Trainer, Mentor, Coach or Counsellor?

I attended the PMO Flashmob the other week on coaching and the PMO. This talk was given by Suzanne Masden, who based on her qualification has had a bit of experience in being a coach to a variety of people, plus was once a project manager.

During the short talk one of the questions that came up was what exactly is a coach anyway? I am sure that you can go and look this up on the web, but the reason it came up was that it is an expression that we as PMO’s seem to use all the time. However we don’t have a correct understanding of what this really means. Most of the time when we say we are coaching the project managers, we aren’t actually doing this at all.

So I thought I would post something up which was my understanding of the difference we have between the 4 roles outlined in the title

Trainer Arrow
Assistance spectrum



Trainer – at this level a PMO would be teaching something to a project manager. e.g. This is how to fill in the progress report. Most likely to say: “Do it this way”

Mentor – normally a more experienced PMO person who is assisting the project manager with a topic, based on their own personal experience and giving the knowledge as though they were the individual in the job. e.g. This is how I would deal with stakeholders when going through the design stage of the project. Most likely to say: “This is how I would approach it”

Coach – an individual who is qualified as a coach (yes there are qualifications) who will assist the project manager by asking them questions about how they are likely to achieve their goals. e.g. How can you get the best out of your project team? Most likely to say: “What can you do to improve?” or “Is that working for you?”

Counsellor – an individual who is qualified as a counsellor who can help and individual reflect on what is happening to them and consider alternative ways of doing things. As such this individual will not be dealing with items specifically linked into the world of project management, but will be looking at an individual’s life problems and how they can be overcome.

There was an interesting part of the discussion where we talked about the difference between the mentor and coach roles. Based on the experiences of the individuals within the room it is most likely that when a PMO individual is saying that they are coaching project manager, what in fact they are doing is either training them or at best mentoring them.

I came away feeling that a coach would be very useful in all sorts of circumstances, and it shouldn’t be limited to just PMOs coaching project managers, but should be PMOs coaching other PMOs, or at least PMOs seeking coaching for themselves. This was where the difference was made between a coach and a counsellor. In order to be coached the person being coached must want to make some changes to the way that they are doing things. If changes are required, but the individual is unwilling to want to make any changes then that will go into counselling, and is above and beyond what a coach would want to do.

I thought the session at the PMO Flashmob was informative, and I have gone away with a fresh understanding of not only what I do, but also what I could do to develop myself. After all isn’t that why we go to such events?