What are the differences between coaching and mentoring? How do each of these relate to staff performance management?  To explore these questions, I invited a special guest, Hilarie Gaylin, to join me on this blog post. Years ago, I hired Hilarie to run the training function at the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Virginia. Now she runs her own business, Cultivating Greatness, through which she performs executive coaching, training, facilitation, and organizational development services.[i] What follows is in the form of a conversation between Hilarie and me (with Hilarie’s words in blue, and my words in black text).  I learned a lot from Hilarie and hope you will, too.

Norman, I’m so excited to be thinking aloud with you about the intersections among coaching, mentoring, and performance management.  It was under your aegis that I formally began learning about and working on performance management policies, processes, and associated training, as we shifted our court to a new performance management system. 

Now as a professional executive coach, I regularly help managers strengthen their skills through coaching and training.  The latest research and thinking consistently make a strong case for the positive impact of coaching and mentoring on the performance management process, so I’m delighted to be having this conversation with you.  

What prompted you to have us focus on this topic at this moment in time? 

Performance management has been a huge focus of mine for many years.  As you note, we worked on improving how our court did performance management in the late 1990s.  Afterwards, I did the same as clerk of the federal court in New Mexico. In recent years, I have made several presentations about performance management at NACM and FCCA conferences.[ii] And, of course, I wrote a series of posts in 2018 about performance management in this blog, highlighting key elements.[iii] Recently, I have thought about how the pandemic disrupted the relationship of managers and staff due to remote work and other factors.  These considerations led me to think about how coaching has become an even more important skill in the current work environment, as well as for the hybrid environment of the future.  Then a light bulb went off in my head – I know a really good coach, and it would be informative to pick Hilarie’s brain on the subject of coaching as a key element of performance management.

Thank you, Norman!  I appreciate the compliment and your thinking of me in this context.  More and more organizations are beginning to recognize the importance of coaching and its key role in an effective performance management process, particularly in a hybrid environment, and I share your passion for this crucial topic.  When managing performance is an ongoing process, the core of that process is a regular (most experts are saying weekly), synchronous conversation between manager and employee—one-on-one—that focuses on expectations, priorities, and incremental feedback, rather than a once-a-year woodshed conversation laden with surprises. Coaching and mentoring skills can help those conversations go as effectively as possible.

Hilarie, people often confuse coaching and mentoring.  What are the key elements of each?

Let’s start by looking at where coaching and mentoring overlap and then outline where they differ.  Both coaching and mentoring are collaborative, purposeful partnerships between the manager and employee in service of increasing the employee’s competence and confidence.

Coaching is asking open-ended questions with curiosity to help employees get in touch with their own subject matter expertise–usually about themselves, their strengths, their mindsets, and their values—so that they come up with their own answers.  Coaching facilitates employees’ growth through inviting them to shift perspectives and to get more consciously aware of and build from their own wisdom.

Mentoring, on the other hand, is offering employees answers and advice based on the mentor’s own subject matter expertise,  perspectives, and wisdom to help employees arrive at a common understanding or practice more quickly.

So, coaching at its heart is about asking questions, and mentoring is about answering them.  Coaching works best when the employee has strengths and skills and may not know how to best apply them, while mentoring works best when the employee might need to bolster their strengths and skills with outside knowledge, like showing them a short cut.

In essence, the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz offer Dorothy mentoring when they tell her to “follow the yellow brick road” to get to Emerald City.  She, as a newcomer, doesn’t know a good route.  There are times when coaching may not be the best strategy.  Why should the Munchkins coach her about the best route, when they already have a tried-and-true answer in mind?

Of course, we are all so much more practiced at giving advice and opinions, to problem-solve and consult, that it can be a bit of a challenge not to have mentoring be our default, rather than  coaching.  I often will ask coaching clients, “Do you want coaching or mentoring on this?” and usually, they will say they want coaching.  Lo and behold, they didn’t need the mentoring, which is validating for both of us. Coaching can actually be a relief for managers, who start to realize that they don’t have to have all the answers.  Having to have all the answers can feel burdensome and makes it harder to embrace the learning that comes from mistakes.  Plus, coaching validates that each person has their own answers.  If Dorothy were a denizen of Oz, the Munchkins could coach her instead of mentor her.  They could simply say, “Hey, you need to get to the wizard before he goes on vacation on Thursday.  What is a route you’d like to use to get there on time?”

