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Executive Coaching versus Mentoring: Getting Leadership Transitions Right

Getting leadership transitions right is rare. Alarming evidence shows that more than half of executives fail within eighteen months of starting a new position. Organizations operate more like organisms than machines, and leadership changes increase workplace anxiety. When a leader struggles, the entire business underperforms. A recent pulse survey by PwC reveals that a staggering 65% of employees are considering a new career opportunity. In the new normal, leadership transitions are more common and more important than ever to get right. Investing in leadership and career development are great ways to drive business growth. So, how do you know which is a better investment for you to make, executive coaching or mentoring?

Why You Need to Invest in Leadership Transitions

Leadership transitions, whether successful or not, are costly. On average direct reports spend 10-20% of their time helping a new leader transition. Also, a study revealed that two-thirds of leaders in transition report they do not receive the support they need from their team.

Evidence suggests that successful leadership transitions increase company revenue, have 13% lower attrition rates, and are 90% more likely to achieve long-term performance goals. Unsuccessful leadership transitions lead to 20% less employee engagement and 15% lower performance.

Direct expenses for recruiting and hiring senior leadership positions are estimated at two times the job's annual salary. Also, businesses experience increased hidden costs from the loss of potential gains associated with not having the leader in place.

Leadership transitions increase anxiety and stress in the workplace. Most leaders in transition wonder if they will get along with their new direct reports. And team members wonder how the change will impact their performance and future with the company.

According to DDI, 35% of all executives promoted internally, and 47% of hired externally are considered failures. Leaders need feedback and support to make a successful transition.

"If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." Derek Bok

What Is The Difference Between Executive Coaching and Mentoring?

Executive coaching and mentoring are excellent strategies to support leadership and career development. Both approaches have been growing in popularity in successful organizations. However, as a certified executive coach and organizational consultant with over 25 years of talent management experience, I have seen firsthand how they are distinctly different and often confused.

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."

Executive coaching focuses on moving toward the leader's future, assessing where they are currently, their goals for the future, and exploring and discovering the steps to get to their desired future. The ultimate goal is a change (e.g., behavioral, attitudinal, or motivational).

Executive coaching is a purposeful process that helps executives develop and experience a positive transformation in life and leadership. The executive coach-client relationship is grounded in trust, transparency, and confidentiality. While the coach and client are the primary stakeholders, the executive's sponsoring organization is often an additional formal or informal stakeholder.

Current evidence-based research supports various psychological approaches to executive coaching, such as cognitive-behavioral, solution-focused, strength-based, and GROW. While each approach is similar, the GROW model is a popular executive coaching approach.

Mentoring, like coaching, can be approached in vastly different ways from business to business. The most effective mentoring is mentee-driven and mentor-guided. Mentoring is a dynamically reciprocal, active learning process. A mentor asks questions and shares personal past successes and failures. A coach uses questions but focuses on the leader, not the coach's experience.

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) defines mentoring as "an informal association focused on building a two-way, mutually beneficial relationship for long-term career movement."

Although many people believe that a mentor needs to be senior to the mentee, it is not critical to success. Like executive coaching, mentoring is a trust-based partnership. It is most effective with clearly defined roles, driven by the mentee, voluntary, and confidential.

When Executive Coaching is Your Best Choice

Executive coaching, instead of mentoring, can be the best choice for leaders preparing to make a leadership transition, are just getting started with a new career opportunity, or have hit a wall in their development.

Many companies use executive coaching as a leadership transition acceleration tool. Executive coaching helps leaders who need a plan get focused. An executive coach increases blind spot awareness. Also, the coach keeps the leader feeling challenged versus being worried about what is next.

Living life to the fullest can be at risk during a leadership transition. A coach can help the leader see different interrelated factors that impact them and be a true champion in a supportive way. Executive coaching encourages experimentation and self-discovery through the application of what is discussed. A skillful coach helps the leader dance in the present moment and take the necessary actions for their future.

During leadership transitions, leaders need to shift their mindset to allow for new perspectives and take advantage of new opportunities. An executive coach challenges assumptions and encourages and stretches the leader to reach new heights in life and work.

The benefits of investing in executive coaching are many; 80% of people who receive coaching report increased self-confidence. Over 70% benefit from improved work performance, relationships, and more effective communication skills. 86% of companies report that they recouped their investment in coaching and more. A limitation of executive coaching is that it focuses on the future and doesn't deal with the past.

