LS – We hear a lot about coaching and mentoring – sometimes the terms are interchangeable – but is there a real difference?
What is the difference between mentoring and coaching?
I’m pleased you ask that question as many people use the two terms synonymously. There are definitely similarities between mentoring and coaching, but there are also differences. A mentor is typically a person who has been there, done it and got the t-shirt, meaning that they have, in one way or another, been in the same situation as you.
It’s typically someone who is more experienced and therefore well placed to give you advice on how to approach certain aspects of your project or career. In fact, the word mentor comes from Greek. Mentōr was the adviser of the young Telemachus in Homer’s Odyssey.
If you would like to experience the benefits of being mentored, you could for instance choose a mentor who has worked for a long time in the same organisation as you and who has insights that can help you build your network. But your mentor doesn’t have to be from the same organisation.
It could simply be someone from within your industry who helps you look at your project and career from a distance. Your mentor could also have managed the same types of projects as you, and will therefore be in a good position to advise you about how to approach common situations or overcome obstacles. In summary, mentoring is the activity of advising a less experienced person.
A coach is somewhat different.
A coach isn’t the expert in the situation and will often refrain from giving advice.
In fact, a coach may not even be knowledgeable about the industry you work in.
The role of the coach is to help you unleash your potential, and to help you think through a situation so that you can find the answer for yourself.
This approach can be incredibly powerful because instead of telling you what to do, the coach is giving you the tools to think through the situation on your own.
The way a coach does that is by asking open questions and by fully listening to your views, desires and concerns. The way I would sum up coaching is therefore the activity of empowering an individual to find the answers for themselves.
LS – I was listening to a seminar the other day that talked about the more experienced project and programme managers coaching or mentoring less experienced people. I suspect the reason why a lot of people don’t is because of the time you need to dedicate to it.
How much time – and over what timescales does a relationship last? Is it different if you’re mentoring or coaching?
A coaching and a mentoring relationship can last for an equally short or long time.
Some people may work with the same mentor or coach for years, but it can also be a short-term relationship depending on what the purpose is of the relationship.
You could for instance mentor a project administrator who is new to the job, and as they get more experienced you will spend less and less time with them. It could also be that you meet with a junior project manager from a different department for coffee over a 6-months period. They may be interested in learning more about the types of projects you run because they are trying to transition into your department.
As you set up the mentoring relationship you could decide to meet monthly for one hour, but you could go with any frequency, as long as you don’t lose momentum in between sessions.
A coaching relationship can look quite similar to a mentoring relationship, in that you may have monthly sessions that last for about an hour. But my guess is that most project managers who want to coach will do it informally rather than formally.
So instead of booking an hour in the diary with a team member, they will use the coaching technique informally to help a team member gain clarity whenever the situation calls for it. Such an intervention may last for only 5 or 10 minutes because it’s situational.
Imagine for instance that a team member asks you for advice about how to present a certain topic at a user group meeting. Instead of telling him how you’d do it, you recognise this as a coaching opportunity and ask him a set of questions, such as, what he’s trying to achieve with the presentation, who the audience is, what previous experiences he’s had presenting to a similar group and what his thoughts are on how to approach it.
More and more employers are looking for their manager to be situational coaches as opposed to just directing their staff and telling them what to do – and with good reason!
LS – So if you’ve never mentored or coached someone before, what else is involved from a committment point of view other than time?
What else do I need to invest – other than my time?
I would say that in addition to investing your time you need to invest your attention and your genuine interest.
Coaching or mentoring won’t work just by spending time with someone, if you are not giving them the right kind of attention.
A mentor and a coach need to act with the highest level of integrity, confidentiality and care in order for the relationship to work.
In coaching we talk about three levels of listening. Level I listening is where you listen to your own internal dialogue whilst also hearing what the other person is saying. Most people listen at this level most of the time. Level II is where you are fully focused on what the other person is saying, and level III is where you listen, not just with your ears, but with all of your senses, including your intuition. To be a good coach you have to care enough to listen at level III.
LS – I see on a lot of job specifications – especially within the PMO field – that coaching and mentoring can sometimes form part of the job. I’ve often wondered if you need formal training in order to be a mentor or coach.
Should people be concerned that they don’t have any formal training in coaching?
Formal training is always a good idea, especially if you want to become a better coach.
Without training, most people will think that they are coaching someone, when in fact they are mentoring.
They are giving advice from the bottom of their heart, but don’t realise that they are missing the trick. Don’t get me wrong. Mentoring can be really valuable when someone is junior and genuinely doesn’t know how to progress without the advice of a more senior person. But when a team member is experienced and is looking for guidance on how to approach a certain situation or make a decision, coaching will often produce deeper and longer lasting results.
These days there are lots of coaching courses on the market, which I’d encourage anyone to check it out. Even if you don’t plan to become a coach per se, understanding the art of asking insightful questions and fully listening to another person has the potential to transform your relationships.
LS – I guess these are great behavioural skills for any programme & project management professional to have – no doubt you would learn a lot about yourself too.
What case should I raise with my organisation for gaining training?
Most organisations give their employees some freedom to choose the training they want.
If not, the case for coaching is relatively easily made. When employees learn to coach they become better managers and leaders because they are able to get more from the people they work with.
Coaching enables them to increase awareness levels in themselves and in their teams and to empower people.
A two-day crash course in coaching will help a person to ask better questions, listen and relate better.
But a longer course that leads to a formal qualification will generate more transformational results. The bigger the investment the bigger the potential benefit.
But why ask the employer to fund it all? These days project managers need to take control of their own development, skills and career and be prepared to make the investment themselves. That’s what I did back in 2008 when I started my coaching studies, and I’ve never regretted it!
LS – I’ve always wondered how people who do take up the role of mentor or coach know they have done a good job.
How will I know that it is making a difference?
That’s a great question! At the end of the day we want our coaching and mentoring to have a positive effect on the people who receive it.
The best way to monitor the effect is by observing the level of results that people accomplish.
Coaching isn’t about having a nice chat with someone. It’s about helping people to overcome real obstacles and achieve specific outcomes. If you’re entering into a formal coaching or mentoring relationship, ask the other person what they would like to achieve and focus your conversations on those topics. It could for instance be that the person would like to build better relationships with their stakeholders or that they would like to get better at facilitating meetings.
When you know what the objective of the relationship is, it will be much easier to evaluate if it’s making a difference.