Learning and development -

Training, coaching, self development & mentoring

Helping to build capabilities is a critical task of managers and leaders in the workplace. Not only does it improve performance, but it also helps in the motivation of individuals as they grow in the job. The primary ways in which people acquire skills at work are through training, coaching and their own self development. Self development includes 'on the job experience' - all too often the only way that people develop. Mentoring can be highly effective in the development of individuals although it probably has a broader function than simply imparting skills. More about mentoring later.


Whilst there may be overlaps between them, training, coaching and self development are different from each other. Each has its merits and we need to understand how best to use them in the workplace to build capabilities. Let's look at the key differences.

Training courses sign

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  • Training is teaching someone why and how to do something

  • Coaching is helping someone to learn for themselves

  • Self development is learning on your own

A hidden bonus of training!

It is worth noting that as you progress down the list from training, through coaching to self development the involvement of the manager appears to diminish. That's probably why most individuals get little training at work but have to rely more on self development - it's less work for their manager! And that's a shame, because the more involved an individual is in helping to build the skills of others, the more they build their own! That's why managers and leaders who work hard on building the skills of others tend to do much better themselves.


Indeed, the task of training someone to do 'x' well invariably improves the ability of the trainer as much as it does the recipient! That's why it's a great idea to work out the list of skills that your people need to do their work well and then appoint a 'champion' for each skill. The champion has the task of becoming the 'go to' person for that particular skill and training others in it. What a great way to develop your people, enrich their jobs and improve their motivation! This works particularly well within management teams. Using the capabilities featured on this site, you can allocate perhaps one or two skill areas to each of your managers. They in turn become an 'expert' in it and take on responsibility for training others in that skill. I have used this to great effect in the past, with dramatic improvements in engagement and results - including a place for the company concerned in the 'Sunday Times top 100 places to work in the UK'.

Training is scalable

Whilst some may regard training as a rather dated approach to imparting skill, it does have one big advantage over other methods such as coaching and self development. And that advantage is its scalability, by which we mean it is relatively easy to put a number of people through an identical process and in a relatively short space of time. In that sense it could be described as something of a 'sausage machine' when done with groups, but that should not detract from its benefits. When done well training works and it is easy to see and test the results. The group environment also lends itself well to creating a sense of competition amongst participants, should that prove desirable.

The training sequence

We have already established that training is essentially teaching someone why and how to do something. It's a rather direct way of imparting capabilitiies and one of its great advantages is that it can be used individually or with groups. There is a simple five step sequence that you need to follow if you want to train effectively:

1. Explanation 'why'
2. Explanation 'how'
3. Demonstration
4. Application
5. Examination

Let's look at each step in detail:

1. Explanation 'why'

This first step is the most critical and often overlooked. People tend to jump into the 'how' without explaining the 'why'. Explaining why we do something is important to human beings. If we don't understand why we need to something, then we are likely to stop doing it! Let's assume that you are training someone in a customer service centre how to greet a customer on the telephone. The inexperienced trainer will likely jump straight into the 'how to do it' phase, without explaining why the greeting is so important. Even if the individual struggles to remember how to conduct the greeting well, if he or she understand its importance he or she will likely work out how to do it by themselves.

So sticking with our customer service greeting example; the trainer should ask the trainee why she or he believes the greeting is important. This gets the trainee thinking and engaged. Once they have discussed it, the trainer would offer the full explanation, which might sound something like this:

The customer greeting is critical for three key reasons.

1. We want to instantly make the customer feel relaxed and to remove any stress that he or she might be feeling (Relaxed).

2. We want the customer to be confident that his or her need is going to be addressed well (Confident).

3. We want the customer to open up and share what's on his or her mind (Open).


Having covered the explanation 'why', the trainer would want to have a further discussion to 'embed' the thinking. Notes would be made, understanding tested and handouts issued.

People on a training course

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2. Explanation 'how'

In this step the trainer explains how to do the task in hand. If we stick with our customer service greeting example, the trainer would likely start by asking the trainee(s) what they thought the sequence of actions would be, having regard to the reasons 'why' as explained above. Once the discussion had taken place, the trainer can give the definitive explanation of how to do it. It might sound something like this:

1. We answer the 'phone in a cheerful and friendly way, giving our name and asking how we can help (introduction).

2. We acknowledge the issue that the customer is raising, expressing concern, interest and/or enthusiasm as appropriate to the customer's situation (empathy).

3. We ask the customer for his or her name and any relevant customer details (facts).

4. We explain that we want to make sure that we have understood the customers needs, and ask questions in a friendly but confident manner to gather all the relevant detail (details).

5. We then play back to the customer our understanding of the issue and ask them if we have understood correctly (understanding).

6. We then reassure the customer that we are going to do our best to help him or her and that we shall 'own' the issue until it is resolved (confidence).

As previously, the trainer would check understanding via discussion. Notes should be made and handouts issued.

3. Demonstration

The third step requires that the trainer demonstrates the process in action. This is ideally done firstly in classroom conditions, and then 'live'. All too often this step gets missed out! And the reason - the trainer lacks the bottle to do it themselves and is afraid of looking stupid if he or she doesn't perform well. A confident trainer will explain that the purpose of the demonstration is not to show how 'clever' the trainer is, but for the trainees to observe the steps involved and be able to see them in action. It does not matter that the trainer's demonstration is rather basic and unrefined; what does matter however is that the trainees can see the individual steps as explained to them. They are not looking for perfection - they just want someone to show them how to go about it!

