Is a manager the best person to be a mentor?

The title above is a query someone posed me in a LinkedIn discussion, which was about an article entitled “Can a manager be a coach?”  This got me thinking generally about coaching and mentoring and who is the best person to provide these services.

businessman with mentor/coachHowever, before answering the query, some definitions: what is the difference between coaching and mentoring?  Firstly neither is counselling or therapy.  Both coaching and mentoring are future focused interventions to help people find solutions, to perform better and attain their goals.  They are though, very different in one key aspect – the giving of advice.

Coaching assumes the answers are all within the person being coached and primarily uses questioning to work towards discovering these; the coach does not give any advice and remains impartial and non-judgemental.  The advantage of this is that any solution or actions that emerge out of the process will be fully owned by the person being coached and they are far more likely to go forward and complete the actions they have committed to.   The disadvantage is that there may be situations where the person being coached does not have the answer; however even here coaching can be effective in helping the person determine how to obtain the advice or information required to move forward.

Mentoring on the other hand does involve advice and a mentor is someone who has the experience necessary to be able to give appropriate advice; usually they will have faced the same or similar challenges to the person being mentored.  However, just because a mentor has the knowledge and can provide the solution, doesn’t mean to say they should do straight away; I believe this is a bad misconception that people fall into if the mentoring has not been set up correctly.  The problem occurs when a mentor assumes he or she is there to give advice and when a problem is explained quickly jumps in with advice on how they would deal with the situation.  A good mentor, on the other hand, will take a coaching approach wherever possible and, only when it is clear that the person is struggling to come up with the answer, will offer advice.  One thing to note here is that although mentors will quite often be more senior in the organisation and typically older than the people they are mentoring, this should not necessarily be the case.  The mentor needs to have the necessary knowledge and experience for the challenges being faced; which could mean the mentor being a more junior person or certainly a peer.

So going back to the original two queries: can a manager be a coach; and is a manager the best person to be a mentor?  I firmly believe a manager can be a coach and, if he or she has the relevant knowledge and experience, I think this naturally becomes a mentoring relationship.  I’d go further and say a manager should take a coaching/mentoring approach wherever possible.  In my previous blog “Good Boss or Bad Boss“, the person I have in mind as my best-boss from the past, certainly took a coaching/mentoring approach.  He always took time to help me to determine the best way forward for a given challenge or issue; however if I was stuck he would offer his advice in terms of possible options.

Can a manager replace the need for someone to have a separate coach or mentor?  My answer here would be no.  The obvious problem here is that the manager cannot take a fully independent view; indeed the manager may be the issue the person is trying to deal with.  This can also be a problem with coaches or mentors who are not the person’s immediate manager, but are still within the same organisation; particularly as you get higher up in the organisation.  The greater the separation, the better the independence; and the more likely that the coach or mentor will be able to give independent and non-judgemental support.

One last point: if you want your managers to take a coaching and mentoring approach when managing their direct reports, don’t just tell them to do it and assume they’ll know how; give them the training to develop the skills to do it effectively.  I’d love to help.

Mike Jones specialises in executive coaching and leadership development.  If you would like help with enabling your managers to be mentors and coaches call him now on +44 (0)1908 509088 or email

About Mike Jones

Mike Jones is an executive coach specialising in developing Emotional Intelligence through transitional and performance coaching. You can contact him directly on +44(0)7747 011 589 or via

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