Many organizations provide leadership training programs, and they can be an effective way to communicate concepts, set expectations, and share practices. When it comes to building leadership skills and changing behavior, a single training event isn’t enough to make the learning stick.
Over the years, experience has shown us that behavior change occurs in a cycle of practice, feedback, reinforcement, and accountability- within the context of real work- over a sustained period of time. The magic happens when we provide a combination of foundational learning content and then follow up with individual coaching. When coaching is provided after a training session, leadership assessment, or engagement survey, it enables leaders to focus on their specific development needs and apply the skills back on the job. Coaching also creates a supportive space for reflection, practice, and learning.
But what about mentoring? Should we be providing leaders with mentors as well? Like coaching, mentoring can provide support, accountability, and a deliberate focus on development. Mentoring can also provide development in ways that coaching does not.
When trying to decide on when to leverage coaching or mentoring, consider the following:
- Internal vs. External Perspective
Leaders often tell us that one of the biggest benefits of having a coach is that the coach brings an “outsider’s perspective”. This external perspective allows the coach to make objective observations, share different ways of framing challenges, and encourage multiple possibilities and solutions.
While having an outsider’s perspective can be very valuable, having an internal expert to provide guidance can be critical for success, especially for leaders who are new to the organization, role, or region. A seasoned employee who has a deep understanding of the organization can accelerate the ramp to high performance by helping the new leader gain insight about the culture, learn about nuances in power structures, and successfully navigate the organization. The mentor can also help the new leader identify who they need to align and build relationships with in order to be successful in the role. While the mentor in this situation may be another leader or colleague, it is often an HR business partner that can provide this support and expertise for new leaders.
- Area of Expertise
In most situations, a leadership coach brings deep expertise about leadership and business and a broad perspective on how to apply it based on their experience with a wide variety of organizations and clients. When a team member needs to develop skills within a specific area or function, finding a mentor in this area can be highly effective. This type of mentoring relationship can be formal or informal and can be short-term or long-term; it all depends on the type of skill and the level needed for success. Some examples of development needs that mentoring can address include learning consultative sales skills, presentation skills, product and service offerings, business strategy, and company financials.
- Resources required
Coaching is often reserved for executives, core leaders, and “hi po” employees due to the financial investment required. When organizations make an investment in these populations, it has a force multiplier effect as these leaders influence others across the organization and cascade what they learn. Internal mentoring also requires resources- typically the time the mentor is spending with the mentee as well as any lost productivity time while the mentor is away from the job and focused on helping others develop. That said, the time required of the mentor is usually time well spent. Not only does mentoring benefit the person being mentored, but it can also increase the recognition and engagement of the person who is doing the mentoring. In addition, it can be a great way to share some of the valuable tribal knowledge living in the minds of seasoned employees.
Last but not least, another consideration for when to leverage coaching or mentoring has to do with visibility. A coach works closely with the leader to reflect, plan, and take action back on the job. The leader and the coach typically follow up to debrief actions the leader took and evaluate what worked and what they would do differently the next time. This reflection is essential for learning and improving. It also relies on the leader’s perspective on how things went.
On the other hand, an internal mentor can provide additional insights about how the leader shows up and how his or her actions impact others within the organization. While a coach works from the sidelines, the mentor can work from the front line. This can be especially powerful when a leader can work with a coach and mentor in tandem when honing a specific skill. Coaches can encourage the leaders they work with to identify “spotters” – one or two people they trust internally- to provide them with specific observations and feedback that can enrich the leader’s coaching experience.
With these considerations in mind, we can determine the best approach based on the situation. It may be coaching, training, or mentoring or a powerful combination of each of these approaches. Regardless of which option you choose, developing your core leaders is an investment that will have a positive impact on engagement, performance, and retention across the organization.