Coach, mentor, advise or instruct: How to develop high-performing teams

Though they may sound more of the same, there is a difference between coaching, mentoring and instructing or advising. Learn the key differences to be a more effective leader

Bhavna Dalal
Updated: May 10, 2021 07:20:41 PM UTC
Image: Shutterstock

To lead high-performing teams, one of the skills that people managers must sharpen is developing their team members. While several individuals are pretty intuitive and good at it through experience or just naturally, why waste time? One can learn this leadership trait in an accelerated and structured manner as part of your leadership development.

It is no longer the responsibility of just HR or L&D or the individuals alone to help people in an organisation grow. All stakeholders must be equally aligned and vested in the growth of all its employees, to be continuously successful in the long run.

Based on my coaching conversations with clients, I have heard of a few issues people managers face in developing others. While being in a telling mode comes easily, getting into asking open-ended questions is hard for many. They find it challenging to be a coach. They often struggle with being in the manager's mindset. It is not easy to step away and let employees be resourceful enough to discover solutions and suggestions. Even if the manager knows how to be an effective coach, it is hard to decipher when to coach, mentor, advise or instruct.

The differences between these modalities are often not clearly understood by most. People are confused as they seem similar with developmental intent. However, their scope, purpose and utility in leadership development are definitely distinct. Firstly, it is vital to have clarity on what constitutes each of these, for leadership development. Understanding the difference will enable you to read the situation appropriately and switch the hat you must wear as a manager while developing your team members.

Let us clarify the definitions for each approach and the best situation to use it for.

A coach helps the trainee unlock potential to maximise overall performance. They create a nurturing and trusting space without making assumptions and judgments about the person to help them explore their reality. They do so by asking open-ended questions around what might be keeping the trainee away from achieving what they would like to accomplish. Active listening and powerful questioning are two fine skills a manager must develop to be a good coach.

They must also honestly believe in the employee's potential and ability to affect their situation. The need to be a rescuer and jumping in to help them with every little thing becomes counterproductive. In pure coaching, the coach refrains from instructing or suggestions.

Some ideal situations to wear the coaching hat are as follows:

  • To motivate and inspire a person to improve performance and well-being in general.
  • To help bring about behavioural change. Certain behaviours may be problematic for a person. They want to change but don't know how. It helps them become more self-aware of how the behaviour impacts them and others negatively, and provides support to uncover the underlying reasons behind it.
  • To enable them to gain the courage to take on more responsibility and ownership.
  • To allow them to become more innovative by giving them psychological safety as they get comfortable to take risks and at times fail.
  • When a team member is going through a personal or professional crisis, being a sounding board to listen with empathy can make a massive difference to their work performance. It is tough to be productive if your mind is boggled with unpleasant thoughts and worries.

A mentor is someone who guides the mentee based on their own past experiences. Often there are some similarities in the professional journey between the two people. In mentoring, some aspects of active listening along with suggesting or advising takes place.It is best to assume the role of a mentor when:

  • You see immense potential in a team member and they remind you of a younger you in their career path.
  • They look up to you and are eager to learn the tricks of the trade from you.
  • They need help in identifying resources, building their network, understanding career progression or developing contacts.
  • They need emotional support and guidance in any area of their life.
  • You feel a strong urge to help them to succeed.

Advising or Instructing
These communication aspects are easy to understand because we have a lot of practice hearing this growing up and doing it in our roles as managers. It is best to use these methods when it is clear what needs to get done; when you want the strategy to be executed, and tasks to be performed. Suggestions on things that can help smoother execution are great but practice leaving room for ownership and implementation on the employee's part. After all, if you take all ownership, how will they learn and experiment? It is easier to give advice and so much harder to provide them with your pure, unadulterated presence and curiosity.

Each mode of communication has its place and is immensely productive and helpful when used at the right time. As a leader, developing the ability to discern which of these tools to pull out from your toolbox is extremely powerful. A great way to start learning and practicing is with yourself. Become more self-aware and inquire how it will benefit you or has aided you in the past to be coached, mentored, or instructed.

Another excellent idea is when in doubt, ask your team members what will help them most in a particular situation. It is natural while learning something new there may be a few hiccups, but it is essential to keep getting better at it through trial and error to become a better leader who leads high-performing teams.

The author is the founder and CEO of Talent Power Partners, a leadership development company based in Bengaluru

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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