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Exploring career mentoring and coaching
Exploring career mentoring and coaching

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4.1 Characteristics and issues

Straus et al. (2013, Table 3) use the findings of their qualitative study to summarise the characteristics of a failed mentoring relationship. Key themes are:

  • Communication – lack of open communication, failure to communicate tactfully, inability to listen
  • Commitment – lack of commitment, lack of time committed to the relationship or waning interest over time
  • Personality differences – different personal characteristics between the mentor and mentee
  • Perceived (or real) competition – overlapping interests, failure to recognise that a mentee’s success reflects well on his or her mentor; lack of clarity around intellectual property
  • Conflicts of interest – competing agendas (particularly if both parties work for the same organisation)
  • Lack of experience – mentor may not have relevant knowledge, skills or experience.

Many of these characteristics can also be applied to coaching relationships that don’t work. The following issues might also occur:

  • A client is pushed into coaching by a senior manager and is therefore resistant to it
  • The contract between coach and client breaks, for example, one party fails to attend several sessions
  • Both parties fail to identify clear goals to work towards
  • The coach is not qualified or has limited practical experience
  • The client thinks that coaching will be a quick fix.

Many of these issues can be mitigated by having a clear discussion about both parties’ expectations at the beginning of the relationship, and continuing to revisit them throughout.

Activity 5 What would I do?

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes


Cancel the appointment straight away? There’s no point continuing.


Conduct the appointment as he normally would, but look for an opportunity to raise his concerns with some careful questions?


Say straight away that he detects a negative attitude and explain why that won’t help their relationship?

The correct answer is b.


Spend some time exploring why she doesn’t think she’s moving forward. Have they set the right goals? Is she acting on them between appointments?


Accept that she’s not happy and agree to end the relationship.


Respond with disappointment.

The correct answer is a.


  • a.By choosing this option, the coach has an opportunity to demonstrate how the session might benefit Sarah, and he can explore her reluctance as part of the coaching interaction.
  • b.By choosing this option and exploring Aisha’s dissatisfaction, both parties have an opportnity to review and consider how they might take things forward. This might mean the end of their coaching relationship, or it might allow it to develop more positively.

A coach must be sensitive to their client’s mood and responsive to the cues they pick up. It is important not to be judgemental or defensive and to give the coachee an opportunity to provide feedback. If a relationship isn’t working, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the coach or coachee have done anything wrong.

Communication and commitment are the key facilitators of a successful mentoring or coaching relationship. As long as both parties communicate their expectations, regularly re-assess them and commit time and enthusiasm, this will create a strong base for the relationship to build from.

If problems develop, it is important for both parties to feel able to be honest about issues and difficulties. This is easier to do if there is rapport and trust.