When to Coach, When to Mentor

“There is no amount of time I could say is enough. And with all my demands, my teams could improve to give fewer worries. That’s the bare minimum. If only I could have a 48h day.”

The higher you get, the higher the pressure. And I can sense that in some way or another, you, too, had a similar internal monologue.

And that’s common. It was something that Daniel Goleman’s team discovered in one of their studies.

“Many leaders told us they don’t have the time in this high-pressure economy for the slow and tedious work of teaching people and helping them grow.”

Daniel Goleman

People complain but don’t do the necessary work to fix the situation. Most people only think about this one time per year. And lands in a position where the feedback loop is so big that people can hardly remember the situation. There’s more work away from the yearly performance review, for sure.

A good leader chooses to do that tedious, meticulous and slow teaching work. That is our responsibility – to help our people grow and improve.

Throughout my career, I enjoyed the opportunity to count on the help of mentors and coaches. Each encounter had a different feeling, but with one goal: to help me grow and get closer to the position I was aiming for at those times.

But fear not. I’m here to share with you a couple of techniques I often use with my people.

Let us create some common ground about some concepts.

What is the difference between Coaching and Mentoring?

Both processes have one objective, to help the other person transition from state A to state B.

In coaching, we use the Socratic questioning approach. What does this mean? Armed with open-ended questions, we try to get the other person to understand and see their beliefs and those of others. The other person drives all the conversation. This approach requires leaders to check their egos out the door and be comfortable playing dumb as if they don’t know the subject. It is a challenging feat for many, considering that most have reached leadership status through their competence and subject expertise.

Like a comic book, I imagine a thought bubble over the head of the other person. Someone other than me should consider the different possibilities of reaching State B. And that person is seated in from me. So my goal is to keep that bubble over their head.

Coaching allows the other person to consider new ways and possibilities. For us leaders, the goal is more about helping others learn to think outside the box than providing the solution to unblock the situation. Coaching is a slow process. We must stay focused to avoid the temptation to speed up, give a solution, and lose the opportunity of this great learning process.

If you are new to coaching, I recommend a light read that will kick-start your Socratic conversations. I’m talking about “The Coaching Habit”, a book by Michael Bungay Stanier. If you are used to coaching your people, I urge you to keep learning. Formal coaching practice has lots of powerful tools. But I will keep that topic for later writings.

Sometimes the situation is a high risk or is tied to tight time constraints. The Mentoring approach may be better.

To have a mentor is the opportunity to learn through other person experiences. Think about it as if you were reading their autobiography, with the caveat to clarify passages, ask additional questions, and put the finger directly in the wound. What an utmost value this has. If reaching the right mentors is priceless, being a mentor is a great responsibility. We can always decline when a stranger or a friend asks that from us. As far as I can tell, that is impossible when dealing with our direct reports or leading our staff.

Sometimes, even if the situation is not high risk or tied to a tight deadline, people can request our time to pick our brains to learn through our experience.

It comes with the role. The spotlight is on the ones that are leading the way. Remember uncle Ben Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility”.

Do not hide from that responsibility.

Your truly,

Ricardo Castelhano