Coaching, Mentoring and Counselling: the who, what, why, how?

When professional and personal development is under discussion, those three terms, Coaching, Mentoring, Counselling tend to crop up frequently. What’s more, they are regularly used interchangeably. At Solution Cell we are often asked which is best, when and how they should be applied, and by whom?

There is an undeniable element of overlap between the three, they all share the broad objective in this context of seeking to improve the performance of team members. However, each one involves a distinct approach in terms of focus areas, the nature of the relationship between the people involved, communication styles and specific end goals. If we bundle and categorise coaching, mentoring and counselling as “basically the same thing”, it’s neither helpful nor is it accurate.

Here’s a closer look at the similarities and differences of each approach, how and why they can be useful, and who can benefit.

Coaching: Targeted, forward-looking development based on specific goals

For the business leaders we work with, of the three approaches, coaching tends to be the one that people are most familiar with. It’s a concept that’s been present in the business world since the 1970s, and really gained traction in the 1990s, particularly with the inception of Sir John Whitmore’s GROW model; the idea that effective coaching comprises four elements, summarised as Goals, Reality, Options and Will (or Will do!).

The first part of the GROW acronym allows the coachee to articulate the Goal(s) for the session. Perhaps they are a salesperson who wants to achieve better outcomes when negotiating, a technical specialist hoping to boost their interpersonal skills, or someone intending to positively navigate a change in their role.

With the goal established, the coach can help examine the current Reality. Understanding and assessing what is happening now and why, and evaluating how far away the goal is.

A good coach will ask insightful questions and challenge the coachee to explore all the Options available to them. Encouraging creative thinking around what they can do, who might help, strengths and weaknesses of the ways forward, and decisiveness about choosing the best one for them.

Finally and crucially, is confirmation of the Will to ‘do the work’, the plan of what the coachee Will do, when by, and determining what success looks like.

You might think of it this way: there’s a reason the person who taught you to drive or ski was called an instructor and not a coach. They taught you EXACTLY when and how to perform manoeuvres. The knowledge transfer in those types of situations is overwhelmingly directional.

By contrast, effective coaching should be largely non-directive. A good coach isn’t a walking, talking instruction manual. They won’t say, “OK, if that’s the goal, what you need to do is…

A good coach will ask thought-provoking questions that challenge ideas and mindsets, and encourage creativity. A skilled coach observes patterns of behaviour and can reflect and challenge their coachee in a supportive way.

A specific issue might cause you to launch a coaching initiative (the loss of several major contracts in a single quarter, for example). The immediate end goal may be to equip your team to prevent a similar situation arising next quarter. However, one of the long-term benefits of coaching is its potential to develop a person’s ability to perform that extends well beyond the remit of the initial intervention. Coaching can be a gift that keeps on giving; equipping your team to tackle situations that are yet to arise.

Mentoring: Watch, learn, grow…

By no means are we being dismissive of directional development. After all, the office car park would be a pretty chaotic place every morning if none of us had been shown precisely when to unlock the wheel during a reverse parking manoeuvre. We need the chance to learn the ropes, to gain knowledge through example, to become confident in our role, which is precisely why mentoring can be so valuable.

Mentorship is a supportive form of development, usually with the broad aim of helping an individual improve their skills and manage their career progression. While coaching tends to be focused on specific areas of performance, delivered through formal or semi-formal scheduled sessions, mentoring does not have the same tightly defined agenda. It is both directive and non-directive. There’s often a passing on of formal skills together with an imparting of best practice.

A good mentor is a trusted advisor. They are a guide; offering hints, tips and advice that can benefit the mentored person both personally and professionally.

This type of relationship certainly benefits the wider organisation, in that it can empower individuals to reach their full potential and prepare them for future roles. However, it tends to work best when the areas of focus are determined by the mentored person, ie a resource to dip into, whenever the mentee requires it.

Counselling: How are you?

Traditionally, counselling is a term that is less likely to be brought up in a professional setting. Counselling is regulated as it requires more specific technical expertise which depends on the type of counselling required.

So why are we talking about it?

The pandemic and resulting lockdowns saw many responsible business leaders being careful to take care of their people who were isolated, with some even taking on a quasi-counsellor role. Post-Covid, you may find yourself grappling with a dilemma: to what extent is it right or desirable to enquire about employees’ wellbeing or even simply ask, “how are you?”?

If an individual is struggling to engage at work, there may be a whole complex web of emotional and mental health-related reasons why. Counselling refers to a process of helping people address such issues.

Who should deliver coaching, mentoring and counselling?

As a manager, could you be a coach? In a word, yes. So long as you have the crucial coaching attributes, which in our view include great listening skills, genuine curiosity and a healthy dose of compassion and empathy.

What about being a mentor? Again – yes – although probably not to someone who answers to you directly in your managerial capacity. We are reminded of an instance where an employee loved their job and did not want to consider moving on but was feeling unsupported and undervalued in their role. They suggested to their manager that they might benefit from having a mentor, and the manager immediately volunteered themselves for the role. The point is that a mentor should offer a safe space; a genuine sounding board and a source of ‘without prejudice’ advice. It can be very difficult to do this while potentially also being responsible for the same person’s appraisal, disciplinary issues, and performance management.

When it comes to counselling, things get considerably more complicated. Leading with empathy remains as important as ever; something that includes offering an open door when it comes to employees flagging up barriers to their own wellbeing. Assuming you are not a qualified counsellor, should you feel obligated to offer advice on personal or complex emotional problems? Of course not. Under such scenarios, the most appropriate response is always to say, “I’m not qualified to help you with that, may I help find you someone who is?”


If this article has got you thinking, and you would like to talk to us about how we could help with any of the topics raised, please get in touch


Contributors: Duncan Barrow, Ian Beer, Petra Gale, Laura Hands, Andrew JonesÅsa Walker, Sue Wellman