Are these Active Influence Roles the Same – or Different?

Key Points:

Mentoring involves giving wisdom and advice

Coaching involves supporting people with inquiry and self-discovery

Leaders must choose the best approach to use “in the now”

When leaders become truly skilled in their ability to actively influence others, they will intuitively shift roles based on what is happening in the moment. They may glide back and forth between coaching, mentoring, facilitating, managing and leading, sometimes within the space of a single meeting. They choose the best approach to use “in the now.” In this blog post I’m going to focus on two of the roles an adept active influencer must be absolutely clear on – Coaching and Mentoring. Hear me now. Coaching and Mentoring are in fact not the same thing. However… although they’re different and involve different perspectives and core skills, they’re also in some ways similar. Read on and I’ll explain  what makes each role unique and valuable, as well as their similarities, differences and when to use each in your quest to actively influence those around you.

Sometimes You Need “Older and Wiser”

Mentoring often does have some “grey hair” attached to it. Mentors are generally thought of as older, wiser, and seasoned. That’s not always the case, but it is a common characteristic because mentoring depends so much on experiences. These experiences may be in specific domains of expertise or situational. “What would you do in this situation?” is a common request from someone seeking mentoring. The seeker knows the mentor has likely already walked in those shoes — or at least witnessed someone who has.

In more general areas, such as career pursuits, leadership, and management, our best mentors are often someone around 10-15 years older. In fast paced times and industries that may challenge the ‘expiry date’ on some advice. Regardless, the experience is more fresh and relevant enough to us and tend to see it as valuable. In addition to sharing experiences and what they’ve learned from them (their wisdom), mentors can also be great sources of coaching, but coaching is when “advice” giving must end.

Gleaning wisdom and advice from a mentor are important in the Active Influences Model. So is offering this type of help to others. Mentoring is a powerful element in a leader’s life, and when you have been mentored well, you want to mentor others.  It may be a regular practice for you to share your wisdom and advice with employees or other individuals. When I was a manager I did as well. I think my best play as a manager was to assign someone within my team to be a new teammate’s “New Hire Guide” for the first 90 days. This person was a resource for the newbie to go to with questions and to “learn the ropes.” The New Hire Guide also helped shortcut making mistakes that others had already made, so the new hire could gain confidence quickly and get a solid start. Keep in mind that when actively influencing, you have multiple methods to employ at will. You can choose to use any of them as you need. So even though I wasn’t the direct source of influence to the new hire I just talked about, I facilitated a mentorship experience for him. Remember that our end game is always about figuring out the most effective way to influence our best future, in that moment.

Mentoring is a powerful element in a leader’s life; when you’ve been mentored well, you want to mentor others.

What Mentoring Is – and Isn’t

I was very fortunate in that from an early age my father mentored me. I didn’t know what it was at the time, but now I see so clearly what he was doing and why he did it. Mentoring is such important work for parents to do, and it can be really hard. Similar to coaching, mentoring is built on relationship – but to an even greater degree. In a parent’s situation, they must throw down the rules at times, and that’s not the job of either a coach or mentor. That’s being a supervisor or dictator, which we won’t get into here!

Mentoring has been implemented in businesses to what I feel is limited success. My thought is that when we make mentoring a “program” we take something quite organic and institutionalize it. Effective mentors are not only invested deeply in the success of another person, they are often within someone’s personal network of relationships. They care from many different and deeper relational levels about the success of the person they mentor. This is unlike coaches, who also care about success, but in a very different way. A coach’s effectiveness comes from “managed care” versus personal vesting. Great care needs to be taken when matching up mentors and “mentees.” Like any other relationship, it needs to be a “fit” — personally, professionally and practically.

Mentors often have transferrable experience; they’ve been down the road and offer advice or valuable shortcuts. It’s their experiences, not so much their skills, that create the value. Although mentors are skillful in their roles, I would not expect my mentor to give me significant advice on theory or models. I would expect real, useable, practical advice.

Like any other relationship, mentorship needs to be a “fit” — personally, professionally and practically.

One huge difference between mentoring and coaching is that mentors are usually not coaching to an outcome. They function as a sounding board and advisor. Coaches, on the other hand, provide a reflective space for people to test ideas or thoughts, good or bad, without judgment. Coaching should stop short of giving advice on the content of what is talked about. Coaches may, however, advise on which process(es) would be effective, and/or how to process content. This is a very  important distinction, and one that you’ll need to be able to make as you grow your active influence skills. Be clear that:

  • Mentoring generally brings effective and time-tested advice to help avoid having to make costly mistakes or to strengthen the receiver of the advice.
  • Coaching is about bringing effective process to the client to develop their ability to think, act, and cope with challenges or opportunities. A coach may suggest a mentor, but it will be as a part of the process.

A Few More Things About Mentoring

Sometimes a mentor selects us because they see a need and have something to share. They care deeply for others for various reasons. It’s up to you to decide if you can benefit from what they have to offer.

Mentoring may be sought out by leaders who need some additional support and advice to make it through transitions or tackle difficult times. Difficult times are not just caused by failure — success can actually feel a lot like failing when it’s happening. Success quickly outstrips our resources and processes and starts to challenge us to “keep up” with a new pace of things.

And finally, as a manager I would be careful of being in a mentoring role too much of the time with employees. Mentoring is indeed powerful, but when you need to be a supervisor/manager it is about telling and not offering advice or suggestions.

