Peeking into the Muddy Waters of Mentorship and Coaching: An interview with Prof. Carol Coffman of Harvard University and the Director of the Institute of Coaching

Peeking into the Muddy Waters of Mentorship and Coaching: An interview with Prof. Carol Coffman of Harvard University and the Director of The Institute of Coaching

Like in any nascent and growing discipline the coaching business has an array of overlapping and often confusing terminology. In fact the lack of standardisation and organic growth of practitioners from a variety of backgrounds has muddied the waters enough to require a fresh look at the nomenclature.  Moreover, the recent enormous growth in the area of coaching and mentoring  makes it even more imperative that both practitioners and users establish certain  basic guidelines.  In this conversation with Prof Coffman we attempt to do just that.

Those who help individual executives and organisations make and execute upon better choicesform a broad spectrum of consultants, trainers, advisors, mentors, coaches, and therapists. But these need not necessarily be individuals. Perhaps it's better to see these as roles or hats that practitioners wear to help their clients. Some may wear a single hat, others all of them. However, it is important to be aware which hat is being worn at any given point in time or with respect to a particular situation.   This degree of clarity increases the chances of success both for the practitioners and their clients.  It is almost as if both the child and the parent should know whether at present the parent is wearing the hat of a friend, or that of a guardian. The lack of such clarity can be damaging to both. It is also important that the practitioner be clear about which role is primary or default. Clarity is the hallmark of great execution and what good is a coach if s/he does not help improve execution.

Let us take a look under the hood of each of these roles.  Fundamentally, it is how each responds to problems that really differentiates them. The goal of the practitioner is to help the client and their organisation improve performance.

  1.   Therapist:   They typically are inward and backward looking.   They are individual rather than organisationally focused. Unlike others they typically are problem focused. In fact, they really do not fall under the category that we're talking about. 

2.   Coaches:   Unlike a therapist a coach is someone who is forward-looking. They typically do not dwell upon the underlying causes of current performance. Instead they try to continually improve individual and organisational performance by attempting to help modify existing behaviours. Often they have an understanding of organisational cultures, business issues, and psychology. They often follow methods used by therapists by not being prescriptive unlike a consultant or a mentor. Unlike trainers they do not focus on skills development per se, but on continual capabilities development.  For a coach to be effective it should be a partnership of equals with their clients.

3.  Mentors: A mentor typically is an experienced executive with a wise head on their shoulders. They tend to be prescriptive because of their special knowledge and experience.

4.  Consultants:  A consultant is anyone with a specialised skill set. They work with organisations, and their goal is to provide expert guidance. Some consultants go beyond provision of information into implementation issues.

5.  Trainers:  A trainer is an expert in a very specific field of study who provides a concerted effort in a short period of time largely to a group of people to help them develop a new skill or capability.

6. Advisors: They have a limited role to play with significantly less intensity than that of a mentor or coach.

Before you go shopping for a coach or mentor you need to be aware of what you really need. First decide what do you want fundamentally - a coach or a mentor? Clarity on this front would go a long way in helping you select the right practitioners to work with.

The two most important attributes of a good coach is that s/he offers you a new perspective while mostly listening to you, and the ability to be calm under all circumstances. Sort of being an anchor in your turbulent environment. A good coach must be able to demonstrate some form of performance measures before and after the engagement. Mentors and consultants on the other hand, know shapes and sizes. A good chemistry and alignment of values is important in choosing a mentor, besides their depth of knowledge and experience. In general, a coach listens while a mentor speaks.

Taking account of the above, if the issue is with your own capability development then you want the person who is primarily a coach. On the other hand, if the issue is more of knowledge/skill development and guidance, then you should be looking primarily for a mentor or a consultant. However, if you think that your real problems stem from deep resentment issues and an exaggerated sense of self, or maybe you possess a ‘victim mentality’ then coaches and consultants are not for you. You need a therapist who would help uncover the real reasons behind your destructive thought processes and replace them with constructive thinking patterns for good.

Finally, while credentials can be helpful, they are definitely not sufficient, or even necessary in selecting a coach or mentor. The standard advice is to make a thoughtful and deliberate decision by meeting with several coaches and mentors before deciding. The litmus test is of course selecting a coach or mentor with whom you feel most strongly wowed.  Of course references and word of mouth matters as well.