Training, Mentoring or Coaching? How do leaders choose?
Updated: Feb 9, 2022
When it comes to management development options, there are many. It can be confusing to understand how to get the most bang for your organizational buck. From articles written by highly respected gurus to Ted Talks by influencers, to the bestselling books and consultants who have the solutions you need, it can be overwhelming to figure out how individual leaders can get the help they need in an impactful way.
In my experience as a learning and leadership development expert, I have found that the higher level the leader, the more customized they would like their learning to be. And the less time they feel they have to spend on their development. Hence the conundrum.
For leaders at lower levels of the organization, there is a perception that development is more accessible to them, and as a result, they are sent to training to bridge gaps or strengthen weak spots in their leadership. While training certainly has its place as a good foundational first step for skill growth, I would like to uncover some of the mystery surrounding mentoring and coaching, as developmental next steps because their impact can be quite powerful.
Many of the leaders I’ve worked with thought of training as a talking head before a series of tables in an unstimulating room where “students” listen, take notes, or nod off. This definition of training is outdated and much of the training that I’ve attended and delivered is far from that! In fact, the level of engagement and discussion has caused classroom training to be seen as an efficient way to learn many of the skills and knowledge that today’s leaders need.
Training is a one-to-many development tool, its objective is to teach a group of people specific skills or knowledge needed to be more effective in the present and in the future.
It consists of lectures, and of completing in-class learning exercises that are driven by the instructor, who is seen as the subject matter expert on the topic(s) at hand. Communication is unidirectional because of the amount of people in the room at one time. The value of training is that it allows the transfer of information at scale, meaning that many leaders can be trained at one time, which is a relatively cost-effective way of enhancing skills and knowledge.
Attendees are expected to soak up the information and are encouraged to use it immediately to flatten the forgetting curve, which we know is quite steep after training, especially when training is treated as an event, rather than a process (which is often the case). Without reinforcement, use of the skills and knowledge are quickly forfeited as the system within which the training took place, swallows the changes so that they are minimal and eventually disappear.
While training can have long-lasting effects for the keen leader who continues their development on their own, for many, the generalized nature of training causes the effects of training to be short-lived. Given how diverse individual leadership styles and various contexts are, where training lacks is in its ability to really personalize what will cause behaviour change for each person in the room. Putting learning into practice usually requires a more customized approach.
Indeed, for training to truly be effective, it must be followed-up with various methods that not only remind attendees of what they learned, but also challenges them to use it often so that they can get practice, feedback and refinement. This is where mentoring or coaching may be good supplements.
While training is a great way to upskill, sometimes a leader is looking for career advancement or personal development in another form. Sometimes it’s about navigating the organization a bit better or dealing with leadership challenges. That’s where mentoring can be a valuable learning tool. It’s more personalized because it takes place in one-on-one conversations with a senior, more experienced leader or trusted expert, either inside or outside the organization. The objectives of mentoring are generally to provide information, expertise, and advice to share methods of success with an eager mentee. In this relationship, the mentor is also seen as the expert.
Mentorships are far more conversational than training, although the mentor tends to do most of the talking because of their intention to share their knowledge and experience. They may suggest things for the mentee to do in-between their meetings, but during the meeting itself, the mentor is usually doing most of the heavy lifting when it comes to providing value. As the mentor discusses what has worked for them in the past, the assumption is that by following similar steps, the mentee would have similar success. Mentees also get a chance to learn from the mentor’s past mistakes, which can be a valuable way to save time, but does not guarantee that the same outcomes will be achieved.
Some mentors will introduce the mentee to various people or events that allow the mentee to gain exposure, but the best way for a mentor to serve their mentee is by having clarity on what the mentee is wanting from the relationship. Therefore, mentees must articulate what exactly they are looking to gain from their mentor so that the mentor can narrow the focus of their conversations and provide the best support. Hence, due to the nature of the mentoring relationship, conversations are semi-confidential since more people could be sought by the mentor to further support the mentee.
