business,  coaching,  mentoring

coaching and mentoring – strategic purpose and usage at executive and senior levels

Coaching and mentoring are two of the effective approaches in Learning and Development which are gaining popularity nowadays. Since they were developed, they keep expanding and evolving across different organisations. The executive level officers are aware of the advantages of introducing these to companies, especially for the employees from the mid-level and up. Since both are, opposed to training, focused on establishing longer term, not necessarily immediate changes and share many similarities, they are quite often mistaken for one another (Stewart and Cureton 2014)1.

The techniques they use are based predominantly on one-on-one meetings (although there are group and team sessions as well). While in the everyday use of these terms their definition often overlaps, there are significant distinctions which need to be marked in order to understand the reasons for using one or the other.

A coach, unlike mentor, is not necessarily an expert in the area they coach. They impact the organizations by asking coachees proper questions and letting them to discover the answers themselves, not by showing them “the right” way, but rather helping to reveal the possible solutions. This shows two of the most important skills of a good coach, ability to ask and listen, to be able to meander discussion around a target conversation leading to a self-realisation. The style of work should then be non-directive, pulling and revealing coachees’ own resources, the skills and resources they already have but are not aware of. Therefore, a coach, should use conversation techniques like: reflection, paraphrasing, summarising; they should ask question to listen and understand a coachee, not to make suggestions.  It helps people to reflect on their behaviour and mindset. Coach basically acts as a facilitator (Rosinski 2003)2, never a teacher or, even worse, a lecturer.

Being a mentor means helping a less experienced person not only through conversation, but primarily by sharing skills and knowledge; it is a supportive form of development and therefore it tends to last longer than coaching. The relationship is much less formal and unstructured in comparison to functional coaching situation and should predominantly be based upon trust in mentor’s expertise and good practices, because the mentee is supposed to follow the mentor’s instructions. Usually, this role is not a standalone profession, it is the older, more senior colleague who takes care of a mentee. A mentor supports and guides a mentee as he or she accomplishes their tasks (Kram 1983)3, they may be perceived as teachers (Ghosh 2012)4.

Mentor’s working style is very directive, pushing information to the mentee. They are supposed to tell how things should be done, instruct and give advices, as well as constant feedback with suggestions for improvement. The aim is to help a person to improve their skills, while doing their work. And because it is work the relation focuses on, normally there is no room for discussing any personal issues, unless they affect job and/or company.

Executive coaching and mentoring in organisations are, foremost, a systemic way of dealing with strategic, not operational problems. These can be creating a learning and sharing culture, talent management, mentoring for change, etc. Depending on the goal it is more efficient to use one or the other. It’s important to remember that their results are not as immediate in a short-term (compared for example to training interventions), they show up in a long-term, which also means that they should be more solid and permanent.

At an executive or a senior level of the organisations, the purpose of coaching and mentoring differs to when they are used for entry or mid-level positions. First of all, they are used more frequently for more valuable employees because the cost of the whole process is much bigger compared to training sessions and the effects may not be visible and applicable immediately. The executives usually have proper educational and career background in general, introducing coaching/ mentoring puts focus on the most important issues which are specific to company, for example while recruiting or promoting.

On individual level they aim to build up the performance, increase self-awareness, identify strengths and weaknesses to work on opportunities and threats. They are to help with managing time, relationships (with both co-workers and clients), work-life balance and overcoming own barriers to progress professionally. Organisations use coaching and mentoring to increase accountability for implementing changes and improving performance by discovering and quickly achieving hidden potential. These also help in keeping the personnel turnover by growing sense of loyalty, commitment, pride in workplace. And last, but not least, both interventions provide safe space, where employees can discuss the issues of their everyday work in a non-threatening way (secured by confidentiality agreements and proper contracting, the trust is crucial here).

The progress and agenda of a coaching intervention on a senior and executive level is always structured. The process focusses on dealing with more general and widely described problems, but the time-frame is limited. Working with a coach is not a never-ending relation. It may be a long term one, part of business culture, but the problems discussed between a coach and a coachee are supposed to be solved in a measurable and time-bound manner; usually it does not take more than 6-10 hourly sessions to complete. It may be considered a time-consuming intervention, too much for an organisation to pay for. After a regular training day out of the office generally the personnel can be back at work, coaching session distracts a coachee for much longer. The meetings may last 60 minutes, but they also require self-reflection time. The personal development is not immediate, it would be unusual for a change to happen right after the session and last long. This actually is the most principal advantage of coaching. Because the process is spread in time (normally a week or 2 between sessions) and a coach is in contact with their clients for many months, they may see their progress. The change induced slowly and repetitively is deeper, more significant and meaningful. It changes not only the behaviour, but most of all attitude of a client.

