Managing people

Coach or mentor – which one do you need?

Looking to gain a competitive advantage? Investing in staff development through mentors and coaches can benefit performance. 

4 May 2023

Business coaches and mentors can help employers in a variety of ways. One key use of mentors is to help your staff – and, therefore, the business – perform better.

When looking into providing coaching or mentoring for your staff, the first thing to understand is that mentors and coaches are not the same.

“Mentoring is typically someone who has walked your aspiring path, and a coach is a sparring partner that can challenge you on your thinking and support you to make conscious career moves,” says Sally-Anne Blanshard, client partner at Henry Reed Group, a leadership and culture consultancy.

“You can have informal mentors as well as structured engagements with mentors or coaches.”

Andrew Healey, the owner of Personal Endeavour Coaching, adds that coaches tend to focus on short-term goals giving guidance, feedback, and accountability to improve their performance.

Mentors focus on the long term to provide a broader perspective, drawing on their own considerable experience to provide advice and support. They can be external or from within the mentee’s own organisation.

Why use coaches and mentors in business

Mr Healey explains that coaches and mentors help businesses perform better – enhancing leadership and team performance, sparking greater innovation, and increasing competitive advantage. They also provide employees with a trusted sounding board.

“Businesses throughout Australia are doing it hard, so having access to a coach or mentor is an opportunity to take action to get real results, which can mean the difference between success or failure,” he says.

Coaches, for example, can help people work on specific skills, provide guidance and enhance their performance.

“If you have someone, for example, who has great skills and is 80% there in terms of their performance, then coaching can help them make up that final 20%. Otherwise, you might need to hire someone new – which then means you have to invest time and cost into someone else when you could have just invested in the person you had already,” Ms Blanshard explains.

“It also means that the employee is more likely to stay – which, as you know, is important when we’re in a ‘war for talent’.”

The key is to approach it strategically.

“At an organisational level, start with your pain points – think about why you need to invest in coaching. Where do you want the business to go? Do you want to help minimise conflict in your team? With new laws coming in, such as Respect@Work, is it a good idea for your staff to act with more diplomacy?” Ms Blanshard says.

“Also, look at your staff at an individual level, using tools like 360 reviews to find out where the gaps are that can be addressed with coaching.”

A trusted adviser

For Reid Ossington, receiving coaching has had two distinct benefits – firstly, providing him with someone who can challenge him in the here and now and work through the business problems he’s facing. Secondly, to listen on a deeper level to where he is now and help him move forward. 

“A coach doesn’t just listen – they understand an individual, help them have confidence in their strengths, and see their blind spots,” he explains.

“Also, coaches often come from different backgrounds and can offer fresh perspectives on business challenges, becoming trusted advisers who can help others solve problems.”

He believes business owners who want to grow and change should think about coaching for their people – for all levels of seniority, from team leader up to C-suite.

“If a business owner wants their business to evolve and their people to do things differently, then how can they do that without any new information? In that way, coaching is a great opportunity for a business,” he says.

Mr Ossington also acts as an informal mentor to others, which is his way of giving back. It’s also a two-way learning street, as often those he mentors teach him new skills as well.

Implementing a coaching or mentoring program

Finding the right coach can seem daunting, but a good place to start is to ask for recommendations. Often, your staff or other service providers might have heard of someone or used them in the past, Ms Blanshard says.

Mentors, on the other hand, are typically people from within the same industry – either internal or external to the organisation. The important point is that they’ve walked in the shoes of the person they’re mentoring. If there’s no one suitable internally, then don’t worry – in fact, having an external mentor can offer more neutrality – just look for someone within your industry.

When starting staff coaching, Ms Blanshard also says to raise it in a way that doesn’t appear overly critical.

“Think of a sporting team, for example. At every skill level, there’s a coach to help them improve. Similarly, in business, we shouldn’t be ashamed of receiving help,” she explains.

For example, if you said to a staff member that one of their growth goals was to get coaching around improved collaboration, that might be better received than simply telling them their collaboration isn’t good enough.

And while Ms Blanshard says the return on investment can be difficult to measure in numbers, it can be gauged by areas such as a shift in attitude within the organisation or by gaining feedback from colleagues and stakeholders about the person receiving coaching.

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