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A closer look at the differences between mentoring and coaching

Throughout the first month of our coaching engagement, I gave my client honest feedback on various aspects of his leadership style.

Now it was my turn to get his feedback. And to be honest, it felt a bit like a needle to a balloon: a quick sting followed by a slow deflation.

You told me to be upfront if I had any issues with the coaching,” he wrote in an email.

So I’ll just be honest,” he continued. “I’m a linear thinker and I need a direct approach. I don’t think we’re getting anywhere with all your open-ended questions.”

The message went on to say,

When I was working with my mentor last year, he suggested an action plan and I was checking off the steps. I feel like you and I are constantly brainstorming and reflecting rather than getting things done.”

Hired by this executive to help him shift perceptions of his approach, I wasn’t completely surprised. I was used to clients initially resisting the self-discovery that effective coaching requires before planning action. But he seemed so sure of what he wanted.

I wondered what I could have done differently. And then I began to understand the real source of his resistance.

He believed the help he needed and the help he wanted should be the same. And in most transactional relationships, this makes sense. Aren’t we taught the customer is always right?

Not exactly in coaching. If he had always been right he wouldn’t need a coach. Yet here he was, wanting help in something he felt was crucial to his success.

His frustration was valid, but incorrectly aimed at the coaching process. We would find that it stemmed from the dissonance of wanting change without having to really change. And real change would require a deeper look into his mindset.

How we are taught to think

In 1947, Edward de Bono coined the term “lateral” thinking to reflect the opposite of “linear,” or convergent thinking. Linear thinking seeks out a logical, “right” answer, found by removing options that don’t fit a fixed structure.

If you are looking to improve your company’s profitability for instance, linear thinking suggests a clear formula: either increase sales or reduce costs, or both.

Lateral (or “divergent”) thinking follows an indirect approach to solving problems. It suspends conventions, judgment and structure to invite creative answers.

So when profitability stalls due to unforeseen challenges, it’s lateral thinking that suggests pivoting to a new market or acquiring a company to keep evolving.

Early in school, we are taught to think in a linear fashion because it preserves order.

It is repeatable and teachable, enabling classes to follow structure and equipping children with a dependable toolkit to face the world.

In the 1950’s, psychologist J.P. Guilford observed that creativity isn’t rewarded when taking standard intelligence tests, which penalize divergent thinking and instead reward the aptitude of narrowing choices to a single solution.

And modern day management thought leaders like Seth Godin have noted, “we organize our schools around obedience, [whether through] tests, comportment [and] the very structure of their day.

Godin adds:

We organize our companies around obedience as well. From the resume we use to hire to the training programs to the annual budgets, revenue targets and reviews we create, the model employee is someone who does what he’s told.

In order to survive from school to college to company, professional adults stick to linear thinking because it is rewarded around them.  Departing from this mindset would challenge their sense of certainty.

When linear thinking becomes limited thinking

De bono said the problem with linear thinking is that “you cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.”

For instance, when progress stalls in business or your own personal growth, linear thinking will hardly achieve the disruption required to forge a new path.

And because these thinkers search for the “right” answer to problems, it’s not surprising that they also believe most problems in business and life can be solved in a direct, logical way.

But when they encounter inevitable challenges that can’t be solved with a linear mindset, the impact can be unsettling.

Look how common it is for technical managers and MBAs to succeed early in their career as experts in engineering, finance or marketing, only to falter after taking on the ambiguity of a cross-functional leadership role.

Inspiring a shared vision, motivating reluctant team members and influencing without authority are problems for which logical solutions alone are ineffective.

And the fixed structure of linear thinking makes it easy to create defenses against thinking creatively.

To avoid discomfort, linear-minded leaders say things like, “The numbers don’t add up so we’re not pursuing that option,” or “Just get it done the way we always do it – don’t reinvent the wheel or rock the boat.”

Such defenses can make otherwise gifted leaders into micromanagers that engage in department battles, rely on intimidation or avoid healthy conflict.

And they justify their behavior in the name of “driving clear results” because they would rather avoid the “chaos” that a little divergent thinking could create.

But the damage isn’t just outward. These leaders may suffer from the crippling effects of internal perfectionism as a result of their unwillingness to challenge how they think while stubbornly working through the “gray” problems in front of them.

Now to be clear, purely lateral thinking doesn’t save the day. Someone who prefers divergent thinking may shine when new ideas are welcome, but without the ability to prioritize and execute after brainstorming, he may also cause damage.

Awareness of one’s thinking preferences and a commitment to adaptability is the key to minimizing external and internal harm.

How we think influences where we seek help

Now my client told me he was a linear thinker, but of course he wasn’t incapable of thinking creatively.

