If you’re a coach looking for professional support from a more experienced coach, you’re going face the choice of whether to choose a coaching supervisor or a mentor coach.
You might be wondering what the difference is between them or even if there is a difference.
Certainly, I have had many coaches over the years ask if they can use their coaching supervision with me as coach mentoring when applying for credentials (the answer, by the way, is no.)
The International Coach Federation (ICF) requires coaches to receive mentor coaching in order to achieve their professional credentials. Similarly, many coaching courses will build a mentor coaching component into their requirements for completion of their course.
By contrast, other professional bodies, such as the Association for Coaching and European Mentoring and Coaching Council, require coaching supervision to attain their credentials.
So, are they actually looking for the same thing?
The simple answer is, no!
There are distinct and important differences between the two and in this article, I aim to clearly lay these differences out.
As I see it, there are 5 main areas of difference between coaching supervision and mentor coaching:
- Who can provide each service
- The aims and scope of the work
- The approach to the work
- The duration of the work
- The nature of the working relationship
Before we look at these, however, let’s see what definitions already exist that might suggest the difference.
Existing Definitions of Coaching Supervision vs Mentor Coaching
The ICF, the world’s largest professional body for coaching, makes the distinction relatively clear.
It states that:
Mentor Coaching for an ICF Credential consists of coaching and feedback in a collaborative, appreciative and dialogued process based on an observed or recorded coaching session to increase the coach’s capability in coaching, in alignment with the ICF Core Competencies. Mentoring provides professional assistance in achieving and demonstrating the levels of coaching competency and capability demanded by the desired credential level.
For coaching supervision, the ICF states:
Coaching Supervision is a collaborative learning practice to continually build the capacity of the coach through reflective dialogue for the benefit of both coaches and clients. Coaching Supervision focuses on the development of the coach’s capacity through offering a richer and broader opportunity for support and development. Coaching Supervision creates a safe environment for the coach to share their successes and failures in becoming masterful in the way they work with their clients.
The European Mentoring & Coaching Council (EMCC) states that supervision is:
…the interaction that occurs when a mentor or coach brings their coaching or mentoring work experiences to a supervisor in order to be supported and to engage in reflective dialogue and collaborative learning for the development and benefit of the mentor or coach, their clients and their organisations.
Based on the above definitions, we can already start to see some differences in terms of what they set out to achieve and these will be explored in more detail through the five areas identified earlier.
Five Areas of Difference Between Coaching Supervision and Mentor Coaching
OK, so now it’s time to assess the 5 areas of difference between coaching supervision and coach mentoring I listed earlier.
1. Who can provide each service
An interesting question, that points to deeper distinctions between the two activities, is around who can provide the service – who can be a mentor coach versus who can be a coach supervisor.
The ICF has strict guidelines about who can provide coach mentoring.
Without unpicking the somewhat byzantine specifics here, the criteria boil down to the requirement to hold a particular credential and to have a minimum level of experience working with the ICF’s own set of coaching competencies.
In other words, it doesn’t matter how experienced the potential mentor coach might be in a general sense, if they are not ICF-credentialed themselves, they cannot provide another coach with the mentoring required to gain ICF credentials.
Like most forms of mentoring, there is an assumption that to be a mentor is to have walked a certain path before and to be able to offer clear guidance to the less experienced person to follow that same path.
As we’ll see when we explore the differences in the remit of the work, this makes complete sense.
So what about the coaching supervisor? Do they need to meet the same stringent demands?
Well, yes and no. They need to meet a different set of demands.
Here, the requirement is not an attachment to a fixed and shared set of competencies or a particular organisation, such as the ICF, nor even to necessarily having more experience to guide a less experienced coach along a path.
Instead, the supervisor is expected to have trained in the particular art of coaching supervision.
As the ICF points out:
Coaching Supervision is sufficiently different from coaching, so training to provide the knowledge and opportunity to practice Coaching Supervision skills is needed. As such, all Coaching Supervisors should receive Coaching Supervision training.
