To Tell, To Mentor, To Coach? That is the question!

‘Why is it that when I ask people to do something they don’t follow up?Team. To Tell, To Mentor, To Coach?

This came from an exasperated leader of a volunteer group. The organizational setting was more cross-collaboration than hierarchical, but actions that lead to outcomes were no less essential to the success of the group.

The leader and I talked about the issue of having to influence versus being direct and still have people take ownership and accountability – plus, allow for the varied skill level and motivation of the individuals.

I always try to get people to have a different outlook. When you do that, people take ownership of the information. They don’t ever have to reference me because I’d like to believe as an educator, I’m empowering them to have those thoughts themselves. Neil deGrasse Tyson

How do we lead by influencing when directing isn’t likely to work?

Ideally, we start off by having the discipline and time to practice approaches such as a clear, well articulated strategy (that’s designed to deal with constant change) and Jesse Lyn Stoner’s team charter.

going slow in the beginning can help you to go faster sooner faster in the right direction, with smarter decisions –Jesse Lyn Stone

In practicing Solution Focus in organizations, we help people find the solution that works for them. It’s a very successful approach to coaching. But, how do we help them when we need to give them instructions in an influential way, i.e., get them to buy into the direction they need to follow?

Organizations are full of people keen to be told what to do. How you tell them matters.–Unknown

Questions to ask that will help influence action:

Telling/directing by asking better questions that sell your idea

Here’s what I/we see is need to do to be successful with (project) and the desired outcomes. What do you see us needing to do? (Response: acknowledge their statement and, if necessary, reframe your briefing). Suppose we are successful in achieving the outcomes, how do you see that being useful to our team/group?

Mentoring to educate, influence and increase buy-in and motivation

I was once involved in a project where we (describe some of the approaches taken and advantages/ lessons learned). How do you see that description being useful to you in thinking about our project? Have you considered (possible actions, people to draw support from)? When you have experienced this sort of activity, what did you see yourself doing?

Coaching to help them sell themselves

Now that you have a clearer picture of the project needs and outcomes, plus how we might go about it, what might you see yourself doing? How would that be useful to others? How would you see yourself getting support from others? On a scale of 1-10 where are you on your understanding of this project and your role? Suppose that number went up, what would you have done to make it increase? Suppose you took personal ownership and accountability for the work, how would you see that being useful to you?

Would you need to use all of these questions to increase your leadership influence and help people perform well on their project?

Tell Mentor Coach


Maybe, but just asking the questions will help both you and the people doing the work.

There will be fewer surprises afterwards. And, you won’t need to resort to autocratic demands that may not be understood or accepted.



2 thoughts on “To Tell, To Mentor, To Coach? That is the question!

  1. James T Pereira

    Hi Alan,
    Great article that highlights the tasks a leader needs to do, to get things done.

    However, a great coach is one who should be able to ask questions (i.e., telling/directing) and motivate (i.e., mentor).

    If a coach doesn’t perform the other two tasks, one shouldn’t call oneself a coach.

    1. Alan Kay

      Thanks. Your perspective on coaching often works well when it’s about performance goals, for example sales.

      In Solution Focus we don’t exclude performance coaching, but go for self-directed performance when the individual or team is stuck. As Rozinski says, ‘Coaching is an interactive and developmental process
      where the coach enables coachees to find their own solutions, discover new opportunities, and implement actions. Coaches act as facilitators. Coaches listen, ask questions, and enable coachees to discover for themselves what is right for them’.

      Many organizations are finding that directive goal setting and coaching for performance has limitations especially in complex matrix situations and areas such as supply chain management. It seems to work well in relatively closed systems, e.g., sports coaching.

      Self-directed coaching and Solution Focus requires a bit more practice and patience but it actually speeds up the process of helping teams and individuals get to where they need to be.

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