My First Coach

I didn’t really recognize it at the time, but I think my coaching adventures started a while back. I grew up on a farm in the Midwest, and from an early age I followed my dad around while he worked. I asked a lot of questions, observed how the work got done, and was given the responsibility of doing chores. Dad was always focused more on outcomes and less on how things got done (although they still had to be done right). He helped me learn that coaching is really many things — an experience, a process, a skillset, a mindset and a relationship. Those lessons have stayed with me until this day. (I guess my Dad truly was my first coach, as well as a valuable mentor to me!)

Coaching is really many things — an experience, a process, a skill set, a mindset and a relationship.

So, what exactly is it that coaches do? My professional coaching practice involves modeling coaching skills and teaching concepts of coaching to key leaders. I find leaders and managers to be interested in coaching because they want to increase their influence on the people side of their business. Managers can gain a lot of traction in driving change by adding coaching skills to their leadership toolbox.

Coaches Don’t “Do” Content

What many people don’t understand is that coaches are more process experts and not necessarily content experts. Coaches can (and often do) have significant experiences and expertise, but don’t use it in the same way that a mentor does. Mentors share their lived experience from their own perspective, while effective coaches awaken accountability and assist the client in finding their unique voice and perspective.

What some people don’t understand is that coaches are more process experts and not necessarily content experts.

Coaching is an experience as much as it is a skill. Have you ever had a powerful conversation with someone that resulted in breakthrough thinking? Coaching isn’t just about breakthroughs, but that’s a big part of the experience. If you’ve ever been coached through a breakthrough it is immensely easier to do the same with others.

Coaching is an interactive process. It is a process because coaching helps individuals and organizations reach desired outcomes or goals. As individuals we don’t see ourselves as a system (a set of processes), but we are. Coaching is about taking action and reaching an outcome. It is interacting with your coach around the performance and change that you want. Coaching creates value when clients develop more rapidly and produce more satisfying results. As a result of coaching, clients set better goals, take more focused action, make better decisions, and maximize their natural strengths.

What Makes a Coach Good?

What are the skills of good coaches? I ask this question of clients who are new to leadership coaching. I tell them to think about successful coaches in the sports they follow. What is it about them that makes them good – or great? Here’s a short list of core skills and actions great coaches and leaders do.

  • Respectfully challenge good players to greatness
  • Make difficult decisions about highly skilled or talented players that lack teamwork or the right attitude
  • Communicate effectively what they want – whether the chips are up or down

Coaching is a mindset as well as a philosophy. There can be many “sticky” issues around leading people and getting the performance needed every day. As a coach I spend time gaining perspective and reflecting it back to the client to take a deeper look into where an opportunity or breakdown “really” exists – and I do not offer a solution. As I’ve said, a coach does not get into content in the sense of providing specialized advice or counsel. It’s not my job as a coach to “solve” the problem, but rather to help the leader define the problem more clearly…and sometimes more carefully, so that they can solve it. I help them gain the perspective to see if their own mindset and approach may be what’s getting in their way. And often it is; but once they see it they can fix it.

It’s not my job as a coach to “solve” the problem, but rather to help the leader define the problem more clearly.

Coaching helps a leader focus more strategically and form their mindset. Many clients (or employees) are less aware of their own points of view or mindset than they realize. This is not a criticism, but rather a basic observation for most leaders to understand. It’s not something many leaders think about often because they are busy getting work done! I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having total clarity about the mindset, beliefs, and philosophy that guide how you lead and manage.

As a professional coach I must take care to not bias a client with my personal mindset. It has nothing to do with my client. Rather, I need to hold or suspend my beliefs so that I can help my client see their own points of view more clearly. A coach believes the answers reside within the leader. Much of the value of coaching comes not from giving answers, but in the processing and reflection done by the client. Coaches first help clients find the right questions that need to be asked. When you are able to find the right question, you can then seek out the right answer.

A coach believes the answers reside within the leader.

It’s All About the Relationship

This particular point is usually why coaching works or doesn’t work. Being in relationship with your coach is important and a major lever in getting results. A good coach will discuss with you what the relationship needs to be up front and check in regularly along the way. Coaches provide process and unbiased feedback to reach goals. It is the strength and clarity of the coaching relationship that makes this possible.

What do you need the coaching relationship to be? A successful and sustainable coaching relationship is fundamentally built on key elements which include the following. The acronym ATOP helps us remember:

Coaching works for numerous reasons, some of which are:

  • Coaches believe that the client is naturally creative and resourceful and that the coach’s job is to provide support to enhance the skills, resources, and creativity that the client already has.
  • Professional coaches are trained to listen and observe, to customize their approach to the individual client’s needs, and to elicit solutions and strategies from the client.
  • While the coach provides feedback and an objective perspective, the client is responsible for taking the steps to produce the results he or she desires.
  • Coaching does not focus directly on relieving psychological pain or treating cognitive or emotional disorders.

The “Active” Part of Active Influence

So, as you see, Coaching and Mentoring are indeed not the same – they are different roles at your disposal as a leader. Sometimes, your best play may be to share your hard-earned wisdom and offer advice. Other times, supporting people with inquiry and self-discovery may be the most appropriate and efficacious way to actively influence.  The real takeaway here is that you need to decide, in the moment, just what’s needed. That’s the “active” part of active influence, and it’s what I believe makes the active influence approach unique as a new model for leaders and managers. It provides a broader perspective, skillset and mindset on how to impact success and goal achievement. It helps us as leaders make better decisions for not only an employee, but for the business and ourselves as well.

As we continue to delve deeper into the Active Influences Model we will discuss more about the application and less about defining each method or role. Although it’s really important up front to distinguish the differences between these roles, the greatest value lies in when and how to employ them. . .