Helping – Are We More Confused Than Most?

Much of the training and development world is confused about the difference between coaching and mentoring, and a wide range of other ‘helping’ roles.  I would contend that the world of enterprise support and entrepreneurship is more confused than most.  We label different types of helping intervention carelessly and frequently bastardise and corrupt subtle, powerful and transformational learning relationships.  We deploy mentors and coaches who are poorly trained and frequently lack the right experience to help.  It may come as a horrible truth but a middle manager from a ‘blue chip’ does not necessarily make for a great mentor – especially if  they have not been trained.

And this matters because a good understanding of the type of helping relationship that you are trying to offer is essential to making it work well, to developing your professional practice and to helping the learner to develop a support team that covers all of the right bases.  How to choose and use a team of helpers is perhaps one of the most powerful things we can teach.  If we confuse the type of helping relationships that we provide we are unlikely to make them as effective as they could be – and more importantly we are unlikely to inculcate good learning habits.

So what are the helping roles that we get confused and how can we start the job of clarifying them and improving their efficacy?

Coach – a relationship usually characterised by frequent and intense sessions designed to help the learner to raise their awareness of the current situation, generate options, take decisions and act.  Frequently coaching will involve goal setting and clarification and the development of formal action plans.  Coaches are usually expert in the process of personal development rather than the ‘content’ of what has to be learned.  Successful coaching does depend to a high degree on rapport, personal ‘chemistry’ if you like, so to be most effective it is important that learners are able to choose their preferred coach.  Coaching relationships usually run for months and occasionally years.  However good coaches teach learners to coach themselves effectively and it should be rare for a coaching relationship to extend beyond 12-18 months without the nature of the relationship evolving significantly.

Mentor – A mentor is perceived by the learner to be a senior practitioner in a field that the learner has identified as critical to their own development.  Mentors usually have ‘been there, done that and got the T-shirt’.  This means that it is highly beneficial if the learner is able to identify and recruit mentors (they may have more than one) that they respect and are hungry to learn from.  Appointing mentors to learners unless done with immense care usually results in ineffective mentoring, and means that the learner is denied the opportunity to learn about how to identify, recruit and use mentors.  Mentoring relationships are usually characterised by less frequent but longer meetings (perhaps 2-3 a year).  Mentoring relationship are usually driven by the learner, who takes responsibility for scheduling meetings and developing the agenda.  Learning to chose and use mentors effectively is a relatively advanced skill and is one that shold be explicitly taught.  Similarly it helps tremendously if mentors have had some training in what it means to be  a mentor and to establish some of the boundaries and practices of effective mentoring.  However if learners are encouraged to source their own mentors then mentor training becomes difficult.  In these circumstances it is even more helpful if learners have been effectively trained in choosing and using mentors.  Good mentoring relationship often run over a number of years, if not decades.  However they often have a high failure rate.  Learners have to be prepared to kiss a few frogs in pursuit of a powerful mentor.

Peer – Many learners gain great benefits from peer learning processes where they explore problems and solutions with fellow learners.   Peer learning is characterised by enquiry, reflection and exchange of experiences.  Because there is no ‘expert’ in the relationship peer learning promotes independence and critical thinking.  Again peer learning processes can be significantly improved if those involved are given some basic training in what makes peer learning work.  Buddy systems are a form of peer learning. More advanced forms of peer learning can involve co-counselling, co-coaching and action learning.  Effective peer learning processes, that move beyond support into transformational learning, can be difficult to establish.  However once a learner knows how to use peer learning in their own professional and personal development it becomes a powerful and transformative force in their lives.

Adviser – an adviser typically brings expertise, experience and, if you are lucky, wisdom to bring to bear on a speciifc problem or opportunity.  Learners should be careful about using advisers to help identify problems and opportunities as they are likely to find something in their area of expertise rather than in the learners area of greatest need.  Some advisers will simply solve problems.  Others will teach you how to solve the problem when it crops up again in the future.  If the task is likely to recur then working with an adviser with a strong track record of supporting learning and independence matters.  If the issue is a ‘one off’ then this is much less of an issue.  The role of an adviser is usually short term and project based.

Broker – a good broker, an honest and value adding middleman is a rare beast.  They will help a learner to reflect on their situation and the change they need to bring about and then put together an action plan, including information on sourcing other ‘helpers’ that are required.  Independent, leaner centred brokers are few and far between.  Most brokers are actually tied into the delivery of specific policy goals and objectives of their funders and so learner again should be trained in how to choose and use brokerage services.  Beware the broker who brings government subsidies!  It is tempting to do something because you can get 60% off.  If the intervention is worthwhile, and is likely to have a good return on investment then you should do it.  If ROI is marginal then you should look for other opportunities.   Relationships with brokers are usually short term and very tightly focused on problem solving or the exploitation of opportunities.

Trainer – trainers usually teach specific skills, knowledge and processes.  Trainers are generally driven by a body of content that they wish to impart – a curriculum that they teach.  In general the process is about grafting on more knowledge and skill to an existing base of practice.  It is about gap filling.

Master – the tradition of ‘the master’ has been somewhat lost in modern times – apart from in the martial arts.  A master is a senior practitioner who takes on number of learners in a highly disciplined and structured learning environment.  Masters are usually careful about selecting learners – as they recognise that real learning requires commitment, discipline and passion.  Learning from a master is not an easy option – an any devotee of Kung Fu Panda will know.  Mastery of a skill or discipline usually involves months if not years of disciplined study.  The tradition of mastery involved learners (apprentices in this context) recognising what they really needed to learn and then sub,itting themselves to the discipline of their chosen master.  Masters were all powerful in deciding who they would teach and to be accepted as apprentice was indeed cause for celebration.

My contention is that as a profession we frequently mangle these different types of helping relationship.  We confuse our learners about them as much as we confuse ourselves and we significantly reduce the both effectiveness and the uptake of helping relationships as a result.  We tend to overemphasise the potential of the adviser and the broker (perhaps because these are most successful in terms of chasing outputs) and we significantly undermine the potential of mentoring, peer learning and coaching by failing to invest adequately in professional development and robust service design.

So let’s start to take pedagogy seriously.  Lets develop robust methods of education, and let’s find ways to put the learners in control of their own enterprise education.

Because that really will be a lesson worth learning.


  1. John Campbell Ricketts says:

    Thanks, Mike. Really useful in its clarity and in putting the aspects into practical context. I can certainly relate to the concept ‘beware brokers bearing gifts’. Too much enterprise support is based on the concept that you’ve got to have what is on offer, even if it does not meet your learning styles or development needs.
    As you say, let’s have robust education so that entrepreneurs can make educated decisions on what they need rather than on what they’ve been told they need.

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