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Agile Transformation, The softer issues: Coaching versus Mentoring
Carina Fourie
Principal Consultant & Business Coach, DVT

Agile Transformation, The softer issues: Coaching versus Mentoring

There is general confusion in the business and Agile world about the differences between coaching and mentoring. One can easily be confused with the other given the similarities between them.

Some key authorities on coaching and mentoring (such as Clutterbuck and Megginson) argue that any attempts to polarise the two fields is futile and negatively affects both. I agree, and by shedding some light on these disciplines we can start to make sense of the delineations and overlaps.

Mentoring is said to have originated from the Greek mythology of Homer’s Odyssey in which Mentor is mentioned as an advisor to Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. The use of the word mentor entered organisational vocabulary through a seventeenth century book The Adventures of Telemachus by the French writer Fenelon. Fenelon portrayed Mentor to embody the attributes of a teacher, guide and counsellor - a definition which still holds true today. Over the ages we have great examples of ‘mentors’ by this definition: Sigmund Freud for Carl Jung, Haydn for Beethoven, Phil Jackson for Michael Jordan and Tina Turner for Mick Jagger.

The Online Etymology Dictionary suggests the term coaching originates from the ‘koczi' - a covered carriage or wagon that was originally invented in the village Kocs in northern Hungary. The wagon was designed to protect valued passengers from the elements on their journey through a rough terrain. The word coach in the context of a trainer or instructor is said to stem from the 1830’s, when Oxford University used it as slang for a tutor who ‘carried’ a student through the exam.

The greek philosopher Socrates is considered by many as the first significant coach. He made a valuable contribution to coaching with the Socratic method, which is based on open-ended questioning in order to encourage reflection. This method is now well integrated in the coaching philosophy and is focused on coachees generating their own perspectives and actions for addressing challenges.

The practice of team coaching has also become a popular intervention in recent years. In this case there is a fine line between coaching and facilitation. Although the approach may differ, the same basic principles apply in that the coaching will challenge certain beliefs and assumptions and use specific models to resolve a specific challenge.

Mentoring has long been a popular way of transferring knowledge from generation to generation. Today mentoring programmes are widely used in organisations both on an individual and team level. Mentoring is often associated with induction, career development, and as a support mechanism in career change. The agenda is determined by the mentee and may be of organisational or individual focus. The mentor does not always work in the same organisation as the mentee or protégé, but has an in-depth understanding of the challenges and issues the mentee has to deal with. The mentoring disciplines are less likely to refer to specific tools instead emphasises more personal qualities and abilities.

Coaching, on the other hand, is still very much in its infancy both from a practice and research point of view. The multitude of definitions, tools, theories and traditions that are attributed to coaching points to the eclectic nature of the discipline. Similar to mentoring, coaching has its roots in education, organisational development, psychology, counselling and sports.

Coaching is generally seen as a thinking partnership between equals where the coach encourages clients to create their own solutions, and develop awareness of conscious and unconscious behaviour and assumptions. Cavanagh (2006) argues that the purpose of coaching is to “push the coachee towards the edge of chaos, towards a controlled and managed instability, a condition in which human growth and change is most likely”.

Coaching approaches individuals holistically and cannot be optimal without taking all aspects of the person’s life into account. Business coaches do not only focus on assisting individuals defining their core purpose, strategies, developmental strategies, developmental strengths, weaknesses and obstacles, but also take all aspects of the individual’s life into account. Aspects typically included are meaning and purpose of their work, leadership, processes and systems and work-life balance (Stout-Rostron, 2012: 4)

As an applied science, coaching has a multitude of applications and prefixes, but could broadly be classified into two categories: performance (acquisitional) coaching and personal developmental (transformational) coaching. Performance coaching is more model driven and goal focused whereas development coaching has a purpose of development of awareness, skills, behaviour modification, emotional intelligence, personal mastery and transformation. David Clutterbuck argues that despite the plethora of coaching models and approaches the mature (system eclectic) coach has a liberated approach which includes a wide-ranged portfolio of tools and techniques.

Coaching versus Mentoring

It is worthwhile to take note of the conclusion of a recent study (Salter & Gannon, 2015) exploring the similarities and distinctions of coaching and mentoring. They suggest an alternative approach to seeking differentiation between the disciplines would be to embrace diversity in acquiring additional skills and applying the intervention best suited for the optimal outcome at a given time. They specify that the practitioner should be aware of the discipline and boundaries they are operating in and be contracted with the client whether the conversation is one of giving advice or incisive questioning.

In conclusion, it seems fair to say that when you need advice and expert knowledge from a more experienced person on a specific topic, you probably need a mentor. The engagement may be less formal and structured. From a coaching point of view, you can be expected to be challenged on your world views, limiting beliefs and assumptions in order to enable you to develop your own solutions rather than the coach providing them for you.

The coaching relationship is an equal relationship of discovery, where the coach is the expert on coaching and the client the expert in their field. In business coaching it is important that the coach understands the business domain to be able to ask the right questions. A coach may sometimes act as a mentor if needed, but only when specifically required to do so.


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