Manage, mentor, counsel or coach?

“The hottest trend in management today!” “A state-of-the-art management tool employed by the most productive managers.” Management book shelves are full of new books that speak about managing, mentoring, counseling and coaching employees. Unfortunately, alongside this flood of new books has also come confusion about the differences between all four, with some authors claiming that all are just variations of the same tools designed to improve the performance of others. But with increased development of each approach has come a greater understanding of their distinctive contributions to exceptional management.

There is no doubt that effective managers today are employing a wider variety of approaches and resources for managing others. By developing a clear understanding of the unique contributions and differences between managing, mentoring, counseling, and coaching, a supervisor or leader can increase his or her impact on staff members and on their performance, satisfaction and growth. They are like four different hats that those who supervise others may wear at one time or another, but which accomplish very different purposes.

Probably the most has been written about what it means to manage or supervise others. Bennis and Nanus conclude that “to manage means to bring about, to accomplish, and to have charge of or responsibility for [another’s conduct]. Managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right thing.”

Joseph Rost contends that management is a unidirectional authority relationship in which the manager is focused on helping the employee to achieve the performance specified in their job description. The goal of management is the accomplishment of predetermined performance and objectives, and it involves a high level of performance evaluation and accountability (generally one-way). A typical conversation between a manager and employee focuses on short-term goals, performance, evaluation, resource needs, and re-direction (if necessary).

Mentoring has a very different perspective. It focuses more on long-term enhancement, and involves the investment of a more seasoned or experienced person with a less seasoned person in order to help them break through barriers or gain wisdom (the practical application of knowledge). It is a personal development relationship and is more relational in nature. Unlike the typical employee who has only one manager, a person can have multiple mentors at the same time as each lends a different perspective based on their previous life experiences. And unlike managers who are generally appointed with no input on the part of the employee, a mentoring relationship can be initiated either by the mentor or mentee. There is little or no accountability in a mentoring relationship. A typical conversation between a mentor and mentee is informal and focuses on the experiences and lessons learned by the mentor.

Counseling is often considered inappropriate in work relationships, but that is only because of the misconception that it applies only to therapeutic situations. In reality, people who supervise others counsel all of the time as they attempt to correct performance issues and guide employees with advice and knowledge. Counseling in the business environment focuses on problem identification and solutions around work performance. It assumes that the employee will exercise personal responsibility by listening to the counsel of their supervisor and applying it appropriately in order to improve performance (never around personal or emotional issues, which belong in the therapist’s office). Therapeutic counseling leaves the choice of response in the hands of the counselee, while employees are ultimately held accountable for how they respond to their supervisor’s counsel, and their future with the company usually depends on their response.

Finally, a supervisor can also provide coaching to other staff members, which focuses on performance effectiveness and skill or talent development through teaching and guidance. The “coaching conversation” between a supervisor and employee allows employees to step back, evaluate the obstacles that are standing in their way of success — often the obstacles are self-imposed — and then determine a plan of action to move forward. Although business coaching bears many similarities to sports coaching, in the work environment the coach guides more through insightful questions and self-discovery than just performance feedback. There is also a high level of accountability in coaching with its focus on action plans and short-term performance gains.

So, what hats have you worn as you contribute to the development of others: manager, mentor, counselor or coach? All have their place in effective management, and each bring out different aspects of a person’s performance and growth. Which hat do you need to apply more, or learn more about, to become an exceptional people-developer?

Kent Wilson is a business practitioner and leadership specialist. After running companies for 30 years, he now serves as an executive coach with Vistage International and the Nonprofit Leadership Exchange in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at