In supervision, the background of the supervisor, whether in coaching, therapy or something else, is far less important than their ability to offer a reflective space for the coach.
Indeed, unlike the coach mentor who must work with a shared set of competencies and behaviours, a coaching supervisor’s effectiveness is often enhanced through difference – a difference in their assumptions, professional background, theoretical perspectives, modalities, training and even core competencies.
The therapeutic supervisor, for instance, can create a powerful supervisory space for a coach without sharing the same coaching aims and behaviours.
But how can this be? How can someone from a different professional background, such as therapy, supervise a coach but not be able to mentor them?
Well, that all comes down to the aims and remit of the work.
2. The aims and remit of the work
The aims and remit of the work are where the crux of the difference between coach mentoring and coaching supervision really lies.
We have seen how the ICF describes mentor coaching and we have seen that the criteria to be a mentor are very strict. And there’s a good reason for that.
The purpose of mentor coaching is to help a coach reach and demonstrate a level of competence around a specific set of skills, assumptions, behaviours and values.
The mentor coach, therefore, needs to know them inside out, be highly-competent in them and be able to identify where their coach-mentee may be missing the mark.
Mentor coaching is not about open-ended questions such as how a coach might approach their work, find their unique self as a coach or explore their personal challenges within their work.
Rather, as already said, it’s about helping a coach meet a minimum standard against set criteria, usually to be able to be awarded a credential, qualification or accreditation.
I remember this realisation hitting home for me personally. I had long received supervision, with its spacious exploration of my work, and so when I sought out mentoring to achieve a particular professional credential, I was surprised by its overtly limited remit.
I had expected a form of supervision, but was quickly made aware that the work would be solely about the extent to which my work met the set standards for gaining the level of credentials I was seeking.
In retrospect, it is obvious but, at the time, it felt strange, almost alien, to be so restricted in scope. However, the mentor was absolutely doing her job and was working in the way I needed rather than what I expected.
The aims and remit of coaching supervision are significantly different from coach mentoring.
Unlike the relatively narrow focus of coach mentoring, with its key aim of meeting an agreed set of competencies, coaching supervision has a hugely expanded focus, enabling the exploration of anything that relates to the coach’s professional work.
The remit, in a nutshell, is the creation of a reflective practice that enables the coach to bring attention to themselves, their work, their clients and the system.
The coaching supervisor is not only interested in helping the coach think about their effectiveness, but also their wellbeing, their ethical choices and dilemmas and the experience of the client and client system.
These three areas open up a vast landscape of enquiry and a coach could undertake supervision for a very long time without looking at whether their coaching skills matches a predefined competency.
In practice, coaching supervisors might indeed ensure the coach understands the competencies within which they work but it is not necessarily a core part of the work.
Ultimately, the remit of coaching supervision is the welfare of both the coach and their clients, the effectiveness of the coaching and the maintenance of professional standards.
3. Approach to the work
Of course, the aims and remit of these two disciplines also shape how the work itself is done.
Since the mentor coaching process focuses primarily on supporting a coach to meet minimum standards against an agreed set of behavioural criteria, the approach is generally built around identifying where development needs to happen.
And whilst mentor coaching is typically both appreciative and dialogic, it nonetheless cannot shrink from helping a coach to see where parts of their work are not meeting expectations.
This leads to much of the work being based around live or recorded coaching sessions with analysis between the coach and mentor around strengths and areas of personal development.
The mentor coach is likely to point out ways the coach can more effectively or clearly meet the criteria. This can sometimes lead it to feel more formulaic and restrictive.
Indeed, in my own personal experience, even at the higher credential levels, there are moments of “game-playing” in order to be seen to meet the criteria of assessment whilst all the time knowing that this is not a behaviour that will stick in the long term.
Therein, I would suggest, lies a weakness of the mentoring approach and the potentially-restrictive nature of external criteria.