The executive coach is not necessarily an expert from the area of interest of a client, it is helpful, but not required (it is though required for the coach to be experienced in working with senior level management). He or she challenges the assumptions of coachees without telling them directly what they should do. It improves personal creativity by helping to realise that there are many options available, not necessarily the ones they would immediately use.

Another important issue to research is the goal of individual executive coaching programme and its alignment with organisational goals. The coach may not know if the theme of intervention discussed with a client is exactly what business really needs. The sessions have to be private and confidential; organisations do not necessarily have control over them. And if a client does not feel like it is a case to discuss, coach is not in power to force it. Not every person is ready for auto-reflection and work on themselves. 

Unlike coaching, executive mentoring is supposed to help in knowledge and skills transfer (including management and leadership skills). Because of that it is beneficial in directing mentees towards solutions which are proven to work instead of improving their creative problem-solving technique. The relationship lasts longer, actually it may be as long as all parts work together, because the mentor is often a senior employee who guides the less competent one. That implies a mentor’s background – it has to be from the same area of expertise.

Executive mentoring may be both time- and cost- saving, because it comes from inside the organisations. There is no need to hire expensive external professionals if there are qualified employees in the business. The mentee usually can apply skills immediately, therefore the quality of the knowledge transfer may be checked and evaluated straight away. It brings some disadvantages, though. The mentorship intervention is focused on transferring what mentors know and what works for them, which may not necessarily be for everyone. It means that it is a handover of the exact style of work, especially if it is the same mentor later evaluating their mentees. It is beneficial only in recurrent situation because it blocks creative solutions which were not marked as valid. In the worst-case scenario, it can make a mentee to be a “clone” version of a mentor.

To choose right kind of intervention, either coaching or mentoring, it’s important to critically compare these two.

The biggest strength of executive coaching is that it leads to great results when it is aimed at inducing change and transition management style towards learning and collaboration at the senior levels. It permits a coachee to realise that there are different options available and using their life and work experience allows them to decide on their own, if the modification of their attitudes could be beneficial for their development, accepting accountability for their actions. The coaches allow their clients to challenge the way they view work. They never impose the answers, so it’s the client who owns them. If the clients are seasoned enough, they can get to very deep and interesting conclusions on their own. The coach’s professional background (since they are not necessarily from the same as their clients) may help to increase creativity level of their clients and focus on widening the area for their development. Limited time frame allows sponsors of the intervention to held its part to be more accountable for results.

Choosing executive coaching intervention has some weaknesses as well. If a client has been promoted recently, they may not have enough resources to provide answers. As the relationship between parts is supposed to be equal the “chemistry” between them is crucial for the success of the process and not all personalities work well together. That would affect the efficiency.

On the other hand, this chemistry in mentoring intervention is not that important since the relationship is based mostly on seniority and professionalism. It’s the main strength of this kind of learning. It’s the targeted knowledge which is transferred and it is especially beneficial in well working organisations to direct to the new seniors and execs something which has already been proven to work. Because the businesses use their own resources it is also cost effective – everything is already available on site: there’s no need to pay for external mentors to hire or space for delivering mentoring session.

The most crucial disadvantage, the weakness, of this approach is that it promotes repetitiveness (which in cases mentioned before is not a problem, but the management needs to be aware of the fact). Instead of creating new personalities, it creates “clones” of current leaders and their leadership model. It would not induce or help with change and if business operates in VUCA world it may be less productive than coaching, especially since this is the long-term process.

Below, I combined the main characteristics of both techniques. One need to remember that since their strengths or weaknesses depend on the kind of organisation and given situation, neither nor is better/worse than the other. They should be used to achieve different goals and only then will be effective.