Executive Coaching Transition Example: A leader from one part of the world was assigned to take on operations in another in one organization. They hired an executive coach as part of the leadership transition support and cultural agility development. The virtual executive coaching relationship had three specific goals: improve the cultural awareness and agility of the leader in a new culture, keep the executive focused on their 90-day plan, and creative thought partner about decisions in a new culture.

It is crucial to find a skilled and qualified executive coach. The International Coaching Federation (ICF) is a globally recognized association with evidence-based competency and code of ethics certification requirements. Look for a coach that:

  • Demonstrates Ethical Practice

  • Embodies a Coaching Mindset

  • Establishes and Maintains Agreements

  • Cultivates Trust and Safety

  • Maintains Presence

  • Listens Actively

  • Evokes Awareness

  • Facilitates Client Growth

I challenge you to invest in an executive coach for your leadership transition and see your business results improve.

When Mentoring is Your Best Choice

Mentoring can be the best choice for an organization looking to increase talent mobility and internal visibility to talent across the organization. Mentoring creates purposeful relationships providing access and mutually beneficial interactions between employees that may not typically connect.

Mentoring provides leaders with a development-oriented relationship and can expose leaders to different business areas and encourage new careers. Both the mentee and the mentor benefit from increased exposure in the business.

Mentoring is effective for encouraging ethical behavior and virtues. Where past experiences can help leaders understand decisions between right and right.

The benefits of mentoring include increased job satisfaction, expanded perspectives, strengthened technical, interpersonal, and leadership skills. A limitation of mentoring is that the learning is grounded in the past experiences of the mentor. While that approach can be helpful, we are all created with different strengths and backgrounds. Also, contemporary leadership challenges can be vastly different.

Mentoring Transition Example: In one successful mentoring relationship, the mentee was the VP of HR for a nonprofit. The mentor was the managing director of finance. The leaders from different parts of the organization arranged in-person and virtual face-to-face meetings once a month. The mentee described that the relationship helped them grow as a leader. Specific technical advice was provided on the use of financial dashboards. The connection enabled the mentee to approach the challenge from a big picture business finance lens. The mentor described that the relationship improved their awareness of the role of organizational talent and how to navigate difficult conversations with senior leaders.

The right mentor is critical to the outcomes of the relationship. To find the right mentor:

  • Get clear about what you want to accomplish personally and professionally.

  • Know yourself and the characteristics you admire in others.

  • Consider what career opportunity you would like to have

  • Know the difference between a sponsor and a mentor

  • Develop a pitch and a few questions to use with a potential mentor. Include your goals, how often you want to meet, agendas, and clarify it is OK to say no.

Conclusion: Getting Leadership Transitions Right

Leadership and career development are two of the best and most important steps companies can take to drive lasting success in the new normal. Supporting and investing in leadership transitions unlocks tremendous business value.

Both executive coaching and mentoring provide massive leader and company benefits. However, this does not mean there isn't a best choice to make for you, given your situation and unique context.

Let's talk about how we can help you achieve your goals with transformational executive coaching and organizational solutions that work.


Bharucha, K. (2013). Corporate finance: The cost of poor leadership transitions. Corporate Executive Board.

Boushey, H., & Glynn, J. (2012). There are significant business costs to replacing employees, Center for American Progress.

Eskandanian-Yee, C. (2020). A mentor versus an executive coach: Which one is best for your business? Forbes.

Ettore, M. (2020). Why most executives fail: And four things companies can do about it. Forbes.

Keller, S. (2018). Successfully transitioning to new leadership roles. Mckinsey & Company.

Krbechek, A., & Tagle, A. (2020). The right mentor can change your career. Here's how to find one. NPR.

Next in Work. (2021). PwC pulse survey: Next in work. PwC.

Pease, M. (2021). Private struggle: Why executive transitions continue to fail. DDI.

Syed, A., Miller, S., Safferstone, T., Selinger, R., Schmidt, C., & Freire, P. (2005). Succeeding with your new manager: Strategies for getting your relationship right. Corporate Executive Board.

Tyler, K. (2014). Executive coaches ease leadership transitions. SHRM.


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Hi, I'm Dr. Jeff Doolittle. I'm determined to make your personal and professional goals a reality. My only question is, are you?

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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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