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Manager, Coach or Mentor? Different Roles for Different Goals

Alison Napolitano
Alison Napolitano

Understand the differences between coaching, mentoring and managing to best achieve your goals.

Businesses want employees to learn their jobs quickly, to attain maximum error-free performance, and to gain the greater skills, capabilities and experience necessary for advancement. Achieving these training and development goals typically involves managing, coaching, and mentoring, but those terms are often misunderstood or used interchangeably.

Lack of clarity around the purpose of each role – and when and how to play them – can hamper talent development and lead to difficult workplace relationships. Understanding the differences among them is critical to success.

What is the difference between a coach, mentor and manager?

There primary differences between coaching, mentoring and managing are based on the relationship between the individuals involved and what outcome they are looking for. For example, coaching is a more personal, generally short-term relationship that is fostered to achieve personal or professional development.

Mentoring is a mutually beneficial relationship with the purpose of developing a specific skill rather than achieving a task; it generally lasts a year or longer. Managing is a professional relationship used to achieve operational results; it is indefinite in duration, defined by organizational structure. The type of leadership relationship you have with someone should be based on the outcome you are looking to achieve.

What is coaching?

Professional coaching, according to the International Coach Federation, encompasses "partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential." The ICF trains and certifies coaches in methods of objective assessment, active listening, and reflective questioning that encourage client self-discovery.

Professional coaches offer proven concepts and strategies; they challenge blind spots and foster new perspectives, but they do not prescribe actions or outcomes. The client sets the agenda, often in conjunction with a manager. The coach holds the client accountable for goals and outcomes the client commits to during the coaching process.

Companies hire outside coaches or establish internal coaching programs for tasks such as improving interpersonal or public speaking skills or integrating cultures after a merger. Coaching's client-driven approach makes it less suited for correcting poor performance, but it provides measurable benefits for talent development and moving from good to great. 

Types of coaching styles

There are four types of coaching styles. The style you use depends on the needs of the individual you are coaching.

  1. Considerate: Uses low assertiveness and high expressiveness.
  2. Direct: Uses high assertiveness and low expressiveness.
  3. Spirited: Uses high assertiveness and high expressiveness.
  4. Systematic: Uses low assertiveness and low expressiveness. 

What is mentoring?

A mentor's role is to impart knowledge, expertise and wisdom to colleagues with less experience. These qualities generally accrue over time, so mentors are usually older than mentees, but not always. Younger "reverse" mentors may share expertise with older co-workers in areas such as new technology and social media.

A mentoring relationship is mutually beneficial. Each party gains insights from the sharing process. Unlike a manager, who hires and has power over subordinates, mentors and mentees choose each other. A mentor's authority derives from the mentee's esteem. Such relationships often form naturally at work, with mentors and mentees becoming friends and confidantes.

Companies establish formal mentoring programs to accelerate the process. Goals include acclimating new hires, promoting diversity, retaining workers, grooming potential leaders and facilitating knowledge transfer as senior workers retire. Institutionalizing the process requires careful planning and implementation to achieve good matches and the desired results.

The University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School's online MBA degree program, MBA@UNC, developed a downloadable guide, "How to Build a Successful Mentoring Program." It summarizes helpful tips related to one-on-one mentoring, e-mentoring, reverse mentoring, group mentoring and peer mentoring. Step-by-step instructions cover setting objectives, structuring a program, training participants and measuring results.

Small businesses with few employees and solo entrepreneurs can access free mentoring through SCORE, a nonprofit association of volunteer, retired business executives. 

Types of mentoring styles

There are five mentoring styles. The mentoring process you use depends on the needs and learning styles of the individual you are mentoring.

  1. Challenger: This type of mentorship is supportive but firm. The mentor pushes the mentee to focus on a specific goal.

  2. Cheerleader: This type of mentorship is optimistic, supportive and encouraging. The mentor pushes the mentee to stay positive and focus on growing new skills.

