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Mentor or Coach: Guides for Company Winners

January 18, 1998|JUDY B. ROSENER | Professor in the Graduate School of Management at UC Irvine. She is the author of "America's Competitive Secret : Women Managers

It's a widely held belief that mentoring enhances career advancement, so it's not surprising that successful people are often asked who their mentors were. Similarly, it is not surprising that many organizations point with pride to formal mentoring programs as evidence of helping high-potential individuals achieve their career goals. But is formal mentoring all it is cracked up to be? And why are articles about coaching, which sounds like a fancy name for mentoring, receiving so much attention?

In order to answer this question it's necessary to make a distinction between the two concepts.

The term mentor means different things to different people. To some it merely implies a model, someone to emulate where no personal contact is required. To others, it suggests a relationship between two individuals in which the mentor (a person with special expertise, title or power) helps a protege (usually a person in a subordinate position) "learn the ropes" in an organization or profession. In the business world, mentoring historically has taken place between white males, and has tended to reinforce the values and behaviors of the mentor--hence the term "old boys network."


Since having a mentor is considered a good thing, women and people of color have felt disadvantaged because they have not had mentors. As a result, there has been a push for formal mentoring programs in which they would be included, and formal mentoring programs have proliferated in corporations and government. In these programs, high-potential employees (usually small in number) are matched and assigned to mentors who function as teachers, career counselors and friends. Unlike informal mentoring, formal mentoring involves a structured relationship that includes scheduled meetings, well-defined goals and performance evaluations. And although most mentoring is felt to be a positive experience for both mentor and protege, there is considerable evidence that cross-sex and cross-race mentoring is not always successful, and it is cultural differences and stereotypical perceptions that explain failed mentoring. Yet it is women and people of color that most often want to be mentored, and white males who are in the best position to be mentors.

However, successful or not, the mere fact that an organization has a formal mentoring program sends a message that it cares about its employees. Yet formal mentoring programs also send another message--one that says only certain employees will receive special attention. For this reason, organizational consultants--such as professor Kate Kirkham of Brigham Young University--suggest that if a corporation's culture is one in which everyone knows the "rules of the game" and is offered career guidance, there is no need for formal mentoring.

Clearly, there are benefits to all types of mentoring. However, articles about coaching are beginning to push those about mentoring off the pages of business publications. This is because coaching is generally associated with organizational rather than individual benefits. In other words, more workers are affected by coaches than mentors.

True, professional coaches work with individuals, as do mentors; however, their main concern is to identify and modify behaviors felt to be involved in shaping a corporate culture. This often means changing the behavior of the chief executive and other top executives, hence the popularity of the term "executive coach."

For example, Larry Marshall, chief operating officer at NECX, a privately held computer products company in Peabody, Mass., told Investor's Daily that coaches helped two of his key executives realize they were encouraging teamwork, but like Frank Sinatra, communicating "I'll do it my way."


Well, what is it that coaches do that differentiates them from good managers or management consultants?

De Soder, a respected executive coach, would say that a main difference is that coaches provide successful executives advice on personal, psychological and management issues in a way that provides them a unique sounding board. Also, as previously noted, mentoring and coaching differ in their primary focus--the former on individual career advancement, and the latter on the behavior of key executives who as leaders of an organizational team shape the corporate culture.

Understanding the differences between mentoring and coaching is important because although both contribute to improving the effectiveness of an organization, the competition for managerial time and corporate dollars means making choices about human resource strategies. Just as important, teamwork is replacing individual stardom as a characteristic of today's successful organizations, so executives interested in a winning team may want to consider hiring a coach.

Rosener can be reached by e-mail at

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