Although executive coaching receives quite a bit of press in the management development community, mentoring is a less understood and less common development technique. That might soon change, however.
Although there are some superficial similarities between coaching and mentoring, the differences — and, more important, the application of the two techniques — are often substantial. In fact, some organizations find mentoring is less expensive and provides a greater impact than coaching.
Coaching generally comes in the form of one-on-one sessions between a manager and his or her coach. (Although there is team coaching, it is less popular.)
More often, though, organizations use external coaches. In some organizations, however, there is a desire to hire or train more internal coaches, especially in larger organizations that can afford to have full-time coaches on staff.
Coaching assignments range across a spectrum in terms of their goals, but two common themes are communication and interpersonal skill building. Typically, coaching assignments are finite and designed to help a manager build a skill or improve performance in a few specified areas. Coaches often have professional backgrounds in industrial psychology or organizational behavior, and some have certificates from at least one coaching industry organization.
Mentoring is defined as a relationship between two people in which a more experienced person agrees to support the development of a less experienced person, traditionally viewed as a protégé and today often referred to as a “mentee.”
Organization-sponsored formal mentoring is meant to meet specific objectives, is structured and might be one part of a broader development program. Informal mentoring is less structured and may be initiated by either the mentor or mentee, or it might evolve through existing work relationships.
Mentor/mentee assignments are crucial and typically are made with someone outside a person’s reporting structure and even in a different division. Mentors typically are selected from within the organization and don’t have any professional training or certification in the practice. The process is intended to help the protégé learn the ropes of a new culture or how things get done in the organization, to expose a high-potential employee to more senior roles or offer insight into the politics of an organization.
“It is kind of a MapQuest — it greatly reduces the time it takes to learn how to get around the organization,” said Michele Vion, Level 3 Communications senior vice president of human resources and business partnering. Vion regularly mentors others and has found mentors to be helpful in her own career.
Although there are many executive coaches in the marketplace (some estimate there are more than 10,000 in the United States), mentoring as a profession is far less developed and promoted as such.
The market survey “Leadership Development Best Practices” (The Institute of Executive Development and the Danish Leadership Institute), revealed 86 percent of companies offered coaching for executives, and only 43 percent offered formal mentoring. Although there are many professionals who offer coaching services, relatively few provide expertise and guidance on setting up a mentor program.
Mentoring, Coaching and Talent Management
Unfortunately, much of the coaching and mentoring activity that exists is not integrated with other talent management activities. Many talent executives are unaware of the extent to which coaching is happening in their own organizations, let alone taking steps to coordinate it with other development activities.
In the survey “Executive Coaching” (Marshall Goldsmith Partners and The Institute of Executive Development), 57 percent of organizations reported “some” or “no” coordination of coaching with other executive development activities.
Although coaching and mentoring certainly are not substitutes for each other (or any other type of management development), it is a lost opportunity when talent executives do not coordinate them to ensure a baseline level of quality and that corporate and individual developmental goals and tactics are reinforcing each other.
Some organizations, however, do successfully incorporate both mentoring and coaching into their talent management strategy. At Ford Motor Co., executive coaching is conducted using a mix of internal and external coaches, said Tom Grant, the head of executive development. He also said there are mentoring programs for different populations, including new hires, engineers, front-line managers and high potentials, as well as for members of various professional network groups.
“Ideally, a good mentor understands and practices good coaching skills, and that mentoring pays off because it shows people they are valued and provides an individualized experience,” Grant said.
The highly customized nature of both coaching and mentoring enables them to complement other developmental techniques, which often are conducted with a team or larger group.
Another opportunity to leverage the benefits of mentoring is by tying it to talent acquisition at the executive level. Mentoring programs designed to ensure successful onboarding can entice executives, who are increasingly savvy to the difficulty of coming into new organizations.
Talent executives are growing fearful of the baby boomers’ retirement, as well as the upcoming talent drain in some organizations. Some have figured out how to set up mentoring programs to allow institutional knowledge to gradually transfer to the “new guard” while creating a meaningful role for semiretired executives.
“Effective mentoring relationships can be mutually beneficial for both the organization and senior executives nearing retirement,” said Stacy McManus, Monitor Executive Development management consultant. “They give individuals in the company an important, culturally specific resource who can help them become successful while providing a high-impact role for senior leaders to pass on their knowledge and experience to the leaders of tomorrow.”
Elements of Successful Mentoring Programs
Although mentoring programs can be implemented in varying ways and should be tailored to the organization’s specific needs, there are some common elements that will improve the outcomes.
“Being certain mentors are prepared and confident is absolutely essential to the success of the match, so it’s well worth investing time in mentor training,” said Kim Wise, Mentor Resources president. “They need to understand what’s expected, how to guide and ask the right questions versus giving too much direction or advice.”
Whether formal or informal mentoring, mentor orientation or training should include expectations of mentoring, asking questions and giving feedback, sharing experiences to facilitate learning, career guidance and tips on managing the mentoring relationship.
What to Watch For
Even with all the benefits and rewards reaped through mentoring, it doesn’t always go according to plan (which is the case with any other development process). When mentoring doesn’t work well, the primary reason is due to a bad match between the mentor and mentee — the latter might think the former doesn’t have the right experience, be at the right level to be of much help or was hoping to get assigned one of the more prestigious executives.
In some cases, there are significant personality or style differences that prevent them from developing a rapport or that restrain the relationship. Give it a fair shot, but if it’s just not a good match, find a different mentor.
Even with the best intentions and a real desire to participate in mentoring, time constraints are another issue. Everyone has incredible demands on their time, which can make it difficult to prioritize mentoring meetings. Scheduling and rescheduling time can be discouraging, but doing so also is a good lesson in flexibility, persistence and patience. One situation that is clearly outside the expectations of mentoring is when a mentor is asked to “fix” a poor performer. This should be handled as a performance management issue by the individual’s manager and HR manager.
The Choice is Yours
Both coaching and mentoring have their roles in talent management and are used to address complementary issues in managing talent. Organizations are wise to consider using one or both, depending on needs.
Coaching might be the most viable option to address pinpointed needs in a defined time frame, especially at the executive level. Mentoring has broader applications and is very effective in helping individuals understand the organization and its culture, learn skills or technology from experts and accelerate future leaders’ development. Yet, it shows even more promise as a wave of talent gets ready to depart organizations. Fostering great mentoring partnerships could be the key to how organizational knowledge and wisdom are shared and preserved.
Nancy Thomas works with The Institute of Executive Development and is a veteran of Hewlett-Packard, where she managed global executive development programs. Scott Saslow is the founder and executive director of The Institute of Executive Development. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.