So you think you’re a coach?

As a leader, one of the major challenges you will face is how to successfully develop the people in your organisation. Your team will need to be challenged, supported, encouraged to be creative and allowed to show initiative and make mistakes. You need them to be accountable for their performance and you will need to give them the opportunity to ‘step up’ and go beyond expectations.

Received wisdom is that the best way to develop people and elicit this sort of behaviour is to coach them. You may already think that you are a coach and people may tell you that you are. If this is the case, then it’s quite possible that you have a coaching style of leadership, and this will be reflected in the results that you get from your team.

However, unless you have a formal coaching background or qualification, it’s likely that you tend to step over the line into mentoring and possibly even counselling without being conscious that you are doing this.

Most of our clients have regular one-to-one discussions with their direct reports with the explicit objective of coaching them. In some of the organisations we work with there are also mentoring schemes. These meetings with a mentor provide an opportunity for experienced managers to pass on their knowledge, usually to a younger protégé.

As with the coaching one-to-ones, these mentoring meetings also need to have some groundrules and some structure in order to be really effective. A mentor needs to guarantee that the discussion is confidential, and mustn’t fall into the trap of using the session as an opportunity to talk exclusively about themselves and their achievements.

There’s nothing wrong with using a combination of different approaches in your leadership, but it is very helpful if you are able to identify where the boundaries lie. Coaching, counselling, mentoring and training are all very different disciplines that get different results in different circumstances, and at times one particular style can be completely inappropriate.

For example, telling one of your team how you solved a problem similar to the one he or she is now facing, is not coaching. Arguably, if you want them to really own the challenge and find their solution, sharing your experience (particularly if they’ve not asked for it) will not make them fully accountable for solving the problem. Likewise providing a ‘sympathetic ear’ or a ‘shoulder to cry on’ is not coaching. In fact, this sort of counselling can be very risky, and anyone in your organisation who clearly needs counselling should always be referred to a trained counsellor.

Talking to our clients over recent months, they seem to want to understand more about the principles and boundaries of each discipline. They would like to be able to use a more structured approach, particularly when it comes to coaching, which is all about moving forward and helping individuals and organisations develop more rapid and effective results. Without an understanding of how coaching works, and how it differs from mentoring and counselling, it’s very difficult for it to be results-focused.

Understanding these distinctions means that you will know what is appropriate at any given time. You can then consciously choose either to coach or to mentor, and you will get the best results from your team member accordingly.

We summarise the differences between the principles of Coaching, Mentoring & Counselling in a short downloadable guide. Just click on the graphic below:

Coaching download