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How to choose the right coach or mentor: The knowledge, skills, and behaviours to look out for

If you’re looking for a coach or mentor, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll help you to look at how to choose the right coach or mentor, and also examine three key areas you might want to investigate before starting a relationship. To start, let’s define coaching and mentoring so we can understand how these elements interact.

Knowledge refers to the acquisition and understanding of something at a mental or theoretical level. In the context of coaching and mentoring, it can be considered the acquisition of knowledge on how to perform the function without practical experience. This could be acquired through books, courses, training, or events.

Skills, on the other hand, refer to the practical application of acquired knowledge to successfully undertake a function, in this case, coaching and mentoring.

Behaviours are a higher-level function, a collection of skills that relate to a person’s values, attitudes, and mindsets required for functioning competence in a role. In a coaching and mentoring environment, these are high-level attitudes, values, and mindsets attributed to effective practitioners.

Your prospective coach or mentor should have a deep understanding of coaching and mentoring practices, including the differences between the two. Three areas of knowledge can be considered critical for success; “knowledge of processes/knowledge of how things happen/knowledge of where to get help” (The University Coaching & Mentoring Handbook- 2017).

Knowledge

Firstly, knowledge of the process is essential for effective practitioners. It grounds them in their practice, gives them the awareness to navigate the engagement effectively, and allows them to avoid issues later. It also helps build relationships that flourish and keep clients focused on delivering their goals. Knowledge of the process, models, and techniques involved affords an effective practitioner the ability to tailor their approach to you to get the most out of the engagement and impact for you.

Secondly, the knowledge of how clients behave and gain insights and learn allows practitioners of coaching and mentoring to remain open, relaxed, and focused on their clients’ issues. Understanding how clients can manifest change is crucial to effective practitioners as it allows them to objectively evaluate their practice and ongoing impact.

Thirdly, knowing how and where to get different types of help is critical to effective coaches and mentors. Practitioners need to set and maintain healthy boundaries and be able to signpost to additional help and resources when the engagement has fallen out of the contracted engagement or their abilities. Membership of associations (such as the ABM), and peer-to-peer groups can help with this, as also being part of a wider mentoring scheme.

Subject matter knowledge (Role or Industry Experience) is also essential for mentoring. While some experts and coaches do not feel like they need “subject matter knowledge” of a client’s role or industry to be effective in their coaching, coachees perceive that “the coach has experience within my industry” is the third highest factor in what makes a good coach (Institute for Employment Studies et al.).

In contrast, for mentoring, it is generally accepted that mentors need to have relevant experience that the mentee seeks to develop, and the mentor has “extensive” and more senior experience, which creates a natural emphasis or bias towards what the mentor thinks and believes.

To work with an effective coach or mentor, you need to ensure that they have a base knowledge of coaching and mentoring theory. However, the acquisition of that knowledge shouldn’t stand in the way of them developing an active practice to understand what works for the individual and the practitioner. The path of coaching is very simple, falling into three steps: What do you want? What do you really want? What will you do now? However, it can take many years to achieve mastery of these deceptively simple steps.

Skills 

In addition to knowledge, good coaches and mentors should have a wide range of skills. While there are many skills that contribute to their effectiveness, let’s focus on those generally accepted within the coaching and mentoring field.

Communication Skills

Communication skills are a vital component of effective coaching and mentoring. Active listening, summarising, incisive questioning, reflective enquiry, and the ability to provide information and feedback when appropriate are all essential skills. Practitioners should be able to tailor and adjust their communication style to support the client and offer encouragement when needed. Reynolds outlines five key communication skill components of coaching, including focus, active replay, brain hacking, goaltending, and new and next (Marcia Reynolds – “Coach the Person, not the Problem” Page 6).

Relationship Skills

Relationship skills are equally important. Effective coaches and mentors can form high-quality relationships with their clients. They are adept at creating and developing rapport, discovering and building on shared values, and managing relationships in a coaching and mentoring context. This includes setting and maintaining boundaries and being open to clients without adopting their issues and problems. Maintaining objectivity in the best interests of the client is crucial.

Business Skills

Business skills are also vital to effective coaching and mentoring. Coaches and mentors must have a base of business skills that can be deployed in the service of you, the client. These skills may include the ability to vet and recruit employees, understand and utilise financial reporting, and have a rudimentary understanding of the key functions within every business and how they contribute to a successful and profitable business.

The coaching and mentoring handbook also highlights the importance of having a “knowledge of the context in which business operates”, a “range of experience and variety of workplace skills”, and being “business/professional savvy” as three skills of an effective coach/mentor (The University Coaching & Mentoring Handbook).

In addition to the above, when looking for a coach or mentor see whether they have the ability to be comfortable in the face of uncertainty, be flexible and adaptable, and be comfortable taking risks. Also check that they are committed to their own personal and professional development and be willing to continually learn, develop and refine their skills. These factors are all important to choose the right coach or mentor for your business needs.

Behaviours

As defined above, behaviours embody a range of skill sets and knowledge combined with values, attitudes, and mindsets required for functioning competence in coaching and mentoring. In this sense, the EMCC’s competencies framework can be a useful resource for anyone looking to find a coach or mentor. Also, Broadwell’s “Four stages of competence” (Broadwell 1973) play into adopting the combination of skills and knowledge to the point that it becomes instinctive behaviour. Here is a list of the key behaviours that you should look out for in a good coach or mentor.

Emotional Intelligence

“Showing up” – “facing into your thoughts, emotions and behaviours willingly, with curiosity and kindness” (Susan David, “Emotional Intelligence” Pages 11-13). Some emotions will be appropriate and valid, others can be “harmful distortions” which can impact the effectiveness of coaching and mentoring. “Stepping Out” is also an important element in emotional intelligence, to detach from these thoughts and emotions to gain perspective on what they are trying to teach us. 

