Ruth Moody
August 25, 2022

Mentoring cultures: why coaches rarely deliver coaching

What happens when the latest L&D initiative fails to deliver? The feted miracle cure that doesn’t quite come together in real life, no matter how many industry journals discuss the piece or celebrity entrepreneurs endorse it.

When organisations use internal coaches, what tends to emerge is a culture of mentoring. Quite often, there’s a lack of understanding about what coaching is. Without that clarity, it’s impossible to develop a coaching culture.

The difference between coaching and mentoring

To the casual observer, the difference between the two disciplines is subtle. That’s where the pitfall starts to open up: through a lack of clarity and understanding about what coaching and mentoring mean.

It’s no surprise! Definitions of either can be at best vague, at worst confusing. In response to the FAQ on its website, the Global Coaching Mentoring Alliance (GCMA) gives the following response to ‘how does the GCMA define coaching?

“Coaching and mentoring are activities within the area of professional and personal development with focus on individuals and teams and relying on the client’s own resources to help them to see and test alternative ways for improvement of competence, decision making and enhancement of quality of life.

Thus, a professional coach/mentor can be described as an expert in establishing a relationship with people in a series of conversations with the purpose of serving the clients to improve their performance or enhance their personal development or both, choosing their own goals and ways of doing it.”

Little wonder that in an effort to create a coaching culture, mentoring comes to the fore. Even guidance from professional organisations all but conflate the terms ‘coach’ and ‘mentor’. So, what exactly is coaching?

The ICF definition is more helpful: ‘ICF defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.

As a coach, I work to the understanding that coaching is a conversation-based approach to personal development. Coaches don’t need specific knowledge or experience of a profession or industry to coach someone from that field. The coach is an expert in not knowing and in asking questions to help the coachee find the answer.

A mentor, on the other hand, will tend to come from a similar professional background as the mentee. The nature of a mentoring conversation is quite different. Rather than asking questions, mentors use their hands-on experience to give advice.

‘Coaching doesn’t work’: the problem of internal coaching cultures

You’ve convinced the senior team to invest in a coaching culture. You’ve chosen coaches, put resources into training them. And then…nothing. The situation doesn’t change, results don’t emerge. You’re frustrated, the senior team is frustrated. And you’re left facing the question, ‘what went wrong?’

Internal coaches.

In a coaching relationship, the person that’s being coached does the hard work; the individual is encouraged to problem-solve and to find the answers themselves. This dynamic is incredibly difficult to pull off when both parties are from the same organisation. The temptation to advise a colleague or team member is often too much for the coach to resist. While the intention comes from a good place, the end result is unhelpful, because it prevents the coachee from doing that independent work. Hence, ‘nothing changes’ and it’s all too easy to relegate coaching cultures to the ‘overpromise and underdeliver’ pile.

Internal politics and hidden agendas: what prevents a successful coaching culture?

Where a coaching culture is developed internally, aside from the overzealous desire to help from coaches, there are other limiting factors. These are often symptomatic of wider problems within the organisation. Trust, or a lack of it, is a regular stumbling block to coaching cultures. We’ve come across organisations where staff mistrust – even disbelieve – that coaching is carried out in a genuinely confidential and judgement-free space.

From a coachee’s point of view, it’s hard to shake off the image of someone who conducts your appraisals as anything other than part of a hierarchy. In these circumstances, how can the coachee speak freely without the fear that what they have said will end up on the record?

From the coach’s point of view, again, those existing roles, are hard to overcome. It’s difficult to truly listen with an open mind when you’re familiar with the intricacies of a situation. The temptation to relate what someone tells you to the company’s or the team’s agenda, and to draw inferences and conclusions without truly listening prevents the coach from fulfilling their primary role.

What hope is there for coaching cultures? How to give your coaching culture the best chance at success

External coaches. Based on my work and the situations that I have come across in organisations, it’s a recommendation I make frequently.

Coaching cultures take time to develop. Initiating that process requires skill, patience, and experience. Having a coach external to the organisation facilitate the process is beneficial because they are not bound to any internal politics, they don’t have the same hierarchical or interpersonal relationships, and their ‘help/lead/instruct’ modes are therefore not intrinsically engaged.

A good coach will also challenge the organisation. They’ll push them to articulate exactly why they need a coaching culture, what they hope to gain from it and whether it’s truly what they’re looking for. Sometimes, the lack of clarity and the confusion surrounding coaching and mentoring means that leaders think they need a coaching culture, when in reality that’s the last thing that they want. Upon describing to a client what a true coaching culture would look like, the client exclaimed that it sounded time-consuming, wouldn’t suit their aims and therefore would be unlikely to deliver any benefit to them! That clarity at the outset is key to any development initiative.

An experienced, skilled coach can guide organisations, to help them determine the best outcome. And if that means that coaching, and a coaching culture, is not the right option, they’ll say so.

Concluding thoughts and further reading

Coaching and mentoring tend to be conflated, confused, used interchangeably and mis-deployed. This is the major stumbling block for coaching cultures. By engaging an external coach, organisations can be sure that their coaching culture is kick-started effectively. More importantly, a thorough needs analysis will reveal which type of initiative is best for the client’s needs. Engaging an expert from the off means that you never begin the process of building a coaching culture, unless that is truly what will help you reach your goals.

If you’re teetering on the fence as to whether a coaching culture is right for your organisation, perhaps it’s time to make the leap? Contact me and I'll be happy to talk through your challenges – even if the senior team can’t agree on what a coaching culture is. I'm on 07931 502519 and welcome the opportunity of a conversation.

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