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Coach? Mentor? Jez from Peep Show...?

I’ve spent a large part of my career to date coaching others, usually team members, helping them to develop and succeed. It wasn’t really a conscious activity; it’s just how I approached line management and it went hand-in-hand with the training and mentoring I was doing at the same time.

My approach to coaching became more structured after various in-house sessions run by employers, and more recently I’ve started working with The Coaching Academy to increase my understanding, improve my skills and formalise my ‘coaching credentials’. That in turn has led to me having more conversations about coaching with friends and family, like the one I had with my brother recently. As we had the usual ‘what is a coach’ discussion, his response was ‘What, like Jez from Peep Show?’. This is what he meant:

Funny, but not particularly accurate or helpful! Equally unhelpful can be confusion among coaches and mentors themselves…

There’s a constant debate around ‘what is a coach?’. Is it the same as a mentor / adviser / counsellor / therapist…? I was at a leadership seminar recently and one of the attendees asked the presenter what they thought the difference was between a ‘coach’ and a ‘mentor’. Their response, essentially, was that they didn’t like being too reliant on labels and if they were able to help someone improve their performance or reach their goals then it really didn’t matter what they were called. This was met by general nods of approval around the room, and I can understand why, but it undermines the roles of both mentor and coach, and in doing so risks the effectiveness of the relationship. If the client isn’t crystal clear on the roles and what’s expected of each party then how can they be expected to fully engage in the process in the right way? And if they’re not fully engaged in the process then how can they achieve the best possible results?

And of course people don’t know what they don’t know, so if the lines are blurred between coach and mentor then they don’t know how much more value they could be getting!

All of this is – of course – fine on paper, but one of the things I sometimes struggle with is the temptation to stray into ‘mentor mode’ and give advice or make suggestions when I'm coaching. I need to consciously and proactively think about how sessions are structured and the questions that I use to make sure I stay in the coach’s role, and as such make sure that my client gets the tailored support they deserve. Clearly outlining from the outset what a coach is and what a coach is not, and explaining what a coach does or doesn’t do certainly helps as it sets clear expectations with the client; so much so that I’ll sometimes ask them to ‘police’ our conversations as well: “If you feel I’m starting to tell you what to do then please stop me!”.

I wonder if other coaches do the same??

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