All the coaching professional bodies in Europe and many bodies in other continents require coaches to have supervision. Few corporate buyers of coaching in Europe would hire a coach, who did not have a high level of formal qualification and regular, professional supervision. So why isn’t the same expected of mentors?

The traditional response has been to point to the amateur/ professional distinction. Executive coaches are typically seen as being professionals, and compared with other professions, such as therapy and counselling, where supervision has long been an essential part of continuous professional development, quality management and the maintenance of boundaries, especially in terms of client protection. Mentors, by contrast, have typically been seen as amateurs – less well-trained, operating in an unpaid capacity.

That assumption is increasingly questionable, for a number of reasons:

  • The emergence of professional mentors, who have equal levels of training compared to their coach counterparts (plus substantial and relevant experience to the client’s role). When the European Mentoring & Coaching Council established the first competency framework for the field over a decade ago, it referred to coaches and mentors equally, recognising that both coaches and mentors could take on professional roles and that this required supervision. This prescience provides a ready platform for mentor supervision, at least in Europe.
  • Mentoring programme managers in several countries, including the UK and Denmark, have offered group supervision to “ordinary” mentors, on the basis that they want to perform well in the role. These sessions provide an opportunity to surface problems within the mentoring programme, to create a sense of camaraderie amongst the mentors, and to support the mentors in gaining higher levels of knowledge and skills.
  • Most executive coaching takes place in the context of achieving specific short-term skills or performance goals. A much smaller proportion addresses medium–term behavioural issues, and even less aims to achieve personal transformation.  Mentoring, however, tends to be a longer-term relationship involving relatively high levels of disclosure and intimacy. It focuses on helping the mentee become rather than on what they do. The potential for boundary and other issues that need supervision to arise is therefore very similar to that for coaches working on deep behavioural and transformational issues.
  • Mentors and mentees within the same organisation may be exposed to all sorts of pressures, from which they need to stand back. For example, the mentor’s knowledge of the system and its politics can be a great benefit; but it can also bring with it a lot of baggage. Supervision helps the mentor determine when and how to use their knowledge to beneficial effect; when to “park” their own knowledge; and how to separate their values, ambitions and career needs from those of their mentees.
  • Executive coaching, by and large, is primarily an assignment – a finite contractual arrangement. Mentoring is primarily a relationship – and, like all relationships complex and difficult to understand from within. While international standards for mentoring recommend that mentor and mentee regularly review their relationship, supervision can help the mentor reflect more deeply on the relationship dynamics and how they and the mentee can achieve, for example, greater trust, openness and sense of purpose. One of the most common occurrences in mentoring is “relationship droop” – the sogginess that comes after six months or so, when the easy, surface issues have been dealt with. Through supervision, the mentor can work with the mentee to delve into deeper issues, with much greater potential impact on the mentee’s career. Similarly, the ending of a mentoring relationship can be difficult for both mentor and mentee. If the relationship simply fades away, both parties feel that they have in some way failed or been abandoned. This is almost never the case, when the mentor has a supervisor to discuss these emotions with and to help plan how to achieve a positive, fulfilling formal ending.

Britain’s National Health Service and the Danish trade union Djoef are two strong examples of organizations, which have embraced supervision as integral to the effectiveness of their mentoring programmes. But a handful of examples don’t make a trend. What is clear is that the professional bodies that incorporate mentoring, and the mentoring academies now springing up around the world, are all taking the topic seriously.

© David Clutterbuck, 2014


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