaching firm Consultive Source, based in the Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, area.

Adapted with permission from John T. Mooney – Consultive Source.

© (2010) John T. Mooney– Consultive Source. All Rights Reserved.


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