  3. Connector: This type of mentor is well connected and helps with networking. The mentor uses their social skills and connections to teach the mentee how to network and create valuable connections.

  4. Educator: This type of mentorship is educational in nature. The mentor is often a teacher or has a background in training or education, and they push the mentee to learn and develop their deficiencies.

  5. Ideator: This type of mentor uses creativity to spark brainstorming and planning. The mentor pushes the mentee to get creative and value their abilities.

What is managing?

A manager's priority is achieving operational goals set by the enterprise. Goals may include a unit of production, a dollar amount of sales or a percentage of market share. Managing workers in the course of meeting objectives is just one of a manager's many responsibilities.

Most theories about the manager's role trace back a century to the work of French mining engineer Henri Fayol, who defined five functions of management: planning, organizing, commanding, coordinating and controlling. A later theorist, Luther Gulick, consolidated commanding and controlling into directing and added staffing, reporting, and budgeting, to create the acronym POSDCORB, which is still used in the management and public administration fields.

Directing subordinate workers is a key function, but other concerns abound. Managers must devote attention to market conditions, financial resources, schedules, regulations, organizational structure, work environments, efficiency, productivity and more. It is not surprising that as organizations grow in size and complexity, managers need human resources departments to support them. 

Types of management styles

There are 10 main management styles.

  1. Authoritative: Leaders use clearly defined expectations and disciplinary actions to get subordinates to do what they want. This style is best used in times of crisis.

  2. Coaching: Leaders focus on long-term employee development and growth. This style is best used in organizations that want to promote from within.

  3. Collaborative: Leaders use open discussion and communication to have all managers and staff come to a decision based on majority rule. This style is best for driving innovation or increasing employee engagement.

  4. Consultative: Leaders consult subordinates before making a final decision. This style is best when the staff are experts in their field.

  5. Delegative: Leaders assign tasks and empower employees to work as they see fit. This style is best for highly skilled teams with decentralized leadership.

  6. Participative: Leader use staff participation to create solutions before management finalizes a decision. This style is best for making organizational changes or driving innovation.

  7. Paternalistic: Leaders act as family and make unilateral decisions in the best interest of their subordinates. This style is best used in smaller, culture-heavy organizations.

  8. Persuasive: Leaders make decisions, but then convince subordinates that they are involved in making key decisions. This style is best used when the manager has significantly more experience in the matter.

  9. Transformational: Leaders use motivation and encouragement to push their team to achieve more. This style is best to increase innovation, flexibility and growth.

  10. Visionary: Managers use alignment to share their goals with the team and then motivate their employees to work toward those goals. This style is best used in disruptive organizations that want to drive innovation and change. 

Wearing more than one hat

Given the different goals, methods, and relationship dynamics of managing, coaching, and mentoring, can one individual play all three roles with an employee? No, not properly. There are some caveats:

  • Managers can employ coaching techniques when appropriate but will inevitably face times when they must call the shots rather than await employee self-discovery.

  • Managers and subordinates who become close friends create a delicate balancing act, raising issues of power, boundaries, objectivity, accountability and favoritism.

  • Managers may be role models and share experience, but their power conflicts with the mentor's role, negating a valuable function – helping mentees navigate conflicts with management. Subordinates inevitably feel inhibited in what they share with a manager. A mentor may counsel or advise the mentee but does not coordinate with the manager.

  • A coach closely coordinates with the manager but does not advise or counsel the client.

These distinctions illustrate why the roles of manager, coach and mentor are best played by separate individuals. Specialization helps to keep the different roles from colliding and allows each to focus on their own set of goals.

Skye Schooley contributed to the writing and research in this article.

Image Credit: fizkes / Getty Images
Alison Napolitano
Alison Napolitano
Alison Napolitano is a Senior Marketing Manager at 2U where she supports community outreach for 2U's programs. Alison has a background in digital marketing and a passion for helping great brands succeed online.