  • change in way of working
  • leadership attitude development
  • beneficial for creativity and making things work in the new ways
  • focus on wider area
  • more formal structured relationship agreement between the parts
  • limited time-frame
  • not necessarily from the same field
  • may be equal in position
  • more expensive regarding both not-immediate effects and long process
  • may not consider big picture and what business need instead of an individual
  • rewards creativity
  • transfer of knowledge and skills
  • leadership skills development
  • beneficial for directing towards what’s already been proven to work
  • targeted intervention
  • likely more informal and organically started 
  • long-term
  • same area of experience
  • usually more senior
  • cost effective when using “own” employees, immediate feedback
  • normally aligned with organisational needs
  • rewards repetitiveness

coaching and mentoring in Talent Management

One of the strategic purposes of coaching at an executive and senior level is talent management. It allows coachees to overcome their potential mental barriers, thereby ensuring their commitment and improving retention at that level. Thanks to coaching, senior employees are reassured that their personal development is important for the organisation’s strategy, therefore it deepens trust and creates a sharing culture at the strategic level of the business. Because of its nature in nurturing creativity and professional and personal development, coaching is perfect to build a positive and resilient attitude, which the execs can use in a business operating in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world.

Certain considerations must also be given to the using of coaching in support of talent management at the senior levels however. Due to the investment and commitment in the coaching process it can take time. The organisation may not receive the investment in senior leader talent management in a time frame suitable to them and must make allowances for this in the development of the executives and the corresponding organisational by-products. Cost implications must also be made as executive coaching doesn’t come cheap at present and subsequent returns on the coaching investment must be defined and evaluated on a regular basis.

Mentor transfers their own knowledge instead of increasing clients’ own abilities. In the case of talent management, it means that during the mentoring process the mentee would learn mentor’s way of dealing with problems and will not develop own way for providing solutions, thereby removing the element of empowering offered to the executives if coaching were applied. In most cases it is not enough. The execs and seniors are supposed to bring added value to the organisations, and it will not happen if they would behave in an exactly same way their predecessors did. Risking the stifling of creativity, learning and ultimately change at the top of the organisation in support of the strategy achievement.

Mentoring promotes repetitiveness of good practices. It does not give employee the courage to try to resolve issues occurring for the first time or not often enough to have procedures ready to implement. Coaching makes them ready for challenges and unknown, which is useful in times and businesses where not everything is predictable. It does not mean that mentoring is not useful in Talent Management, it only shows that in this case coaching provides more value and is a better technique to choose and apply.

Strategic purpose of mentoring, in support of critical incident management, is focused on providing mentees with an immediate, almost instinct response to any recurrent high-priority situations, again based on a proven, experienced solution of the mentor. First of all, the mentees are supposed to be able to quickly define the situation and assess its severity, depending on which the relevant action should be undertaken. That obviously comes with experience, hence the role of a mentor, whose background is applicable for the purpose. Mentor offers advice, directs towards what is proven to work whilst positively supporting and motivating the senior leader to succeed in the management of the incident. Through sharing their knowledge, the mistakes they met on their way, they provide invaluable help to their mentees. And because the mentee knows that their mentors had been challenged the same way they are, the level of trust is high which influences the skills transfer and meets the requirements of the organisation in managing the critical incident.

Coaching does not provide immediate answers and ready to implement in every case solution. Also, since the coaches are not necessarily coming from the same background as their coachees, they may not be able to help in finding solution. This is its biggest limitation in such a situation. And because it usually focuses on wider area for improvement, like leadership skills or career development, it is not necessarily appropriate for targeted intervention.

To summarise, executive coaching and mentoring are useful ways for improving the senior level personnel skills and behaviour. The business needs are always required to be analysed first, and then right intervention should be chosen to be aligned with organisational goals. In the next week’s post I will describe and assess some of the alternative methods in Learning and Development for the c-suite positions .


  1. STEWART, J. and CURETON, P. (eds). (2014) Designing, Delivering and Evaluating L&D: Essentials for Practice. London: CIPD.
  2. ROSINSKI, P. (2003) Coaching across cultures. New tools for leveraging national, corporate and professional differences. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing
  3. KRAM, K.E. (1983) Phases of the mentor relationship.  Academy of Management Journal, Vol 26, No 4. pp. 608-625
  4. GHOSH, R. (2012) Mentors providing challenge and support: integrating concepts from teacher mentoring in education and organizational mentoring in business. Human Resources Development Review. Vol 12, No 2. pp. 144-176

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