Norman, let’s start to connect coaching and mentoring back to performance management. You’ve done a lot of writing and training on this topic.  Please share your descriptions of the key elements of effective performance management, and I’ll chime in with some thoughts about how coaching and mentoring can amplify these efforts.

Well, I could take all day to describe the key elements, so I’ll try to be brief.

Effective performance management:

  • Uses Situational Leadership, which posits that managers should adapt their leadership style and actions to the “readiness level” of employees.  Each employee is unique in terms of their KSA’s, so the manager should customize their management approach accordingly.  This is absolutely critical.

Because coaching and mentoring both flow from synchronous conversations between managers and employees, the manager and employee are improvising a way forward together that uses both of their skill sets and strengths.  Very much a form of Situational Leadership.

  • Stresses effective two-way communication as the bedrock of effective supervision.  The other items on this list depend on it. 

Yes, and I’d like to stress that it’s two-way for both coaching and mentoring, especially coaching. No more is the manager the authoritarian or parental figure of the “because I said so,” era, nor is that kind of management style effective.  Of course, making employees feel heard is at the bedrock of inclusivity and equity practices as well.

  • Develops and leverages employee strengths.  We want every employee to be the best they can be, right?  You achieve this by hiring well, and then focusing on working together to constantly improve.  Too often, however, we pay too much attention to “fixing” weaknesses, when it is much more effective to leverage employee strengths.

As Marcus Buckingham, world-renowned strengths expert, says: “Excellence isn’t about fixing weaknesses. To truly win and stand out, find the unique things about yourself that are beautiful and powerful, and use them to craft your unique contribution.”[iv] Coaching especially invites the manager and employee to determine how the employee’s unique set of strengths can foster meaningful contribution.

  • Sets clear goals as a vital component of achieving organizational and personal excellence.[v]  Without a road map of where you want to be, you are merely being reactive.  A favorite line I have always tried to follow is “you need to create your future” (in other words, be proactive).

I often describe coaching as helping people identify where they are (current state), envision where they want to be (ideal future state), and then figure out ways to bridge the gap in between. Coaching can help employees figure out how to align departmental and organizational goals with the employees’ own goals, which elevates engagement.  High employee engagement correlates with higher performance, so a virtuous circle can get fostered and amplified.

  • Uses valid metrics as a key companion to setting clear goals.  How do you know if a staff member is doing well or not without valid metrics?  Pay attention to the word “valid,” -though.  Too many organizations use poor, even invalid, metrics, which is absolutely counterproductive.  Effective metrics are:
    • Connected to important goals (define success, and measure it)
    • Consistent (they go up when performance improves, and vice versa)
    • Calibrated to the work
    • Complete (cover all important work areas)
    • Communicated (covering the who, what, why, where, and how) to everyone who can affect the outcomes, and
    • Current (keep them updated to changed circumstances)

Coaching and mentoring help employees be accountable by collaborating follow-through with the manager on the agreed-upon metrics.  As we both know, it’s one thing to create the goals, and it’s another to follow through and actually accomplish them, so coaching around valid metrics and accountability, as well as mentoring around gaps in capability or skills, produces better results—more goals met and met well.

  • Emphasizes results and not process.  Employees respond to goals, but really hate to be micromanaged.  Managers need to monitor performance, yes, but once they have developed quality staff (see above), managers will get better buy-in and performance through applying Situational Leadership and delegating as much as they can to employees to determine for themselves how they do their work. This is especially important for remote workers.

Again, a regular one-on-one check-in means that both managers and employees are focusing on the what–the priorities–rather than the how–the tasks or the process. “Get to Emerald City to see the wizard.  You could take the yellow brick road, but if you’re friends with the apple throwing trees, or are immune to poppies, feel free to take your own route, as long as you get there in time.”

  • Prioritizes ongoing informal performance “reviews” over formal evaluations (like the annual review).  To achieve all the other key elements on this list, the manager necessarily needs to be in regular contact with employees.  Regular, informal “check-ins” are vital. 

Yes! Regular check-ins, regular check-ins, regular check-ins. And these check-in conversations can focus on developmental goals (future performance and career development), as well as performance goals (current performance and priorities).

  • Focuses on intrinsic motivators.  This is something I think a lot of managers overlook (to their detriment).  Employees are much more engaged by intrinsic versus extrinsic motivators, so make sure your performance management system and actions are skewed toward the former.  In the courts, we have a huge intrinsic motivator, a commitment to doing justice and promoting the Rule of Law – make sure you emphasize that at every opportunity.