In further discussions he explained, “I just don’t think it’s necessary to challenge the way things are done because most outcomes are obvious and predictable.

He would shift to out-of-the-box solutions only when he was “pushed into a corner.”

But after receiving a particularly harsh 360 assessment filled with stakeholder input on his approach, he felt the squeeze of that corner.

His colleagues saw him as strong in competencies like “demonstrates business acumen” and “making sound decisions.

But they rated him much lower than his self-assessment in critical leadership areas like “builds a shared vision,” “influences others,” “shows adaptability” and “develops trust.

From these results he realized something had to change and he needed help.

But he was surprised because he was always proactive in asking for advice from senior leaders on how to be successful.

In fact, he met with a highly respected SVP in his company once a quarter and actively sought his mentor’s wisdom on challenging issues.

This mentoring was the kind of help he wanted, but was it enough for the changes he needed to make? 

Why we seek out mentors

Aside from being free of charge, mentoring is popular because it provides advice from someone who has already succeeded in a desired goal.

In big companies, having a senior mentor can also be a first step toward sponsorship for future promotions.

Compared with asking for an executive coach, leaders often prefer to first seek out mentors, for a number of reasons.

But let’s face it: mentoring is sexier than coaching.

There is no stigma in asking for a mentor because there is no judgment on the mentee’s capabilities.

Mentees simply seek the wisdom of someone they admire and get access to insights that are based more on the mentor’s story than the mentee’s real-time performance.

In large organizations it is a badge of honor to secure mentorship from certain executives. In the startup world, entrepreneurs clamor for mentoring from a rock star VC or founder who achieved massive scale. And mentors are flattered by the admiration.

Mentoring also serves our need for instant answers and the desire for proven strategies and models to mimic on the way to success.

For linear thinkers, mentoring provides the sense of certainty they crave, because to follow someone else’s success or avoid someone else’s mistakes is the safest path to the “right” answer.

But as Jonathan Fields of The Good Life Project and author of Uncertainty has pointed out:

There is no such thing as possibility without uncertainty. So when you act in a way that removes the uncertainty, you also act in a way that removes possibility.

The problem with confusing mentorship with coaching

Mentoring works under an implicit belief that much of what worked for the mentor should work for the mentee, and even if it doesn’t, at least it provides the mentee some wisdom and warning.

This is valuable help for leaders, particularly when stepping into a completely unknown career path or business. But it’s still subjective advice.

At best, mentees follow the mentor’s roadmap and see what happens.

At worst, mentees expect similar outcomes without applying the self-awareness and personal behavior change required to ensure success on their own path.

Given the attractiveness of mentoring, mentees often assume it will provide the same benefits of a coaching engagement.

But while mentoring may “look” like coaching, they differ in many ways, from the level of objectivity to the depth of feedback.

A mentor provides valuable answers to a mentee’s burning questions. But a coach introduces the possibility that the leader may be asking the wrong questions in the first place.

Mentors generously offer advice and feedback based on what worked for them. But coaching reminds leaders that a “right” answer in someone else’s view may actually keep them from developing the best intrinsic solutions for ambiguous and unspoken challenges in their own way.

So while we often want a hotshot mentor, what we often need is a coach.

The value of a coach isn’t defined by the coach’s story but by the ability to develop the leader’s effectiveness within the leader’s story.

Coaching also involves continually questioning and examining how success is defined for the leader, both externally and internally.

It reflects the truth that things will change, whether on the part of the leader or the organization around him.  As a result, coaching seeks to strengthen the leader’s capacity to reflect and flourish, not stubbornly hold onto someone else’s advice or play in the certainty of their comfort zone.

As a mentor to other MBAs, I am often asked for advice on career strategy and leadership decisions. I also personally seek the counsel of several experienced mentors in my field. But as a coach, I take my story out of the equation.

My job is to enable the leader’s self-discovery and growth based on objective, observable feedback and insight. This helps him commit to personal change before expecting results that simply mimic someone else’s journey.

The key to long-term success

Among other reasons, a preference for linear thinking often leads people to prefer mentoring instead of coaching. But a “right” answer rarely exists in matters of human change so coaching introduces a process to solve problems through a balance of linear and lateral mindsets.

In time my client’s willingness to shift between linear and lateral solutions helped him realize new outcomes, like shifting others’ perceptions of him. And with every step out of his comfort zone, he further cemented his confidence to use both thinking styles as needed.

Without a doubt, mentors contributed to his long-term career success. But coaching supplemented that advice by developing his self-awareness and adaptability in order to solve problems for which logic alone would not suffice.

What are some of your experiences with mentoring and coaching? How about with balancing linear and lateral thinking to solve problems?

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