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Innovation Mentoring vs. Innovation Coaching: Which Do You Need?

Mentoring is certainly not a new concept. In fact, the name comes from a character named “Mentor” in Homer’s Odyssey. He was a trusted advisor to Odysseus’ son. Even though its roots run back thousands of years, however, the recent growth of social learning has given rise to a boom in mentoring and

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
4 min read
Innovation Mentoring vs. Innovation Coaching: Which Do You Need?

Mentoring is certainly not a new concept. In fact, the name comes from a character named “Mentor” in Homer's Odyssey. He was a trusted advisor to Odysseus' son. Even though its roots run back thousands of years, however, the recent growth of social learning has given rise to a boom in mentoring and coaching programs. In fact, the 2014 Global Leadership Research Project, for the fourth year in a row, found that coaching and mentoring are the most common practices used by companies to develop leaders.

Mentoring and coaching have become such popular buzzwords that they are often used synonymously. However, there are key differences between the two. An analysis of the differences between innovation mentoring and coaching will help you identify which relationship is best for you or your organization, helping you get the most out of the social learning experience.

Specific Instruction (Coaching) vs. Big Picture (Mentoring)

A coach provides specific instruction regarding how to improve your performance. For example, a baseball coach will help his team members improve specific functions, like pitching, catching or batting. He will offer clear directives and suggestions for improvement. The degree of improvement is also tangible, easy to measure. In a business environment, a coach will give specific instruction on key areas of improvement or new skills that need to be learned, such as technical processes, management techniques, or strategic planning. Coaching is a great way to come up with innovative solutions for problems with your workflow, processes, or strategies. Instead of lifeless textbook training classes, employees get practical instruction from coaches with real-world experience.

Alternatively, a mentoring relationship is less specific and looks more at the big picture. A mentor becomes more of a trusted advisor in areas that can cross personal and professional lines. The mentor may still help you craft specific goals, but those objectives will be centered around broader areas, such as creativity and ideas you’re developing that don’t necessarily have a concrete timeline or structure yet. The mentor looks at the big picture and helps you gain broader skills that will help you innovate throughout your entire career.

Mentoring focuses on the individual's needs, not the needs of the organization they work for. The mentor's role is to not only help the mentee now, but help them develop the skills needed for future roles. A mentor offers big-picture advice for the whole person and their ideas, as opposed to just advice about the person’s work performance. Mentors have often had a successful career path, starting in a similar place as the mentee. They offer assistance through sharing their own experiences, providing valuable feedback and giving the mentee access to their personal network.

Innovation coaching/mentoring gives you the opportunity to retain your staff and improve your innovative efforts.

Short and Sweet vs. Long-Term Relationship

Coaching is often a short-term relationship. Coaching sessions are structured and have specific durations with either an individual or a group. Some coaching relationships may last longer, but they still have a definite end, usually when the original objectives have been accomplished. When a coaching need is identified, such as when a team needs help overcoming a specific challenge in developing a new product, competencies are quickly assessed and a coach is matched for the task quickly. A timeline and plan of action is used to guide the relationship.

Mentoring is more of a long-term relationship. Much thought is put into the design phase to identify the best mentoring model and to match the best mentor. Building the mentor/mentee relationship requires time to establish trust and open communication. The mentor endeavors to create an atmosphere where the mentee feels free to share his or her concerns confidentially, both personal and professional. There is no specific timeline or end date, and interactions are less formal and on an as-needed basis.

How Much is the Employer Involved?

Employer involvement is another key differentiator between mentoring and coaching programs. Managers and employers are a critical part of the coaching process. They know the specific skills that need to be improved upon and which employees need coaching the most. Managers often communicate regularly with the coach about their employee's progress. With mentoring, however, managers and employers are usually much more hands-off. There is a bond of integrity and trust between mentor and mentee that requires this. While managers may recommend a mentor or offer ways to use the mentoring program, they do not generally communicate with the mentor themselves.

Assess Your Needs and Take Action

Still need help determining which relationship dynamic would work best for your innovation needs? Is your goal to develop specific skills or overcome a specific challenge? Coaching is your best option. Are you seeking to develop innovation leaders among your current staff as part of their professional development, or develop as an innovator yourself? Then, choose a mentoring program. Other areas where coaching is beneficial might be when a group of employees are not meeting job expectations, need training on a new process or software system, or when someone has taken on a new role and needs to improve certain skills.

Mentoring should be considered when the areas of improvement are less specific. Maybe you notice an employee who always seems to have great ideas but struggles to follow through on them. You may want to develop talent from within the organization by using the experience of long-time employees to help younger, less experienced ones. Developing leaders involves more than just teaching new skills. A mentor relationship molds today's up-and-comers into tomorrow's great innovative minds.

Coaches and mentors have specific roles that are vital to the development of an innovative organization. While different, both relationships give you the opportunity to retain the most talented staff and continually improve your innovative efforts.

Contact me to learn more about the benefits of mentoring and coaching.

This post was originally published on January 21st, 2016.

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Phil McKinney is an innovator, podcaster, author, and speaker. He is the retired CTO of HP. Phil's book, Beyond The Obvious, shares his expertise and lessons learned on innovation and creativity.


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