How to Use Coaching and Mentoring Programs to Develop New Leaders

mature leader talking to younger leader displaying coaching and mentoring skills

If you’re like most HR professionals, you’re familiar with this common workplace scenario: A first-time manager feels overwhelmed and frustrated. The skills and talents that led to his or her success as an individual contributor now feel insufficient. They’re not sure how to make the leap from “friend” to “boss,” and seem to be drowning in work they don’t know how to delegate.

When employees are first-time or mid-level managers, they often face problems like this that could benefit from leadership experience.

In most cases, your organization will have a number of more seasoned leaders who have dealt with similar challenges and can offer their help. By equipping more experienced leaders with the skillset to support new leaders, you can employ coaching and mentoring to cultivate a culture that develops a pipeline of professionals who are resilient, agile, and engaged.

Coaching and Mentoring: What’s the Difference?

Coaching and mentoring are related and sometimes overlap. However, while both may be performed by the same leader, coaches and mentors serve different roles. It’s important for both the coach and the mentor, as well as the people they’re helping develop, to know the difference.

Coaching typically focuses on enhancing current job performance by helping someone resolve a here-and-now issue or blockage for themselves.

HR leaders often prioritize executive coaching because it helps senior leaders hone self-awareness, provides challenge and support, and drives organization-wide transformational change. But coaching skills can be employed at every level of the organization through critical coaching conversations, and all leader levels can develop these skills.

Mentoring at work, on the other hand, focuses on career path. Rather than helping someone resolve a current challenge, a mentor helps their mentee to become more capable in the near future. Mentors take time to guide and advise their mentees on issues that will likely arise, but may not have yet.

Mentors can also leverage their positions to sponsor mentees for developmental experiences, advocate on their behalf for promotions, and survey the environment for threatening forces and opportunities. They can leverage their expertise to transfer knowledge and help expand networks for their “mentee.”

It’s important for leaders to develop both coaching and mentoring skills in order to increase employee engagement and develop a robust talent pipeline.

Recommendations for HR Leaders Implementing Coaching and Mentoring Programs

Learning to lead is an intensely personal experience, we note in our recent emerging leaders research insights report. As a result, it’s important for emerging leaders to have access to coaches and mentors who can provide context for their personal development journey.

Coaching and mentoring programs can be a formal part of an organization-wide initiative, or they can be an informal process agreed to by both parties. Read on for tips on how to get started.

How to Create a Culture of Coaching

When an organization has a “culture of coaching,” it has a culture that encourages giving feedback and honest conversations across functions and leader levels that amplify collaboration, agreement, and alignment.

As we explain in our white paper, Truth and Courage: Develop Conversational Skills to Implement a Coaching Culture, any conversation can be a leadership development opportunity when it’s candid. Senior leaders and managers can apply the following foundational skills from our Better Conversations Every Day™ program to all of their interactions — not just formal coaching sessions:

  • Listen to understand. When supervisors listen to colleagues, they should be aware of their own agenda. Instead of trying to promote that agenda, listening to understand involves listening with an open mind for facts, feelings, and values.
  • Ask powerful questions. As 2 people delve into a conversation, they can uncover new insights by making inquiries that stretch the other person’s thinking. Encourage “coaches” to begin their questions with “what” or “how” to tap into feelings and values that encourage reflection.
  • Strike a balance between challenge and support. Listening to understand doesn’t mean listening to agree. Supervisors can show their support by restating the facts and values they hear. When 2 people have a shared trust built on psychological safety, they are able to ask tough, challenging questions that uncover unexamined assumptions.
  • End your conversation with clear next steps. Supervisors can establish a sense of accountability by agreeing to next steps. That can be as easy as committing to one small action item that moves the issue forward and demonstrates the supervisor values the facts and emotions shared by the individual being coached.

Our research shows that when people are in the early stages of their careers, they often feel it’s risky to speak up. When supervisors and informal coaches throughout the organization use these conversational skills, they demonstrate that they value the thoughts and perspectives of even the youngest members of their teams.

Our emerging leaders report also encourages senior leaders to facilitate meaningful discussions about sensitive issues like diversity, equity, and inclusion in order to glean an accurate picture of their team and the challenges and opportunities they face.

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Watch our webinar, 3 Research-Based Strategies to Support the Leaders of Tomorrow in the Midst of COVID-19, to learn insights from our research on what organizations can do to foster work environments that facilitate emerging leaders realizing their full potential.

What Makes Mentoring Successful

Whereas coaching is intended to address a current challenge, mentoring looks to the future. Therefore, the most successful mentoring programs include careful, strategic planning.

According to our guidebook, Seven Keys to Successful Mentoring, mentoring is an intentional, developmental relationship between a more experienced, knowledgeable person and a less experienced, less knowledgeable person. Often, but not always, this means an older person mentoring a younger one, although reverse mentoring arrangements flip this model around, but work in much the same way.

When creating or improving an organizational mentoring initiative, use these strategies and questions as a guide:

  • Be purposeful and strategic. Before you begin pairing mentors and mentees, consider your goals and how these goals fit into your overall development efforts. Think about how your demographics might change in the next 5 years: Who will retire, and who will backfill those roles? How will this mentoring program fit into your overall business plan and human resources strategies?
  • Engage leaders. The most effective mentorship programs have buy-in at the executive level. Once you’ve outlined your goals, clearly articulate and communicate those goals. What role can the CEO and senior team play in the process? Who else in the organization will help make the formal mentoring program work?
  • Start small. It takes time to recruit and brief the right mentors and mentees, and lessons learned from the beginning of the program can prove beneficial when it’s time to extend it to more people. Be sure your program includes a diverse group of leaders (all genders, people of color, different levels/career stages, etc.) and establishes clear rules about confidentiality to establish trust.
  • Train mentors and mentees on skills for developing the relationship and holding mentor conversations. You can’t assume senior people will have the right skills for mentoring. Investing time and resources in training also shows that the company leadership values the program. Along the way, offer support for mentors; this support should be included in the program’s design.
  • Measure and share. What is most important for the organization and those participating? Consider the specific needs of the mentoring partners, HR, and business leaders. How can you publicize any early wins in order to build momentum?

We can partner with you to create a better culture by building and scaling coaching skills across your organization. Learn more about our coaching and conversational skills solutions.

Coaching and Mentoring Are Key for First-Time Managers

When individual contributors or professionals are promoted into their first formal leadership positions, many don’t expect the transition to be as difficult as it is. Worse, they often lack the support and development needed to help make that transition successfully.

Without support, new managers can suffer  — along with their teams and direct reports. By extension, this affects the organization’s retention levels and leadership pipeline, which ultimately can negatively impact the bottom line.

Given the important role that first-time managers play in talent development and succession management, organizations should help ease their transition by providing them with access to leadership development — especially courses targeted to the needs of new mangers — and by exploring formal organizational mentoring programs to support them.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Give your new leaders the support they need to reach their full potential and help move your organization forward. We can partner with you to strengthen coaching and conversational skills or craft a coaching and mentoring program that works for your unique talent development needs.

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November 8, 2021
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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