An employee knocks on your door. After inviting her in, she tells you about some issues she is having understanding an aspect of her job. You take time to instructor her how to do what needs to be done.
A few minutes after she leaves, a peer calls asking for some help with a problem. After listening, you realize it will take a few calls to discuss and review the matter to help him develop a solution. You develop a plan to show him how you solved a similar problem a few months ago.
After lunch, one of your top-performing, subordinate supervisors emails you asking for some time to talk. She says she is creating a development plan for a new employee and needs some help. You reply with a time to meet. Next, you create a series of questions to help this high performer navigate the process of creating a new employee development plan.
While each of these situations appears similar, there are differences. The differences require you, as a leader, to approach each with a different mind set. In the first situation, you provide counseling to a direct report. In the second, you become your peer’s mentor, navigating the problem he faces. The third, the top-performing supervisor needs a little coaching to hone her counseling skills. Counseling, coaching, and mentoring are three separate skills used at different times and different ways. The three are often confused. As a result, inexperienced leaders apply the wrong style to the situation, which fails to provide the influence necessary to adequately solve the person’s problem. Counseling, coaching, and mentoring are big enough topics to devote an entire post, therefore this serves as the introduction to a series on the three development skills for leaders.
Counseling is a process initiated by leaders in supervisory positions. Use counseling to orient newly assigned people, provide feedback on current performance, and to correct poor performance or inappropriate behaviors. Every new employee deserves a welcome counseling as part of their orientation. During this session, the direct supervisor reviews the job description with the employee and how their performance will be measured. The supervisor tells the employee why the work they do is important and how it supports the overall work of the organization. Wrap up by telling the employee what support she can expect from you as the supervisor.
Periodic performance counseling serves to let employees know how they are doing. Focus these sessions on performance of work and ensuring the follower prioritizes the correct tasks. Use corrective counseling with those who fail to meet expectations. Explain the standards and have concrete examples where they failed to meet the standards. A huge mistake leaders make with this counseling session is putting it off for too long. The list of failures is long and overwhelming, crushing the worker.
Mentoring is a voluntary relationship between a leader with a skill and another person seeking to develop that skill, who is not supervised by the mentor. The leader does not have to be a formal leader in the same organization or any organization. In Greek mythology, Odysseus appointed Mentor to care for his son Telemachus while he was gone. Mentor served as a wise guide for Telemachus because he could talk with Mentor about a range of topics he never felt comfortable talking with Odysseus. For that reason, a work place mentor should not be a person’s boss or boss’s boss. To work well, the voluntary nature of the relationship is questionable when your mentor is also your boss. The mentor may even be younger than the protégé; age is not a requirement, only that the wise guide actually walked the path before the novice.
Coaching is a skill used in both counseling and mentoring, characterized by processes to develop self awareness necessary for the other to solve their own problem and create capacity for growth. One can counsel or mentor another without using coaching skills by doing most of the talking and feeding the other information. When leaders (not necessarily a boss) use coaching, they create a space within the counseling or mentoring relationship for the other to learn truths from their own experience. The coach asks questions and provides activities that change the focus of the other, creating a paradigm shift for that person. This in turn, helps they become more self-aware in areas requiring improvement. A coach does not necessarily need to be a person who possesses the skills for success. There are plenty of examples in the world of sports of people who successfully coach athletes to accomplish great feats that the coach would never be able to execute. Having accomplished things does lend the coach credibility, and that is why it fits well into counseling and mentoring.
Over the next few months, we will explore the leadership skills of counseling, coaching, and mentoring. While counseling and mentoring tend to be functions of a supervisory and non-supervisory relationship, coaching is a skill that improves outcomes in both practices. Counseling is a skill used by supervisors to orient, direct, and correct employees. Mentoring is a practice used by non-supervisory leaders to help another direction, and receive advice from a wise guide who made the journey before them. Coaching is a skill used by leaders alone, or along with counseling and mentoring, that focuses on self-awareness and discovery. Knowing more about each skill assists leaders employ the right practices at the correct time to help those they lead succeed. The reader must remember that not all leaders are bosses. One is a leader anytime they apply influence to another to help them achieve an organizational mission or goal while working to improve themselves and the organization. Given none of us knows when we may be called to act as supervisory or non-supervisory leader, all leaders must be prepared to use the right practice of counseling or mentoring along with the skill of coaching.
- Brown, J. (2008). A leader’s guide to reflective practice. Trafford Publishing. Victoria, BC.
- Lask, M. (2020). Leadership exchange and coaching; Cohort 13. Northeast Regional Child Advocacy Center. Training Workshop. Philadelphia, PA
- Phillips, D. (1992). Lincoln on leadership. Grand Central Publishing. New York, NY