Mentoring and coaching are empowering and intrinsically motivating for both managers and employees.  Research has shown that mentoring is particularly empowering for the mentor.  Managers start to see how much more they can bring to the relationship, which fosters confidence and encourages them to do even more.  Coaching, on the other hand, is particularly empowering for the employee receiving the coaching.  Employees see that their manager believes in them when their manager encourages them to find their own answers.  This reinforces the realization that employees have their own answers to find and encourages them to start finding more.

  • Has the right system goals.  Performance management systems have many purposes.[vi] Some of them are, in my opinion, counterproductive.[vii] One of these is a focus on supporting compensation levels and rewards. The use of extrinsic motivators like compensation often demotivates staff. 

Hardly anyone wants money for its own sake.  People usually want money to support a need, from Maslow’s hierarchy, or a value, such as safety and security, or taking care of themselves and their families. The research shows that we humans want to live meaningful, purposeful lives.  Coaching and mentoring are ways to help employees learn, and learning helps them figure out both meaning and purpose.

As you can see, these performance management elements overlap a lot.

Yes!  So, from where I sit, coaching and mentoring are embedded in these performance management elements.  Managers and employees are continuously leveraging both their sets of strengths and perspectives to build the employee’s performance together.  Through these regular conversations and a focus on the employee’s strengths, employees can take ownership of their performance in a way that aligns with their own, the department’s, and the organization’s goals.

How can you do effective coaching in a remote or hybrid environment?

Ultimately, I don’t believe it’s all that different from doing it in person.  The skills and the attention are the same.  I think the biggest difference, to which many of my clients who are leaders pointed at the beginning of the pandemic, is that you can’t just walk by your employees’ desks and see from their body language what’s going on with them.  That’s why a regular check-in meeting is so important.

I totally agree that remote supervision isn’t all that different than in-person.  You just have to adapt and use different techniques for each action area.  One key thing I’ve found regarding weekly check-ins is they are much better done via live video, not via email or chat.

Yes!  A synchronous conversation is imperative here.  Email is really a one-way communication medium, and chat is clunky, misses nuances, and offers too many opportunities for misunderstanding.

Now, let’s consider what might be unique about the courts in considering and implementing coaching and mentoring as performance management tools.

One thing that comes immediately to mind is a huge advantage of coaching court staff:  as you said earlier, they tend to be mission-driven and have some of the longest tenures in their jobs.  So, they likely already have a good bit of intrinsic motivation and a sense of purpose about their work.  It’s comparatively easy to remind them or bring to the surface the meaning in the work they’re doing. The Rule of Law rules!  And since staff often plan to stick around for a while, they readily understand that it’s more fun to do so while feeling energized about the work and contributing. 

OK, now that we know coaching and mentoring are very important skills for managers, how can they improve their coaching and mentoring skills?

Well, as a coach, trainer, and mentor coach, of course I’m a big fan of receiving coaching, training, and mentoring to grow one’s skills in these areas.  I’ve put together a short list of possible resources in the endnotes.[viii]

However, if these resources aren’t readily available, one key way for managers to improve is to start noticing their own behaviors and mindsets, pausing before acting, and then consciously choosing what to bring into which interactions.  Am I telling the employee what to do?  Am I advising them? Or am I asking them open-ended questions to help them find their own way forward?  What choices best serve the employee and our goals at this moment?

In the regular check-in conversations, managers can create conscious partnership with their employees, so that these conversations can be more intentional and purposeful—and offer consistent opportunities for the manager to provide just-in-time coaching and mentoring.

 A foundational conversation between manager and employee might include these elements:

  • The manager’s saying something along the lines of “I am here to support your growth while holding you accountable for our priorities.”
  • An exploration of the employee’s strengths, as perceived by both of manager and employee, as well as a determination of how the employee can best bring their strengths to their roles and responsibilities.
  • Making a distinction between coaching and mentoring and agreeing to choose together each time which is most appropriate for the employee at that moment.
  • The manager’s working on intentionally showing up with curiosity (a coaching stance) vs. with a problem-solving stance, which could result in mentoring or sometimes even the manager’s simply taking the problem back from the employee.

This shift does take a tremendous amount of practice.  Managers often believe that it is their job to have the answers, that coaching takes longer, and that it’s faster/easier/better to do it themselves.  It’s why, when I coach managers, I often ask them to coach themselves by asking themselves this question:  “What are the roles, responsibilities, and tasks that only I can do?”  Everything else, they get to delegate (which of course is another management skill that can be practiced more!)

