Line manager, mentor and coach: managing the conflicts and capitalizing on the opportunities

by Prof David Clutterbuck

Line manager, mentor and coach: managing the conflicts and capitalizing on the opportunities

As a line manager, one of your principal responsibilities is to develop your direct reports. Coaching and mentoring are two of the most powerful and well-publicized ways to support other people’s develop – but how do they work best in the context of a work team?

Whatever approach you take to developing direct reports, it’s clear that there are potential conflicts of role. For example, between:

  • Being the person responsible for discipline v being a supportive friend
  • Having a strong input on issues of bonuses/ promotions v having fully open and honest conversations about performance and careers
  • Focusing on achieving short-term results v focusing on medium-term or long-term career plans

To resolve these conflicts, it’s essential to look at coaching and mentoring as two complementary relationships that take place in an environment of trust.  Mentoring will typically concentrate on issues relating to career development and will often emphasize role modeling. It typically takes a longer term, much less task-focused perspective than coaching, which concentrates on performance and often involves direct feedback to the learner. Mentoring tends to require a much deeper level of self-disclosure on the part of both mentor and mentee, than is normally required in a coaching conversation. It’s not surprising then, that it is much more difficult to be a mentor to a direct report, than to be a coach to them.

This separation of mentor and mentee roles is particularly important, where the amount of time the manager has for developing directs is limited. It can easily lead to situations where those, who are mentored, are seen as unfairly privileged. Coaching, is much more likely to be evenly distributed, because it is focused on shorter-term issues.

Some useful guidelines for getting the best out of coaching and mentoring are:

  • Become part of a mentor “pool” , in which you offer mentoring to people in colleagues’ teams and they do the same for yours
  • Use the mentor as a resource of learning and support for yourself as coach and mentor
  • Clarify with your team what to expect from coaching and from mentoring
  • Be prepared to discuss career issues with your direct reports, but make them aware of the value of exploring these issues with someone, who has a different perspective
  • If appropriate, suggest topics direct reports might like to explore with their mentor, but don’t make them feel obligated to do so
  • Don’t expect or ask to be told what mentee and mentor have discussed, but be appreciative of anything the mentee does tell you
  • Ensure all your direct reports have personal development plans, which include short-term, medium-term and long-term objectives. Discuss with them where coaching, mentoring or both together can be instrumental in achieving those objectives
  • Have regular conversations with your direct reports about tasks they could take on, which would stretch them
  • Place the emphasis of coaching and mentoring on building on strengths, rather than on overcoming weaknesses; and on opportunities, rather than problems
  • Conduct a regular review (at least once every six months) with your team to explore how coaching and mentoring are working.