The approach in coaching supervision, based on its aims and remit, is more diverse.
Like coaching itself, it is fundamentally a relationship that fosters personal reflection. This allows many more and wider approaches.
Live coaching and recorded sessions can be used in supervision – more often for less experienced coaches – but they are typically treated as launchpads for wider conversations rather than meeting agreed criteria.
The conversation could equally explore how the coach was left feeling, what influences were shaping the coaching, the nature of the relationship between coach and client, the choice of coaching approach and even how the supervisor experienced the session.
In most cases though, there is no recording or live session and, instead, the coach and supervisor explore what the coach wishes to bring. This could be a challenge with a client, a pattern of behaviour they’ve noticed in themselves, a general ennui with their work, questions around who they are as a coach and much, much more.
Again, like coaching, there are many ways the coaching supervision may then engage in this dialogue. They may bring specific theoretical lenses to their work, for instance as an existential, gestalt, solution-focused or psychodynamic supervisor. Likewise, they may use creative processes, role-play, somatic response or physical movement.
In other words, whilst there are typically some common traits in supervision, such as socratic dialogue, informative interventions and reflective self-disclosure, there are many ways in which this could unfold, uninhibited by specific behaviours that must be met.
Indeed, its richness and diversity of practice is precisely why training is vital to bring out the essential qualities around the formative, restorative and normative functions.
4. Duration of the work
Another area of difference can be found in the duration of the work which can be summarised as fixed, short term and open-ended long term.
With its focus on meeting minimum standards of agreed criteria, mentor coaching is typically done over a fixed length and in a fairly short timeframe.
For example, the ICF requires ten hours of mentor coaching over a minimum of 5 months as part of the criteria to gain their credentials.
Once achieved, this mentoring won’t be needed again until the next level of credentials is sought and an appropriately qualified mentor is found.
By stark contrast, coaching supervision is of no fixed-duration and is typically undertaken through the professional life of the coach.
Indeed, recognising the vital importance of coaching supervision, the ICF state:
ICF supports Coaching Supervision for professional coach practitioners as part of their portfolio of continuing professional development (CPD) activities designed to keep them fit for purpose.
A coaching supervision relationship could last for many years and the guide to its lifespan is its ongoing usefulness and the extent to which the supervisor is still able to challenge and bring newness to the coach over a long period of time.
5. The working relationship
The final difference between mentor coaching and coaching supervision is the nature of the relationship.
Whilst both are based on adult learning principles, and the coach in both cases has chosen to receive the support, there is nonetheless a clear difference in the underpinning relationship.
In mentor coaching, the mentor is by definition someone who has more experience and has walked a specific path before and can clearly and confidently guide the less experienced coach in where they need to change and develop.
This is not to say that the relationship is one of master and apprentice, nor is it authoritarian.
But it is predicated on the mentor knowing what is needed and having the expertise to advise, even to teach, the coach specifically how to meet required behaviours and skills.
Coaching supervision is essentially a relationship of equals. The coaching supervisor is not necessarily senior to the coach in expertise or experience, even though this is often the case.
Instead, this is about a relationship of exploration, uncovering and reflection.
The supervisor is not an authority but someone who can resonate with the human responses throughout the system and who can use themselves as an instrument to bring out greater awareness of self, system and practice.
By now, I hope you feel clearer now on the difference between coaching supervision and coach mentoring.
Both are valuable and necessary.
But they serve different purposes.
The critical issue is for the coach to know what they need and for the mentor or supervisor to help the coach express this to ensure there is a good fit.
A coach seeking to meet specific criteria but receiving more open-ended supervision is unlikely to get what they need.
But equally, a coach seeking a wider perspective on their coaching and developing a greater sense of self will be ill-served by coach mentoring.
If you’re interested in becoming a coaching supervisor, you can check out our coaching supervision training courses at our sister school, the International Centre for Coaching Supervision and if you’re interested in finding a supervisor, check out our supervisor directory.