Mentoring versus coaching for leadership in smaller businesses

11 February 2020 • Leadership

What's the difference between coaching and mentoring?

Often, I hear the terms ‘coaching’ and ‘mentoring’ used interchangeably in both personal and business contexts. When working with large organisations, each term has a specific definition and set of criteria, and there is reasonable clarity and often distinct roles that each plays.

However, in small and medium size businesses, the scope is often less clearly defined or understood.

And does this matter? It depends a lot on what’s important to the individual business leader being mentored or coached, and how that relationship is set up.

For example, I have a client for whom “Mentor” is a status-defining term that sends a particular, positive message to their contacts and customers. The relationship we have co-designed, however, is grounded firmly in coaching, with advice sometimes requested and given based on specific areas of my experience.

Many other clients perceive “working with a Coach” to support the commitment they make to their own self-development. There is more of a recognition of the accountability within the relationship, and the drive towards their own growth. And sometimes, this relationship includes traditional mentoring elements such as advice or introductions.

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So is a distinction needed?

Over the 12 years I have been working with business owners and directors in SMEs, of many colours and shapes, I firmly believe there is real value in a blended mentor-coach model.

What informs this model? My clients’ needs and the broad value they get from the relationship. Real life examples are often the best demonstration of what this looks like:

Dealing with the unexpected

I have a coaching relationship with an entrepreneur where we worked on defining business strategy, and building his skills to manage the growing business over a number of years. When he was made an offer for the company (unplanned), my experience in selling two businesses of my own was valuable in outlining the options and potential impact, prior to getting specialist expert advice.

Managing Change

A fast-growth tech company wanted business coaching to accelerate their growth. We worked together on developing business strategy and redefining roles as the business grew, and pivoting as the sector evolved. I mentored the owner through a period of personal growth and decision making, and was able to make relevant introductions when the business raised funding. We’ve since used relationship coaching for the directors as they work remotely in different time zones. The coach-mentor agreement evolves as the business needs change.

People Management

Often small businesses have people management challenges - a team member is not working well and improvements don’t materialise. Managing difficult conversations can be a challenge for small, friendly companies, and the support needed shifts between coaching for leadership into technical options and decision making. Specialist advice may be needed in addition to resolve some situations, and I then work with the business owners or management team to create a learning loop, where they identify and adjust the behaviours that have led to difficult people decisions.

NB: It’s important to make the distinction that neither a coach, nor mentor, is a substitute for legal advice, professional financial advice, H&S or any other technical area where qualifications and regulation are required.

How important is your mentor or coach’s background and experience?

I know that my clients tell me the fact I have started, grown and eventually sold two businesses of my own is key in building trust and feeling that I would understand their pain and their possibilities. My skills as a coach, working with a wide array of businesses and associated challenges, have given me the tools, skills, and know-how to share, which helps clients make sense of the behaviours they instinctively turn to in different situations.

You might want to think about how important your mentor-coach’s business experience is, whether you need someone who is commercially and financially savvy. Have they got first hand experience of the needs of a developing business?

Regardless of the skills and experience that feel right for you, the chemistry and relationship you have with your chosen specialist is key to great results. Consider how you like to be challenged, how prepared you are to work on yourself, knowing that lasting change happens from within? How are you best motivated - do you need a carrot or a stick? Talk this through before making a decision.

Summary: Mentoring versus coaching

If you would prefer to be given advice from someone who has specialist knowledge of your industry; seek out a mentor with exactly that experience. Recognise that you may need to be accountable more to yourself for results.

If you want a balance of business coaching, coaching for leadership, self-development and an accountability partner, consider the mentor-coach approach.

Liz Wren

Liz Wren

Through the Forest supports businesses and their people to clarity, confidence, self-awareness and success.

I have created, grown and ultimately sold a number of businesses in my career to date. I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved. And with what I know now, I am certain I would have been far more productive, confident and successful, if I had looked beyond my own mindset and abilities and worked with a coach.

Through the Forest exists to help others on that journey. If we can support you or your team to achieve a dream, help you believe that you can, or simply enable you sleep better at night, get in touch.

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