Thursday, April 10, 2014

Instructor, mentor or coach?

Tomorrow I'm going to be involved in the first interviews for hiring our tech coaches for next year - I'm very excited about it.  To prepare myself for any possible questions the candidates might ask, I've been reading a lot about coaching.  I've also been thinking about the main difference between coaching, mentoring and simply instructing.  Let's start with instructing.  An instructor is someone who teaches something, for example a driving instructor teaches you how to drive a car, a ski instructor teaches you how to ski and so on.  A mentor is very different, though it can also involve training or advising someone (often a new employee, younger colleague or a student) through an apprenticeship model, passing down knowledge of how things are done.  I've heard that the difference between an instructor and a mentor is that a mentor is more focused on the person, rather than the person's performance, so that a mentor supports growth and gives advice, yet the person being mentored is free to decide what to do.

On the face of it a coach is fairly similar, with the words instructor and trainer being included in the definition.  The difference, however, seems to be in the way that this is done as part of a supportive relationship between the coach and the coachee.  John Whitmore in his book Coaching for Performance writes that the coachee acquires facts not from the coach, but from within himself, and that the role of the coach is to "unlock people's potential to maximize their own performance."  Whitmore likens this to acorns, having everything they need inside to potentially be an oak tree, but needing nourishment and encouragement in order to grow.

People become teachers because they see this potential inside students.  Probably the greatest joy a teacher can have is seeing a student go beyond what he himself is capable of, beyond the limitations of the teacher's own knowledge or skills.  A teacher, however, does require expertise in a subject, which apparently is not the case with a coach - a coach needs to be an expert in the art of coaching.  A coach also needs to believe that people are capable of more and that they have the potential to perform better than they currently are.

Why don't people perform to their fullest potential?  Studies have shown that there are several important reasons for this:

  • restrictive structures and practices
  • the lack of encouragement and opportunity
  • management style
  • the fear of failure
The first 3 of these are what is termed "external" (within the company/job), the last one is internal and is the one where a coach can really have an impact.  Whitmore writes "building awareness, responsibility and self-belief is the goal of a coach ... building other's self-belief demands that we release the desire to control them or to maintain their beliefs in our superior abilities.  One of the best things we can do is to assist them in surpassing us."  This, however, is not often the prevailing viewpoint in the workplace - where training someone to surpass you can end up being a threat to your own job or authority!  Whitmore concludes his first chapter with this sentence:  "coaching is a way of managing, a way of treating people, a way of thinking, a way of being."

The next chapter of the book is about the manager as a coach.  All too often a manager is seen as  a threat, so I'm keen to read this and learn more about how to improve a culture so that it promotes better performance.

Photo Credit: rogiro via Compfight cc

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