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Distinguishing Mentor Coaching and Coaching Supervision

Distinguishing Mentor Coaching and Coaching Supervision

Samuel P. Magill Sr., MCC, MBA

This article describes key differences between mentor coaching and coaching supervision with the aim of helping coaches and organization buyers of coaching distinguish between these two important functions.  If coaching is to become a fully developed helping profession, both will be necessary. They are not, however, synonyms for the same work.

Similarities between mentor coaching and coaching supervision – a source of confusion

Mentoring and supervising are adjuncts to the development of capable coaches and they share many skills and attributes. They both:

Depend on powerful relationships with clients.

Require experience and maturity from the person offering the service.

Support the coach in becoming a better coach.

Offer reflective questions and exploration of issues.

Provide confidentiality and safety to explore.

Are forms of accompanying the client (coach) on a learning journey.

In this sense, they are also similar to therapy, spiritual counseling or direction, many health arenas and, indeed, coaching itself.

On the other hand, the purpose, preparation for and timing of mentoring and supervising are substantially different.

A problem: “mentor” sounds helpful, “supervisor” sounds like a boss who makes judgments.

The first mentor is often said to be a person named Mentor with whom Odysseus entrusted his son Telemakhos while off fighting wars. Thus, we often think of mentors as guides and even protectors on our journeys when we are young. In contrast, the term “supervisor” often brings to mind a boss who controls and judges one’s performance.

This view of supervision and an initial reaction against the notion of coaching supervision are more prevalent in the United States than elsewhere.  Darmouni and Hadjadj in La supervision des coachs, recently published in France, suggest the reason is that many coaches in the US want to distinguish themselves from therapists for whom supervision is required. In this American author’s experience, this is quite accurate and he has found elsewhere in the world a lower sensitivity to the word “supervision”.

Frankly, there is an element of authority in supervision because supervisors in many regulated helping professions exist to maintain professional standards. This normative aspect of supervision attends to the on-going quality, competence and ethics of practitioners on behalf of their clients as well as the field itself. However, coaching supervision exists to aid the coach in honestly monitoring his or her own quality and ethics rather than to evaluate and report performance issues to an authority. As an unregulated profession, coaching must have ways to address critical performance and ethical issues whether the coach is a novice or a very experienced practitioner.

People who have experienced supervision often describe the relationship with their supervisors as “intimate”, “safe”, “stimulating”, “informative”, “heart centered”, and even “cozy”. There are moments when supervisee and supervisor are so in tune, like a tuning fork and a violin, that the notion of leader and follower, teacher and student, evaporate into a cloud of exploration and insight in which there is no hierarchy. Both partners to the dance of supervision are learners.

Mentor and mentee are not equals

A review of distinct definitions of mentor and mentoring provides statements like these:

“Mentoring is an intense work relationship between senior and junior organizational members. The mentor has experience and power in the organization, and personally advises, counsels, coaches and promotes the career development of the protégé” – Anne Stockdale

“A mentor facilitates personal and professional growth in an individual by sharing the knowledge and insights that have been learned through the years. The desire to want to share these ‘life experiences’ is characteristic of a successful mentor”. – Arizona National Guard

Dr. Larry Daloz, author of Mentoring, said in recent correspondence with this author: “a mentor is generally understood as a person of greater experience, wisdom, and sometimes age, who enters into a relationship with a learner or protégé for the purpose of cultivating wisdom.” Thus, a hallmark distinction between mentor and the person being mentored is degree of development – life experience, age or work experience.

Key distinctions in mentor coaching and coaching supervision

The greatest differentiator between supervision and mentoring is that mentoring tends to be sought (and is required by ICF for advancement in certification) at early stages in a coaching career while supervision is sought by coaches at all stages regardless of years of experience. In fact, in many cases is it sought more by experienced coaches who are wise enough to know that regular, skilful reflection about their practice is essential to maintenance of quality, ethics and personal well-being.

Another distinguisher can be found in preparation for the two roles. While a mentor can function well because of his or her experience as a coach, a coaching supervisor obtains training in areas that are not directly part of coaching skill development. In particular, these include study of coaching psychology, unconscious processes at work in all coaching relationships, management of boundaries, deep inquiry methods and discipline in self-reflection. Darmouni and Hadjadj add, “We have lived the passage from being consultant to coach or trainer to coach like a mutation. The passage from being a coach to a supervisor is something of a different order.” (Translation by the author.)

Perhaps because of the emphasis on psychological models, some coaches express concern that supervision is a form of psychoanalysis or therapy.  In supervision, we do not diagnose or create treatments for psychological issues. The focus is on awareness of the many things happening consciously and unconsciously during coaching. It is also intended to “re-source” the coach as he or she encounters challenging situations and the emotional and energetic demands of holding space in which clients grow. All coaching involves human to human interaction and all human interactions provide opportunities for entanglement. Because of the personal nature of the insights developed in supervision, coaches are well advised to seek someone properly prepared to manage this level of intensity. (At present apprpriate programs are most available in the United Kingdom and France.) Just having years of experience as a thoughtful coach is not enough.

Some examples of issues brought to this author by very experienced coaches include:

A difficult relationship between the coach and the client’s boss.

A coaching relationship that broke down temporarily when the coach unconsciously took on a parental role with a young executive client.

A coach who found in a client an audience for a favorite area of knowledge.

An external coach struggling with the boundaries necessary to coach in his former organization where he was an executive.

A coach who began to think he was no longer effective after many years.

A coach who experienced sexual attraction to his client and wanted to manage boundaries appropriately.

A coach who unconsciously mistook her value of rapidly completing objectives for a client’s  when he faced organization pressures preventing him for following the agreed upon plan.

In summary

Mentoring of coaches and supervision of coaches are both necessary and good for the individual and the field. The search for distinctions between the two is not a matter of preference or of choosing sides to an argument. As coaching matures, the field is best served by experienced coaches who mentor and guide novices into practice and by supervisors who support the coach in maintaining effectiveness, ethics and personal equilibrium throughout their career. The expanding use of both resources is an indication that coaching is indeed a profession.

Sam Magill – Published in Choice Magazine, September 2012