Coaching and Mentoring Are Different

I’ve lately seen a number of references to coaching that sound, in context, like mentoring.  And I’ve recently seen a request for mentors that sure sounded like they wanted people to do coaching.  So, I’m going to try to differentiate between the two activities, because as practicing IT project managers, we will likely be called on to do one or both during our careers.

You might think of coaching as something a guy with a whistle does out on a field.  In most sports, the coach works with the athlete (or team) to improve their performance, where their goal is to win competitions.  However, in the work world, the goal may be simply to get performance up to an acceptable level, rather than an exceptional level.  Obviously, this implies that there are standards of some sort, and that performance can be measured.  Thus, coaching typically involves giving impartial feedback, both positive and negative.  The end state of coaching is improved performance by the learner.  The coach focuses on teaching techniques or behaviors, whether at the fundamental or advanced level, so the learner can continue to improve independently.  As Vince Lombardi famously observed, “Coaching in its truest sense is giving the responsibility to the learner to help them come up with their own answers.”

When we talk about coaching our project teams, we should think in terms of empowering them.  What feedback can we give that will trigger insights?  What metrics can we use that will help them drive specific, desired behaviors?  Good coaching is about enabling success through behavior change, rather than punishing failure.  And while a coach doesn’t have to be in a management or supervisory role, a coach has role-based authority.  The challenge for the coach is to use that authority to influence behavior, rather than to dictate actions.

Mentoring, on the other hand, is about personal development.  As Bozeman and Feeney define it, “Mentoring is a process for the informal transmission of knowledge, social capital, and the psychosocial support perceived by the recipient (emphasis added) as relevant to work, career, or professional development.”  Generally, mentoring involves unstructured communications, usually face to face, over an extended period of time.  In most cases, organizations with formal mentoring programs have specific goals for the relationship.  New-hire mentoring programs, for example, have been given credit for significant improvements in employee retention.  However, in some cases the goals of the mentor – protégé relationship may be defined by the protégé, rather than the mentor.  This is especially true in peer mentoring, where the differentiator is experience, and the end state is essentially the autonomy of the protégé.

When we talk about mentoring a new hire or a junior project manager, we should think in terms of providing a proper example of the culture of the organization, as well as insights and learning opportunities.  Of course, good mentoring requires probing questions, by both parties to the relationship, but it also involves introductions and a “transfer of social capital.”  At some level, the mentor is a cheerleader, rather than a coach, and the protégé benefits from the association by making contacts and developing other relationships.

Good coaching is brief and focused on specifics, whereas good mentoring requires development of a long-term relationship.  Both activities can be personally and professionally rewarding, but always remember: the focus is on the learner or protégé.  It’s not about us.

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About Dave Gordon

Dave Gordon is a project manager with over twenty five years of experience in implementing human capital management and payroll systems, including SaaS solutions like Workday and premises-based ERP solutions like PeopleSoft and ADP Enterprise. He has an MS in IT with a concentration in project management, and a BS in Business. In addition to his articles and blog posts, he curates a weekly roundup of articles on project management, and he has authored or contributed to several books on project management.