Tom Murphy is a certified organisational coach and practice leader at Mirus Australia. Since becoming a leader over 5 years ago, Tom has been on a near-obsessive journey to understand what it means to be a great leader and, importantly, understanding who he is as a leader. What it means to be leader has a recently taken on a whole new meaning with the birth of his first child. Between intermittent sleeping and #makingagedcarebetter, Tom is an avid explorer, rock climber and fitness nerd.
Coach or mentor? That is the question. Does it even matter?
“What got you here won’t get you there”. – Marshall Goldsmith
It’s a familiar and poignant quote reminding us our past achievements do not necessarily secure our future success. Marshall Goldsmith’s take on what separates good from great leaders starts with self-awareness. By developing a capacity for introspection, leaders better understand the choices that will help them grow.
For some the precarious transition from individual contributor to effective leader (or should that be manager?) can be a daunting and sometimes awkward prospect. The success measures shift from being all about you to a focus on “us” and the performance of others.
This can lead to an identity crisis, sometimes referred to as “imposter syndrome”. The rewarding feelings associated with recognition of your individual accomplishments, leading to your promotion, give way to feelings of doubt about why you were even promoted in the first place. Surely someone will realise their mistake sooner or later?
As I stepped forward into the unknown, one of the first big decisions I needed to make was where to turn to for advice and support. Obsessively trawling through books, grilling my peers and scouring the internet, the recommendations seemed consistent: find a mentor or coach. Easy.
But how many times have you heard the word “coach” and “mentor” used interchangeably?
On first impression, they appear to be the same. Both span the relationship between a successful leader and developing leader with the goal of individual growth. They are equally critical in leadership development, but this is where the similarity ends as they each serve a different purpose.
“A coach is someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear, who has you see what you don’t want to see, so you can be who you have always known you could be.”
– Tom Landry –
Drawing on their own experience, mentors might articulate what an individual could have done better. Meanwhile, a coach will ask the individual how they could improve. It’s a subtle but important difference.
Self-reflection creates better leaders.
Individuals should seek out a mentor for advice as mentors are more directional in their approach, sharing their expertise in a particular field to help the individual learn. This relationship is more focused on overcoming a specific challenge.
Coaches, on the other hand, steer clear of offering advice or opinion, instead they work with the individual to find their own solution. Above all, the coaching relationship focuses solely on future potential by articulating goals and developing an action plan.
Rather than seeking only the answers, e.g. knowing what needs to change or how to handle a situation more effectively, great leaders work with coaches to design an improvement plan so they can develop skills or change their behaviour.
Questions vs Answers.
If I’m faced with an “unsolveable” short-term challenge or leadership predicament, often I’ll seek advice. After exhausting all options (including a few failed Google searches) I’ll turn to a mentor and lean on their experience. Naturally, I hope to learn from this experience but usually I’m the one asking the questions whilst my mentor does the talking. This relationship gives me answers.
Should you find yourself repeatedly facing the same predicament or identify a pattern of behaviour that needs to change, this is where a coach comes in. Coaches centre their approach around questions.
It’s not always a comfortable process as these questions challenge thinking and encourage self-awareness. Importantly an extraordinary coach will help an individual better articulate their goal and, better yet, create buy-in towards achieving the goal.
Coach or mentor? Yes!
Whether you’re an experienced leader developing talent within your organisation or an emerging leader seeking direction, the answer depends on the learning objectives of the individual. Seeking external insights from a mentor may encourage new ways of thinking but the opportunity to practice self-reflection (and be challenged) helps leaders improve their practical leadership skills.
Ultimately great leaders and organisations see both tools – mentoring and coaching – as crucial to their success.