By doing this we create “Frankl’s open, non-judgemental space between our feelings and how we respond to them”. “Walking your why” is also a very powerful element of emotional intelligence in the context of coaching and mentoring. It enables good practitioners to connect with their underlying values and motivations for undertaking this work to stay motivated to continue developing their practice and keep “showing up”. (David, Pages 11-13).

However, as a client, you must realise that a practitioner’s “business is to offer, to advise, to support, to facilitate, to help, to guide – and that’s all…” “… what happens outside of your mentor sessions” is “something beyond” their ”control” (Julie Starr, “The Mentoring Manual” page 52).

Self-Awareness

As part of emotional intelligence, coaches and mentors must be self-aware, and “notice and limit the influence of your ego” (Starr 52) to be effective. “Understanding Self” is also considered to be one of the EMCC’s core competencies, highlighting that awareness of practitioners’ values, beliefs, and biases can “affect their practice and uses this self-awareness to manage their effectiveness in meeting the client’s, and where relevant, the sponsor’s objectives” (“EMCC Competencies” 2015). Look out for and be aware of a potential coach or mentor’s own self-awareness when you have an initial conversation with them.

Self-Development

To find a good coach or mentor, ask them what they do to exhibit a commitment to developing as a person and improving their practice. 

Whether that be in the practical experience of coaching, Reynolds notes “There is a reason it takes hundreds of hours to earn a credential. So far, no one has invented a magic pill that lets people instantly master coaching ability. Practice is necessary” (Reynolds 37). This coupled with a curiosity for learning more about the practice is the bedrock of developing and becoming effective.

In my practice, I have had periods of formal learning and then practice, taking what I have learned and ‘trying it on’ to see whether it fits my style and the needs of my clients. Through this, I have started to understand what works for me (especially with my neurodiversity), and how I can best serve each client. 

By doing this, I feel I am exposing myself to an ever-widening diversity of ideas on the subject and drawing on the ones that resonate with me. Much like David’s “Tiny Tweaks Principle,” I am slowly evolving my mindset, beliefs, and motivation to get better at the practice (David 134).

Reflection and Evaluation

Reflection is a very useful behaviour to cultivate in terms of mentoring and coaching. It has allowed me to do two things concerning my practice. Firstly, “stepping out” and writing about my experience and performance has allowed me to not take on any emotionally charged content without being adversely affected by it. Ask your prospective coach or mentor what they do in terms of reflection and how it is built into their practice to make sure you choose the right coach or mentor.

Action and Outcomes

During coaching or mentoring sessions, it is essential to be clear about the direction of the conversation and where it is heading. For a coach or mentor without behaviours that refocus their clients on their goals or outcomes is a concern. Conversations will inevitably wander and often become circular.

By balancing the process of “peeling the onion” with the client’s desired outcomes, coaches and mentors can remain curious while focusing on helping their clients achieve their aims. It’s worth noting that your goals may change or be reframed as the sessions progress, but it is the behaviour of refocusing on outcomes that serves you best as a client. Ask your prospective coach or mentor what they do to ensure that the work they do remains focused on your goals or outcomes.

Behaviours are the most important thing to asses when choosing the right coach or mentor. This is because they become ingrained at an unconscious level, a concept Broadwell refers to as “unconscious competence.” However, there are also dangers associated with this, as once behaviours become instinctive, they become unconscious and invisible, potentially leading to the development of unwelcome biases, assumptions, and judgements. Therefore, it is important to understand whether a coach or mentor reviews their own behaviours to ensure that any biases or assumptions that may have developed are identified and addressed.

Conclusion

In conclusion, coaching and mentoring can be incredibly beneficial for personal and business growth. By working with a skilled and effective coach or mentor, individuals can gain knowledge, develop skills, and cultivate behaviours that can help them reach their goals and achieve success.

Ultimately, investing in coaching or mentoring can be an investment in oneself, with the potential for significant returns in terms of both personal development and your business’s growth. Whether seeking to advance in a career, navigate a challenging situation, or simply grow and develop as a person, coaching and mentoring can be powerful tools for achieving success.

FAQs

What is the difference between coaching and mentoring?

Coaching is typically focused on specific goals and outcomes, with the coach providing guidance and support to help the client achieve those goals. Mentoring, on the other hand, involves a more experienced individual sharing their knowledge and insights with a less experienced person, typically within a specific industry or field. For a fuller explanation, read our article on the differences between coaching and mentoring.

What knowledge should a good coach or mentor have?

A good coach or mentor should have knowledge of the coaching or mentoring process, as well as an understanding of how clients behave and gain insights. They should also have subject matter knowledge (if applicable) and an awareness of how and where to get help when needed.

What skills should a good coach or mentor have?

A good coach or mentor should have excellent communication skills, including active listening, questioning, and the ability to tailor their communication style to the needs of the client. They should also be skilled at building and maintaining relationships, managing boundaries, and having a base level of business skills.

What behaviours should a good coach or mentor exhibit?

A good coach or mentor should exhibit emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and a commitment to their own self-development. They should also regularly reflect on and evaluate their practice, and have behaviours that refocus clients on their goals or outcomes.

What should I look for in a coach or mentor?

When looking for a coach or mentor, you should consider their knowledge, skills, and behaviours. Look for someone who has a deep understanding of the coaching or mentoring process, as well as subject matter knowledge (if applicable). They should have excellent communication and relationship-building skills, as well as a commitment to their own self-development. Look for a coach or mentor who regularly reflects on and evaluates their practice and has behaviours that refocus clients on their goals or outcomes. Finally, look out for a practitioner that can understand your organisational context.