Coaching is Not Always the Answer

Coaching is defined as a developmental process or approach, between coach and coachee, aimed at enabling and optimising the functioning of the coachee. This broad definition, could then quite easily include mentoring, and even training.

Common definitions for coaching and mentoring

  • Coaching is a process that aims to improve performance and focuses on the ‘here and now rather than on the distant past or future. … Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.
  • Mentoring is defined as a process aimed to support and encourage people to manage their learning. This is so that they may maximize their potential, develop their skills, improve their performance.

No wonder these are often used as synonyms and confused. Yet these are very different. However, both are useful in the appropriate situations. This article does not discuss the full scope of coaching approaches (and there are many). But rather to highlight when to adopt a coaching stance, and hopefully, clarify when it is not ideal.

Perspectives from The Managers

  1. Fundamental differences – rather than to give the opinion of one person, the collated views of managers who were undergoing a leadership development program were asked to offer their views. Essentially, they had to answer the following;
    1. Differentiate coaching, mentoring, on-the-job training, and empowerment
    2. And then to discern the purpose of each of these concepts when applied

In response to the question (a) manager’s responses are as follows; On-the-job (OTJ) training was by and large the easiest to describe. They said it is practical and it is related to the job or task. Furthermore, they said people normally learn while doing. It also involves skills that are specific to a job and is therefore not portable to another job or organization.

Empowerment may encompass on-the-job training. However, invariable also includes the provision of means for the job. Thereby allowing the individual to do the job, and ultimately facilitating the ownership of it. The key imperative with empowering people is to enable the authority of the individual in the role and cultivate accountability with that individual.

Coaching and Mentoring

Coaching, therefore, by contrast, is not about OTJ training or empowerment (authority/accountability). And managers found it more difficult to articulate the distinction. They start with descriptors like ‘the coach observes’, the coach guides, the coach supports…. None of which necessarily clarifies coaching. When one applies the ‘sports coach’ analogy – it becomes clearer. The coach does observe the player in his/her play to identify strengths and areas for development, the coach does have authority (and can bench the player), this is not a voluntary engagement, the coach is concerned with polishing the player to excellence.

Finally, the exploration of mentoring. Most managers then realize their tendency to marry the definition of coaching with mentoring. When we look at mentoring, i.e. research shows that the concept of mentoring comes from the character of Mentor in Homer’s Odyssey. In this Ancient Greek epic poem, dating back around 3000 years, Odysseus entrusts his young son Telemachus to the care of Mentor, his trusted companion, when he goes to fight in the Trojan War. Then we understand that mentoring entails a far wider scope of exploration without the need for ‘leadership authority’. It is a process to secure a readiness for the individual to take up their station in life. It fundamentally has to do with enabling the mentee to “see” new, varying, and multiple perspectives – to facilitate entry into new worlds yet unseen (literally and figuratively).

Although all four processes are to enable growth, the purpose of each, of course, is different:

four processes - coaching - schuitema-group-articles

To set the record straight…

On-the-job training aims to enable excellence in task execution. And thus, get the ‘job done right. Empowerment, on the other hand, aims to enable the authority of the individual and affect the person’s accountability. This will hone maturation. Moreover, with empowerment, we effectively unleash the power of the person to take ownership of what managers entrust to them.

Once you establish this ownership, coaching becomes a logical extension. The aim of coaching is excellence in the person, thus getting the ‘person done right’. This is a process that goes through polishing to reveal the shine.

Mentoring really extends beyond just one domain (i.e. professional), it tends to be appropriate when the individual starts questioning the meaning of their life or events in their lives. This process should expose the individual to varying perspectives and increase the expanse of what and how they see their world. Changing attention will affect the patterning of their intention. The aim of mentoring is to clarify intention (purpose), and enable alignment of actions to one’s intention (purpose).

Common misconceptions

Through the focus groups discussions, we realized the common misconceptions and were able to discern the insights around these often confused concepts. Though these are overlapping and complementary – they are not the same. To use the word coaching as a catch-all term aimed to fix all ailments in performance-related organizational concerns is misleading. In fact, it may point to our tendency to make the sometimes hard-actions required seem more palatable and ‘politically correct. The truth is, sometimes discipline is more appropriate to bring about growth and maturation than coaching.


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