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Mentorship and the Developing Professional Part IV: Coaching vs. Mentoring

July 15, 2021

Mentor-mentee relationships don’t all look the same. Learn how our Developing Professionals Group supports coaching-focused mentorships.

When an employee is developing soft skills, navigating new challenges, or growing their career, they’re likely seeking the advice of others as they go. Mentorship has clear benefits to professional development—when employees are connected, challenged, and engaged, they deliver their best work.

We support mentorship at Stantec through our Developing Professionals Group (DPG). While the details of each interaction are different, one thing is similar—these are symbiotic relationships growing careers. Whether our teams develop formal mentorship programs or facilitate informal connections, we look for opportunities to encourage and promote these relationships at every turn.

When we first spoke with Ana Araujo, team lead and senior HR business partner, she wasn’t sure her relationship with Gillian Mullowney applied to our series highlighting mentor-mentee relationships. Why? Gillian, HR business partner, reports to Ana and they regularly engage in performance coaching conversations—not quite what they considered a traditional mentorship. In speaking with them, it becomes clear Gillian and Ana have established a unique coaching relationship that not only helps Gillian advance her career but also has mentorship qualities.

Can you explain how you view your relationship as a nontraditional mentor mentee relationship? How does your relationship differ?

Ana: With a traditional mentorship relationship, the mentor doesn't always have oversight or influence on the person’s job and what they get to do. They’re more providing individual guidance without having influence. I think the difference here is because I work on the same team as Gillian and can influence as a leader, it allows me to be more hands-on with her. I can push and pull a little bit more, where if I were her mentor strictly, I wouldn't have that ability. I would just be providing advice.

Gillian: Our relationship is a supervisor employee relationship focused on coaching and development. We talk regularly about my career—it’s not a conversation that only happens once or twice a year. It forces me to continually reflect on my goals and what I need to do to advance.

Ana cares and has a genuine interest in supporting my growth and my colleagues on our team. So, I would say it's very much a supervisor employee relationship but with her passion for my development and ongoing guidance, I do experience a mentorship aspect as well.

Can you share some examples of how the supervisor-employee relationship makes your coaching relationship different from a mentor-mentee relationship?

Ana: I had been encouraging Gillian to think about her career development and to allow herself to feel uncomfortable in certain situations. She identified a couple of goals, attaching them to another role within an area of interest to her. A big opportunity had been risk taking, so we got her working on a project outside of her day-to-day role. The tasks were different, so it forced her to reach out to people she normally wouldn't and step outside of that comfort zone. Through our coaching discussions, we identified where Gillian wants to go, not allowing those opportunities to be barriers and providing her an assignment to break through and help her gain confidence in that area.

Gillian: We've created a great relationship based on trust. I always appreciate Ana’s ideas and opinion and am very receptive to feedback from her because of her experience and sincere interest in seeing people succeed. She's always thinking, and our team is better because of it. It's a really good collaboration and opportunity to grow and continue to develop my skills, abilities, and knowledge. Ana pushes our team to set career goals and to hold ourselves accountable to them.

How have you applied what you've learned throughout this coaching process?

Gillian: It's given me the opportunity to share my own experience and coach other business leaders on career and performance conversations. I've experienced firsthand how impactful the supervisor employee connection can be on one's engagement and growth. It really contributes to the employee experience.

I continually get to see Ana interacting with our team and leaders, and that exposure contributes to my growth. I’ve learned how important it is to listen and take guidance. I'm always paying close attention because of this.

Ana: I know it's worked with me and Gillian because I can see her sphere of influence has grown outside of her home office [St. John’s].  She now has this exposure and her name is out there. People know who Gillian is, to the point where another leader has asked, “is this something Gillian could do for us?” That would have never happened last year. That's getting her onto a bigger succession plan—who knows if this would have been possible had she not opened her trust to me.

How would you say you've grown by coaching Gillian or others?

Ana: I learn a lot from Gillian too. She's trusting me to take her career and allow her to grow and I'm trusting her while growing myself and seeing what can be done out there. It's also teaching me a big lesson that I don't have to do it all. I can trust my team to take on some things. If they tell me what they want to do and how they want to be stretched, I can delegate to them because I know they can handle it. As a leader, that's been a really important lesson for me, and it's an important lesson for all leaders.

Identify who your high performers are and don't be afraid to delegate and give them the trust they need. Allow them to make mistakes and allow yourself to make mistakes too. If I look at our team last year compared to this year, even though we've worked through a pandemic and lost team members—somehow, we’ve remained extremely effective.

Gillian: Taking on a stretch assignment doesn’t always come naturally, so it helps when Ana delegates or gives that extra push to step outside my comfort zone. That one assignment or task can provide so much growth and exposure an employee may need to develop their career.

Reflecting on your relationship, has anything unexpected come out of it that you've been surprised by?

Gillian: In addition to the coaching relationship, a mentorship aspect has evolved as well. I can call Ana for her personal guidance or thoughts without her HR hat on. I hope this interview can demonstrate the impact of how a supervisor can influence and guide someone’s career, because it doesn't always come naturally. I would encourage employees to talk about their career goals with their supervisor or find a mentor. Someone who can help with growth, support, and provide encouragement and expertise. The time and overall investment Ana has made in my career was definitely unexpected, and I’m very grateful for the opportunities.

Ana: My relationship with Gillian and my other direct reports has taught me I don't need to always be the hero and I don't always need to problem solve. I don't have to fix it for Gillian; she's got it and I don't even think about it now. That is such a change for me because before I felt like I had to problem solve and save everybody. So that's a big one for me; I'm confident in her problem solving and that she'll figure it out.

How do you see this coaching relationship impacting your work and future development?

Gillian: I can provide better guidance and support to employees and leaders with respect to career development because of my own career journey and experience with Ana. So, going forward, I think that's how it's really going to impact me.

Ana: I look forward to seeing Gillian do great things because I know she can; we just needed to get out of her way. I know in the future I'm going to be very proud of her and my entire team.

Mentorship doesn’t always need to come from someone outside of your team or sphere of influence. In fact, having more intentional conversations with your supervisor or direct reports in the form of performance coaching can also offer aspects of a mentorship.

Not all mentorships will look the same, but there’s always something to be learned if you’re invested in the relationship. Learn more about how Stantec’s Developing Professionals Group supports coaching-focused mentorships within teams.

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