Furthermore, we are all so habituated at problem-solving, especially in the workplace, that it’s difficult not to immediately start to figure out an answer for the employee.  In fact, when I mentor people on their coaching skills, one thing I often notice is that the would-be coach asks a question that is really a suggested solution in disguise, like “What if you were to create a timeline for this project?”  Better just to suggest that a person create a timeline!  Instead, a real coaching question might be something like, “What is one way you can use your strengths to help this project keep moving along?”  Maybe it’s a timeline, and maybe it’s something else that the employee will create.

Questions I often offer managers to use in their regular check-ins are these:

  • What’s going well for you?
  • What are your challenges?
  • What are your priorities for the week?
  • How can I help?

Managers can provide input and feedback throughout this conversation, but managers who have tried using these questions report that employees come in prepared to answer these questions, are more engaged, and have more ownership as a result.

One final thought:  I feel the need to point out that it’s not enough to ask more questions of employees—we have to actually LISTEN to the answers for this process to work (smile).

I’m glad you added listening as a key component to effective communication.  Managers and employees all need to make it a habit to listen early and often.  Maybe we need to do another blog post on this subject, too!

I’m in!  In the meantime, I would like to end with a coaching question: “Dear Readers, what’s one way you can bring more coaching and mentoring to YOUR performance management process?” I invite you to experiment—and notice the results. 

Thank you for having me join you, Norman!

It has been a pleasure working with you again, Hilarie.  I think we have shared a lot of great information with our readers, and I join you in hoping that they will apply the information and techniques in their work.

As always, comments are very welcome.  I appreciate questions and additional points of view we have not included.

[i] Hilarie Gaylin — Achieve more. Grow forward. Certified Coach, Trainer, Facilitator, and Organizational Consultant; Cultivating Greatness, LLC; 301-980-7492; hilariegaylin4cultivating@gmail.com; Cultivating Greatness – Helping people and organizations grow their best selves (hilariegaylin.com)

[ii] “Employee Performance Appraisals are Terrible – We Can Do Better” (NACM-2019; FCCA-2022)

[iii] Why are most employee performance evaluation systems terrible? – Court Leader; Employee performance appraisals — how do we make them better? – Court Leader; To rate or not to rate, is that the question? Key Design considerations for performance appraisals. – Court Leader (2018)

[iv] https://www.cnbc.com/2019/01/14/marcus-buckingham-3-scientifically-proven-ways-to-win-at-work.html

[v] SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound

[vi] The 6 functions of performance management:

  1. Employee improvement
  2. Coaching and guidance
  3. Feedback and communication
  4. Staffing decisions and professional development
  5. Compensation
  6. Discipline and legal documentation

[vii] Abolishing Performance Appraisals, Why They Backfire and What to do Instead, by Tom Coens and Mary Jenkins.

[viii] Selected Resources:

  • The book, Change Your Questions, Change Your Life: 12 Powerful Tools for Leadership, Coaching, and Results, by Marilee Adams, offers an accessible framework and accompanying tools that can be used to coach ourselves as well as others.
  • The GROW model, developed by business coaches Graham Alexander, Alan Fine, and Sir John Whitmore, is a helpful framework.  You can read more about it here: https://www.mindtools.com/an0fzpz/the-grow-model-of-coaching-and-mentoring
  • Alan Fine also has a book called You Already Know How to Be Great, and Sir John Whitmore has one called Coaching for Performance.
  • Coursera.org, a free platform called a MOOC (massive open online course), offers a number of highly reviewed free introductory coaching classes from various top universities.  Udemy.com is another online resource that has classes, including coaching-oriented ones, starting at $14.99.
  • Of course, Hilarie would be delighted to have individual conversations with anyone interested in exploring with her what good next steps might be.

4 thoughts on “Coaching and Mentoring in Performance Management

  1. In addition to a career in court administration I have spent decades as a youth coach. I love Hilarie’s comment about how coaching is about asking open ended questions. For those of you, like me, who have spent time in the youth sports world, I think you would agree that this is not what youth sports coaches seem to think defines youth coaching. Most youth coaches seem to do a lot of telling and very little asking. For anyone in a leadership position, whether as a youth coach or in a work setting (or even as a parent), I think Hilarie is really on the right track. Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

    Liked by 1 person

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