by Paul Darling, PMP

Many of us have been fortunate enough to have been mentors. Even more of us have coached new employees and teammates on the skills required for immediate success in our organizations. But what is the difference and how do you know which one you are — or are you both? 

Coaching for Competency 

A coach is one who teaches the required skills. This doesn’t have to be a leader/subordinate relationship. In fact, it often is not — mostly it’s the co-worker formally or informally tasked to show the new person “the ropes.”  Typically, the recipient of the coaching gets little say in who is coaching her. A coach will often follow a variation of what scouting calls the EDGE method of Explain, Demonstrate, Guide and Enable. The coach will proceed with increasingly smaller degrees of supervision until the new employee can accomplish their job by herself. The problem with this model is that the coach is rarely a full-time coach and time spent coaching is time spent not doing their actual job. The coach’s motivation is to quickly drive the new employee to basic competency in their skill set so they can return to providing direct value to the company.   

As few employees will join a company with 100% of the requisite skills to not only accomplish their jobs directly but to understand the daily rhythm unique to each organization, coaching is essential.  Often, however, companies have no formal mechanism to coach new employees and trust that when thrown into their office, cubicle, or workstation that they will learn on the job.  Thus, coaching can become an ad-hoc affair with neither coach nor trainee optimizing their efforts, often to the detriment of current and future work.   

Coaching is focused on the needs of the company.  The goal is to train those essential skills required for an employee to do their job.  The coach should be selected based on both their actual skills in performing the tasks and their ability to share their knowledge.  Too often, the focus is on the former while the latter is an afterthought if not entirely ignored. While experienced, they should rarely be the supervisor as the expertise of the day-to-day activities will most often be found in their peers.   

Mentoring for Mastery 

In contrast, mentoring is focused on the needs of the employee.  If a good company wants to retain good employees, focusing on their needs must be a priority.  A mentor is a guide not for the day to day, but as far out as the mentee wishes to focus.  Most new employees join a company not for their immediate job, but for future opportunities — many outside their current job title.  When questions arise on choices, the mentee should reach out and discuss the issue.  The mentor may not have any experience of the actual day-to-day job requirements – that’s what the coach is for.  Here the direct supervisor will often serve as mentor, and can offer guidance and support based on experience. 

The mentor-mentee relationship is built entirely on a foundation of trust.  And this trust is built through leadership.  A functional mentoring program cannot exist where leadership does not likewise exist.  Also, like leadership, people will naturally seek mentors to guide them. A great mentor will transcend the immediate relationship and will serve as a mentor for years, if not decades.  In the end, a mentor is someone we can turn to when we reach that junction in business or in life and we are not sure which trail to take.   

Both coaching and mentorship are essential for a company to function well, and it’s important to understand the differences between them if you want to get the best out of both. 

What Makes a Great Mentor? 

Management Solutions LLC and Project Controls Solutions understand the benefits of mentorship and offer a formal mentorship program. This program provides employees with three mentors: the supervisor, a ‘cultural’ guide who has been with the organization a long time, and a ‘peer’ guide who is in the same department in a similar role. Though the mentors may be in different areas, they share some important qualities: 

  • Passion: Great mentors have a passion not only for their work, but for sharing their wisdom. They share their expertise with enthusiasm, and sincerely want others to benefit from their experience. 
  •  Respect: While the mentor may have superior skills and experience, they will never condescend. They listen with empathy and find it rewarding when the mentee feels ‘seen ‘and ‘heard’. 
  • Honesty: Great mentors give great feedback in a way that is constructive and direct. This feedback will help the mentee move forward, making better decisions that benefit themselves and their organization.