Why coaching isn’t always enough at C-suite level

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This article is part of a series on the importance of humanization in today’s organizations. To find out more, see our articles on what humanization is and how it’s impacting businesses.


Mentoring and coaching are often treated by C-suite leaders as interchangeable terms, but there is a fundamental difference between them that goes overlooked.

Coaching is the process of supporting leaders to come up with their own ideas, without the coach bringing their own experience to the table. But with mentoring, experience is vital – mentors provide leaders with someone to bounce ideas off, a thought partner backed up by insights from their career and network.

Both mentoring and coaching are equally valid when deployed in the right situation. But in a humanized business – one that prioritises people and the human factor over bottom line results – mentoring is essential for C-Suite leaders who need to look beyond their own experience and view strategic topics from multiple perspectives.

To explore the difference between mentoring and coaching in a humanized business, we spoke to Frouke Horstmann, managing partner of TPC Leadership Netherlands, as well as TPCL executive coach and mentor Luc Kenter.

The benefits of a good mentor at C-suite level

When working with C-suite leaders, there’s always a balance to be found between coaching and mentoring. Executives rarely like to be told what they should do – they want someone who will be a traveling companion as they discover the road ahead, not a GPS laying out every turn they need to make and when.

But at the same time, executives also value the experience of a mentor who’s faced similar challenges in different sectors, and who can spark new ideas by sharing their own stories.

The difficulty is that C-suite leaders often don’t understand that this is what they need, and they might not know it is an option they can ask for. As a result, executives usually look for a coach, even when they really need a mentor.

Frouke recalls an example of being approached by the CEO of two merged companies. The CEO was having trouble balancing the needs of the many stakeholders in both companies, and they asked for a coach to help them.

But Frouke recognised that because of the CEO’s experience and the complexity of the role, a coach wouldn’t have been credible. What they really needed was someone who understood the situation from their own experience and could be someone to bounce ideas off – in other words, a mentor.

“It’s lonely at the top,” Frouke says. “Leaders need someone who understands what they’re going through, and the dynamics and complexities of the decisions they have to make.”

Why humanization makes mentoring essential for C-suite executives

The world in which businesses operate is changing rapidly. Boards are having to adapt to ensure they’re building diverse teams, rising to the ESG challenge and meeting the varied demands of multiple generations within the same company. Now, the rise of humanization can be added to that list.

In the past, C-suite executives could look five years ahead, set out a strategy for that period and stick to it, but that’s no longer a viable option when change comes so rapidly. Mentors can provide a sounding board for leaders who aren’t sure how to meet those challenges, but they can also ask the right questions to make sure the C-suite isn’t overlooking the human factor in their decisions.

A CEO might have a strong track record in the role, but their experience might be centered around a specific kind of situation like launching a new business or navigating M&A. When they’re faced with an organization in a different phase or situation, a mentor can provide them with the perspective to look beyond their own experience, and help build synergy between board strategies and the people they impact<link to Blog 04>.

Luc recalls a time from his own C-suite career when the human element of a situation made mentoring essential. He was experiencing friction between himself and the chairman of the non-executive board, and that interpersonal relationship was having a consequential effect on the business. He quickly realized that what he needed wasn’t a coach to help facilitate ideas, but a mentor who could provide a different perspective than his own.

“My mentor didn’t have to give me advice on what to do,” Luc says, “but we had good objective discussions and I took my own inspiration from them. Then I went to speak with the non-executive chairman, and we were able to sort out both our relationship and the business situation.”

What does a good mentor look like and how do you find one?

There is a place for both coaching and mentoring when it comes to the C-suite. But in a humanized future, leaders will need to embrace both to find nuanced solutions to complex situations, and to see beyond their own perspectives for the good of their employees.

Mentoring and coaching aren’t mutually exclusive to each other, and a good mentor should bring a coaching approach to what they do as well. They should combine the deep knowledge of what it means to be a coach with their credibility and experience as a leader in their own right, and understand that an executive bears responsibility for more than just the financial results of a company.

Finding a mentor who can bring that right balance – particularly if you don’t know for certain whether it’s a mentor or a coach that you need – is not always easy. At TPCL, part of the process when we’re approached by C-suite executives is figuring out when they need a coach and when they need a mentor, and making the right recommendation. Either way, our mentors are trained to bring a coaching approach in addition to their extensive leadership experience.

To learn more, see our other articles on how humanization impacts every aspect of running a business, from M&A due diligence to board synergy.

If you’d like to see how TPC Leadership can support you with mentoring, get in touch.

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This article is part of a series on the importance of humanization in today’s organizations. To find out more, see our articles on what humanization is and how it’s impacting

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