Managing vs. Coaching vs. Mentoring

In many organizations people are used to the idea that functional managers are responsible for assisting people with their personal development. As managers, we care about our people’s skills, their knowledge and experience, their training, and their discipline (or, in some cases, lack thereof). For their good behavior we offer compliments, and for their bad behavior we give a scolding, and maybe a shoulder to cry on.

As functional managers, it seems, we are our people’s personal coaches:

Part of a manager’s job is to coach his or her direct reports to increase their capability and effectiveness within the organization. Coaching can focus on either interpersonal skills or technical work that is relevant to the job. […] You may coach someone who has decided to work on a performance issue, or you may coach to develop new skills and insights.

Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management
(Johanna Rothman, Esther Derby)

But there are other options as well…

Managing people is different from coaching people. As a functional manager you might be responsible for interviewing job candidates, controlling budgets, negotiating salaries, checking daily reports, checking weekly reports, checking monthly reports, checking yearly reports, and reminding people how important it is that they give you those reports. So you can check them.

As a functional manager you must also make sure that people who need it have a personal coach. But that doesn’t have to be you! You can delegate this responsibility and empower (senior) people to coach the (junior) colleagues, in order to develop their skills and capabilities. In earlier centuries it was common for ‘masters’ in a trade to delegate the coaching of ‘apprentices’ to ‘journeymen’. In fact, the journeymen were often better at coaching than their masters.

Every person in the organization has just one manager, but they have zero, one, or even multiple coaches, for different areas of personal development. You don’t even have to be a coach for the senior employees. You can delegate that by hiring an external consultant. While still acting as everyone’s manager, you could save yourself a lot of time, while empowering people by giving them coaching responsibilities, all in a single stroke!

Coaching responsibilities of managers are a frequently recurring theme in management literature. I believe it is a fallacy that has grown from traditional hierarchical thinking, which assumes that managers have higher competency than their subordinates (often a primary reason to be moved up in the chain of command). From a complex systems perspective this is nonsense. Top managers cannot be superheroes. A manager is just as fallible as his subordinates. (Or even more so when the stakes are higher.) The only thing you need to be good at, is figuring out which persons, inside or outside the organization, would be fine coaches to assist in the various competences your people need to develop. Mary and Tom Poppendieck call them competency leaders, responsible for setting standards, and developing people:

What do competency leaders actually do? First and foremost they are committed to developing excellent technology in their organization. They begin by framing good software development in terms of an enabling architecture, mistake-proofed processes, evolutionary development, and technical expertise. […] They set standards, insist on code clarity, and make sure code reviews are focused on enhancing learning. […] Probably the most important role of a competency leader is that of a teacher who guides the purposeful practice necessary to develop expertise. […] Competency leaders are often line managers, but line managers are not always competency leaders.

Leading Lean Software Development: Results Are Not the Point
Mary Poppendieck, Tom Poppendieck

One last word of advice is appropriate here for people seeking mentors. A mentor is not a coach, though the words are often mixed up as if they are synonyms. A mentor deals with an employee’s personal life or career, has no specific agenda, and has focus only on the individual. A coach deals with a person’s tasks and responsibilities, has a specific agenda or development approach, and has a focus on a person’s performance. As a manager you may assign the coach, but you have nothing to do with someone’s mentor. Mentors are like lovers and mistresses. Whether someone has one or not is very interesting, but nevertheless none of your business.

(photo by image42)

This article will be part of the book Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders. You can follow its progress here.

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  • Mark Levison

    Jurgen – some interesting thoughts most of which I agree with. A few small quibbles.

    • A manager will often know things that their employee doesn’t ex. good hands off management skills etc; Lead by example. For things like these the manager is often the best source of support
    • I think your use of the word mentor is slightly wrong: ”
      a person who gives another person help and advice over a period of time and often also teaches them how to do their job” from the Cambridge Dictionary. I see mentoring as spending time with one person teaching them a new skill like TDD etc.


  • John

    Managers provide supervision and mentoring and coaching depending upon the situation, the desired outcome and their level of experience in these capabilities. Not every manager has the capability to do any of these three things well, and very few have received sufficient development to be able to do all three equally as well.
    Supervision is primarily concerned with skill or task development; how to do the job according to expectations. Mentoring is about helping people work through a range of concepts including internal politics, social expectations, career planning, workplace relationships. Coaching focuses on how one behaves and is frequently outcome focused or goal driven. The outcome of coaching is a change of behaviour. If the need to change is unrecognised or not accepted then coaching will fail.
    Like everything else in management, these definitions are subject to interpretation, based upon personal experience. Some managers are good mentor/coaches; others are not and benefit from bringing in consultants and coaches. Some employees are highly organised and outcome focussed and able to adapt without much in the way of coaching.
    I believe mentoring is more important than coaching. I believe the reason many people need to turn to coaches is because they have not built mentoring relationships and have not developed the ability to view an issue from multiple perspectives.
    John Coxon
    Taking You From Frontline Manager to CEO

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