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The phone on your office desk startles you with a ring as you tap away at your keyboard. You reach over to grab it, ‘greeted’ by the gruff voice of your boss. As usual, there are no pleasantries; he always goes straight to business. You were expecting this call, as one of your subordinates got picked up by the cops over the weekend after an underage drinking fiasco. As the boss dishes out the usual once-over-the-world berating, he ends with a phrase you’ve heard one too many times – “you need to teach, coach, and mentor that guy more.” You hang up frustrated. You know you need to do something to get your problem-child on the right track, but you don’t know what steps to take. As you think of the way-ahead you wonder to yourself if he needs teaching, coaching or mentorship and you realize that as many times as you’ve heard the terms from your boss, no one has ever explained them to you. You don’t even know the difference.

Many of us are in the same boat. In the military, we tend to always associate these three terms together like we dress triplets alike. Like triplets, they have many things in common. All of them involve a person-to-person interaction, are developmental in nature and should be rooted in some form of assessment. However, just like triplets have little personality quirks and individual needs, each of them has distinctions. Through this note you’ll come to see that although they are similar in nature, each has a specific function.

Teaching is basically “imparting a new skill or education upon another.”[1] Teachers help to build specific task proficiency or mastery. This is the simplest of the three terms. We should all look to pass along the lessons we’ve learned and the knowledge that we have subject matter expertise in. Teaching gives a sense of perspective and makes subordinates think creatively and critically. Admiral James Bond Stockdale noted that “every great leader has been a great teacher; ‘teachership’ is indispensable to leadership and an integral part of duty.”[2] If your problem-child needed teaching, you would set up a class on the unit/company policies, local laws, and consequences concerning drinking under age.

Coaching is “a collaborative process used to assess and understand the coachee and his or her developmental task, explore new challenges and possibilities, and support sustained development.”[3] Army doctrine defines it as “the guidance of another’s person’s development in new or existing skills during the practice of those skills.”[4] Formal coaching processes consists of the psychosocial skills and methods involved in helping someone become more effective at what they’re doing, using specific present-moment work-related issues.[5] Coaching is not therapy or counseling. A major differentiation from the other two processes here is that a coach only needs to have practice in a coaching methodology; they are trying to get you to your next station as opposed to passing on specialized subject matter (teaching) or describing the time they walked in your shoes (mentoring). If your subordinate needed coaching, you would set up a relationship where someone would find out his career goals, help him set up the steps to get there, and finally discuss with him about how his drinking takes him off his chosen path.

Mentorship is a “committed, long-term relationship focused on the personal and professional development of another.”[6] Army doctrine defines it as voluntary developmental relationship that exists between a person of greater experience and a person of lesser experience that is characterized by mutual trust and respect.”[7] This should be the one with the most personal interaction, as stories from the mentor should be passed along to the mentee. A major distinction with the other two is that mentorship should be a reciprocal relationship with both participants actively engaging in the growth of the relationship. Mentees seek out mentorship from like minded individuals. Mentors also “play an important role in assisting leaders in seeing their true selves, making meaning out of their experiences, suggesting challenging experiences, and promoting reflection.”[8] If your weekend offender needed mentorship, you would set him up with another unit leader who may have gotten in trouble with alcohol early on to pass along his experiences with the Army Substance Abuse Program and Alcoholics Anonymous.

Know that we can all be teachers, coaches and mentors. Often times we are tri-hatted with these responsibilities, which contributes to confusion. With the knowledge you now have ensure you demystify the fog surrounding teaching, coaching and mentoring. The key is to discern 1) what the situation dictates and/or 2) what the subordinate needs. Tailor make your personal leadership and cater organizational solutions to the needs of your followers! More often than not they’ll give you indicators that tip off which style they need the most. Become an active-listener who can figure out the best course of action through the definitions given above. Then proceed with a style that gets your subordinate to a better place.

Confident with your way forward, you call your boss back to follow-up with a plan for your beleaguered charge. You took the time to sit down with this weekend’s offender after your boss’s call. Because of his desire to connect with someone from his background and demographic and your belief that he could benefit from learning from another in your unit who had a similar issue last year, you believe what he needs most is a good mentor. Being new to your understanding of what the term really means, you take the time with the boss on the phone to ask for any resources he may have. You are impressed when he points you toward a new site he came across online, www.militarymentors.org. He tells you that it’s growing with mentor connections and has resources to get better at mentorship. You hang up the phone and click open your browser to check it out…

[1] Brady Reed, “What is teaching, coaching and mentoring?”, online article, accessed from https://www.govloop.com/community/blog/what-is-coaching-teaching-mentoring-counseling/, (accessed 25 October 2015).

[2] Patrick Sweeney, Mike Matthews & Paul Lester, Leadership in Dangerous Situations: A Handbook for the Armed Forces, Emergency Services, and First Responders, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011), 326.

[3] Cynthia McCauley & Ellen Van Velsor (eds.), The Center For Creative Leadership Handbook of Leadership Development, 116.

[4] Department of the Army, FM 6-22: Army Leadership, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, May 2012), 3-25.

[5] Bruce Peltier, The Psychology of Executive Coaching: Theory and Application, (New York, NY: Routledge, 2010), xxxi.

[6] McCauley & Van Velsor, 92.

[7] FM 6-22, 178.

[8] Peltier, 17.

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