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Do Trained Coaches Make Better Mentors?

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

Seth Varayon is a Major in the United States Army and currently serves with the Army Talent Management Task Force. Here he argues that the military should invest in training more leaders as coaches so they can in turn be better mentors.

Chaveso Cook, co-founder of Military Mentors, posits that good mentors are good coaches and teachers, but good coaches or teachers may not be good mentors. While I generally agree with him, I play on this sentiment and recombine it slightly: trained coaches who are mentors make better mentors.

In this article, I define terms, share personal vignettes, and provide justification for my hypothesis.

Mentorship (Army): the 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 (1).

Coaching (Army): relies primarily on teaching and guiding to bring out and enhance capabilities already present. Coaching is a development technique used for a skill, task, or specific behaviors. The coach helps them understand their current level of performance and guides them to reach the next level of development. Coaches should possess considerable knowledge in the area in which they coach others (2).

Coaching (Executive): The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching as, “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity and leadership” (3).

In this definition of Executive Coaching, I would replace the term “clients” with “leaders”.

Why include two definitions for coaching? I want to differentiate between traditional coaching and executive coaching. Like many aspects of the human dimension and leadership, not all people are the same, thus not all coaching is the same. Some leaders may be natural coaches and unknowingly use coaching methodology taught by the ICF and other coaching authorities. Others may not be as naturally adept.

In leadership, great leaders know when and how to use different methods or styles to more effectively lead and guide their organizations and develop their people. Comparably, I posit that great mentors know when and how to use different methods to help their mentees achieve the best outcomes. The combined benefit of coaching and mentorship is more than either modality individually can provide. I hypothesize that mentors engaged in genuine mentorship relationships may be able to elicit more effective growth and development with their mentees if they are armed with tools learned from coaching training. Thus, mentors who have formal coaching training, make better mentors compared to mentors without. Think, more tools in the toolkit.

In my career as an Infantry officer, it has been easier to mentor younger Infantry officers compared to officers of a different branch. Eventually, like most officers in the Army, you find yourself with mentees that are not in the same branch as you. While we do our best to mentor them in leadership and officership, we may not always know what is best for them in their career field. Rather, we may not be in the "know", like the way a peer of ours in their career field might.

The Army’s leadership development model relies on mentorship. For many, this is first developed at a Soldier’s first unit. This ranges between a private and their team leader, to a platoon leader and their company commander. During my first command of a rifle company, I had an executive officer and three platoon leaders, all of whom were infantrymen. I also had a Fire Support Officer, who was an artilleryman. Additionally, throughout that command, of the seven Infantry lieutenants, three of them were branch detailed to Infantry and would go to their basic branch’s career course upon completion of their time at our duty station. This type of relationship with subordinates of different branches was compounded when I became an HHC Company Commander. Suddenly, I had a Medical Corps Officer, the Physician's Assistant, and all the various junior officers on the Battalion staff across many Army branches such as Adjutant General, Military Intelligence, Chemical, Field Artillery, Logistics, and Signal. In these cases, I may have mentored them in leadership and officership and discussed branch immaterial career progression such as Professional Military Education and Broadening Opportunity Programs, but I could not tell them which branch-specific schools were beneficial or what kind of units were best for them for their next assignment. I often consulted with or connected them with friends (peers) of mine who were in that career field to provide better answers or recommendations. But, most often, I found myself using executive coaching techniques without realizing it. Imagine how much more effective I could have been if I were trained in coaching. As Army officers progress in their careers, they will find that they will almost always have subordinates of different branches.

Because our mentees will vary in background, branch, goals, aspirations, or ambitions, genuine and lasting mentorship relationships are sometimes difficult to maintain; especially after we part ways and move on in our careers to future assignments. When mentorship relationships continue beyond the leader/subordinate relationships, we can be more effective as we continue to mentor if we use trained coaching skills to complement our mentorship. This rings true, especially when our experience in a particular subject is lacking.

There is still much to learn and study about the effectiveness of coaching versus mentoring and complementary coaching and mentoring. Among the intriguing results of the Leadership Coaching study conducted with cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point, “cadets receiving coaching (plus mentoring, reflection, assessment, and the new knowledge of leadership science) increased their levels of Authentic Leader Identity and Intellectual Humility” (4). Presumably, the effective combination of coaching and mentoring also leads to increased self-awareness and emotional intelligence. These two characteristics have always been instrumental to great leadership, and only recently are at the forefront of how we define great leaders. These two characteristics are also fundamental in ensuring our leaders do not display counterproductive or ineffective leadership.

The private sector has used executive coaching for some time now. The Army is also beginning to realize the potential of executive coaching. All candidates who participate in the Army’s revolutionary Command Assessment Program (CAP) are offered 5.5 hours of executive coaching. While not all candidates utilize the coaching, the vast majority of those who do report that the coaching is valuable. Related to but separate from the CAP coaching is the Army Coaching Program (ACP). The ACP "intends to provide officers who have maximized their war-winning talents to be more self-aware and better leverage these talents in support of the Army’s mission” (5).

In an environment where we all should be striving to improve ourselves constantly and the development of others is fundamental to the profession, why not learn and use all the tools available to be our best selves and better mentors? Why not become a coach?

  1. AR 600-100, 5 April 2017 and ADP 6-22, 31 July 2019.

  2. ADP 6-22, 31 July 2019.

  3. Tood Woodruff, Russell Lemler, Ryan Brown “Lessons for Leadership Coaching in a Leader Development Intensive Environment” (The Journal of Character & Leadership Development, Winter 2021).

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