One of the caveats of mentoring relationships is the potential lack of match between mentor and mentee. Like most good relationships, there does need to be chemistry to achieve the best result. Also, if there is a lack of follow-through, mentorship can be limited in its reach because the mentee must be willing to take the advice offered, or risk being seen as facetious.
In essence, the value of mentoring lies in the mentee receiving customized information and support, although not all suggestions and advice will be suitable, nor accepted by the mentee. That is why some leaders prefer to work with a coach who helps them achieve their goals in yet another way.
In effect, mentoring and coaching share the following similarities:
· One on one attention
· Customized solutions
· Goal oriented conversations, driven by the learner
While coaching and mentoring may have much in common, as one digs deeper into these development tools, they quickly come to realize how different they truly are.
Indeed, unlike mentors, coaches are seen as thinking partners who work with the leader to bolster their self-trust and awareness of choice. As such, coaches rarely give advice or suggestions. The objectives of coaching are to broaden the leader’s perspective and increase their self-awareness as they work toward achieving specific goals.
Using tools and processes, coaches help leaders explore their thought patterns, beliefs, values and decisions through a series of thought-provoking questions. The questions tend to broaden the leader’s view, thereby allowing leaders to gain a better understanding of the obstacles their facing and how they might get past them.
Which brings me to another big difference between coaching and mentoring. In a coaching conversation, it is the leader and not the coach who does most of the talking. The coach is considered the expert of the process but understands that the leader is the expert in their own life. There is an implicit understanding that the leader knows the context and situation far better than the coach does. Therefore, the coach acts more as a catalyst for learning, and less as a director of action.
This points to the third difference between mentoring and coaching, and that is in who comes up with the course of action for moving the leader forward. In these highly confidential discussions where nothing is shared outside the conversation, the leader explores various options and then decides which ones they feel would be the best course of action to make progress towards achieving their goals. Because of the in-depth exploration of how they view the problem, the leader tends to discover solutions that they see as feasible.
As a result, the action steps that they commit to are usually much more meaningful. Because they learned about themselves and how they see the world, coached leaders find that the answers for how to move forward usually emerge naturally from the conversation. They are usually excited about the steps they want to take to move themselves forward because they came up with the ideas themselves. Rather than being told what to do, they figure out what will work best for them. And with a coach as their champion, they get the encouragement they need to step out of their comfort zones when needed.
In order for coaching to work most efficiently though, it does require a willingness on the leader’s part to be open to exploring their thought patterns, beliefs, values, and decisions. Much can be gained by the leader who frees themselves to explore and challenge their thoughts and ideas, and begin to interact with the world differently to get different results. Unlike mentoring that can feel rather safe because the focus is on discussing the mentor’s experiences, coaching explores the leader’s inner workings a bit more deeply, thereby requiring them to fully trust the coach. That’s why it is important to work with a coach who is governed by a standardizing body who upholds the integrity and ethical considerations of the coaching practice.
Please note that coaching is not psychotherapy. Therapy and counselling focus on past experiences that are affecting one’s current ability to cope. Coaching is about being proactive because it’s about seeking greater awareness and perspective so that positive changes can be made in the present to create the desired future. While the conversation may dip briefly into the past and observe the present, the focus is really on the future, and on conducting learning experiments to gain lasting results.
In coaching, most of the work is done by the leader both during and after the meetings, as they are guided by their insights and commitments. Coaching also is about seeing the whole person, which means that goals may be personal, in addition to professional. And what many times happens is that the effects of coaching are usually the longest lasting, as the insights gained usually leads to the leader engaging in more behaviours that serve them and losing ones that don’t.
In effect, depending on what level of development a leader wants, there are a variety of ways they can get what they need. While we know that we tend to get out of development what we put into it, we know that a 1-day course is much less likely to cause lasting change than a 6-month coaching engagement where development goals are front and center. Of course, sometimes all that’s needed is a refresher of what was already learned. Whatever method of leadership development you choose, what’s important is that you are learning and growing. Every step you take toward improving yourself, is a step you take in helping your team and organization be better too. 😊
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