Once the classroom demonstration has taken place the trainee(s) can discuss it to make sure that they have been able to identify the various steps, following along with their handouts. This can and should be followed with live demonstrations whereby the trainees sit with an accomplished person and see the sequence of actions being performed for real.

4. Application

This is where the trainees get to have a go themselves! Ideally this would be in a classroom setting for complicated tasks, but this may not be practical for simple issues. The trainer should do what he or she can to de-stress the process, and the best way of doing this is to have everyone do it plenty of times, and not be too critical about how well they do. Practice builds confidence and makes perfect!


The trainer and other trainees should make notes but not interrupt the process whilst it is underway.

5. Examination

Subsequent discussion with the trainee (and other trainees observing) should draw out what went well and where there is room for improvement. But focus on strengths and remember that at this stage confidence and practice are much more important than a polished performance! Video can be used to good effect in a classroom, but will likely raise stress levels at least at the start.

Repeat as neccessary

The trainer should repeat some or all of the five step sequence until the trainee(s) have clearly 'got it' and are ready to go live with their new skills.


As we established earlier, coaching is really helping people to learn. Essentially, the coach does not provide the answer or solution, but helps and guides the individual to discover it for themselves. It's clearly a less direct way of imparting skill than training, but because the individual is finding things out for him or herself it could be argued that the lessons learned are likely to stick more.

To understand coaching, we need to understand how people learn. The following is based on the work undertaken by David Kolb, set out in his book Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Englewood Cliffs, Prentice Hall, 1984). Kolb explained that people learn by following a four step revolving cycle. I have simplified it here:

Step 1: You have an experience

Step 2: You think about what happened

Step 3: You draw some conclusions

Step 4: You test your conclusions, and so return to step 1

And so it is with coaching. When you coach someone, you are effectively walking them through the process described above, and encouraging them to think through what's happening each step of the way. Hard though it may sound, you try and avoid giving the answers, but encourage the individual to try and discover them for themselves.

As an example, let's assume you are talking to one of your people who has had a difficult discussion with a customer:

You: So tell me what happened Jim.

Jim: The customer got a bit angry with me.

You: What happened exactly?

Jim: The customer wanted to return a printer that she had bought last week.

You: So what did you say when the customer said she wanted to return the printer?

Jim: I said that unless the machine was faulty we wouldn't take it back.

You: Hmmm...how might that have made the customer feel?

Jim: Pretty angry I guess, but you know the policy...

You: What might you have said that would not have upset the customer so much?

Jim: I guess I could have asked what the problem seemed to be and explained that I would try and help to sort it out for her.

You: Do you think that would have been a less confrontational way to deal with the issue?

Jim: Sure.

You: So what would you do differently next time?

Jim: I think I would avoid jumping in and saying whether or not the printer could be returned but instead focus on trying to understand the issue.

You: Sounds like a good idea! Let me know what happens the next time you get a situation like that one...

You can see that in your conversation with Jim, you have avoided giving the answer, even though that might have been both quicker and you natural reaction. By getting Jim to think through what happened and how he could have handled the problem better you are coaching Jim.

Coaching summary

Coaching is a wonderful way to help people learn. Good managers and leaders resist the temptation to simply 'tell' others what to do and how to do it. They know that coaching people builds capability in a way that encourages thinking and stretches the mind.

Coaching graphic

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Self development

Self development sounds at first like an opportunity for management to avoid taking on any work or responsibility for people's growth! Whilst this could well be true in poorly led organisations, self development has a critical role to play in building skill. Indeed, in the case of Millennials, research suggests that an informal and less dictatorial learning environment is preferred.

So what do we mean by self development in the context of the workplace? What it does not mean is an abandonment of any responsibility on the part of the employer. Good self development happens as part of an agreed plan to build capabilities in the individual (or group). It is but one of the methods available for learning, but still requires a plan and discipline for it to be a success. As a manager, you should be talking to your people about their self development and working with them on their plans. But you should be aware that open learning, whereby individuals 'opt in' to a course on their own is characterised by rather high drop out rates. It is all too easy for the individual to weaken and find something more appealing to do rather than study in their own time. For that reason any open learning activity is likely to require a strong commitment from the individual, sincere interest on the part of the manager and some disciplined follow up for it to work.

Every individual who is serious about their personal growth is likely to benefit from a relationship with a mentor or 'wise friend', and we explore that below. But in the meantime, here are some critical actions to help you to develop either yourself or someone else.

1. Set out and document your goals

Your personal and professional development should tie in with whatever you want from your life. We talked in another section on this site about the need to set out and document your goals. Start with the big stuff and then work back to the point where you can set specific goals over a relative short period of time (weeks or maybe months).

2. Capabilities

Once you have your goals, it should be relatively simple to identify the capabilities or attributes that you will need to get you there - learning or development objectives that will move you inexorably towards your big life goals. Get them written down in your journal.

3. Build on strengths

It is always easier (and more fun) to work on things that interest you. You are more likely to stick at them and who wants to pursue a life doing stuff that doesn't inspire them? If you do need to acquire skills in an area that does not excite you, make sure it's not going to involve a long drawn out campaign or you will likely abandon it before you get very far. Short, sharp learnings will work better in these circumstances. As an example, if I decided I needed to improve my financial skills, I could sign up for a three year diploma that covers everything financial. Or I could decide that next week I am going to spend three hours understanding cash flow and what it's all about. Once I have that done I could cover off what a balance sheet is. Which approach is more likely to work?

4. Set out a plan for your development areas

You can't do it all at once, but if for example you decided that as a priority you needed to improve your verbal and written communication skills, you need a plan with specific actions about how you are going to do this. Trawl the Internet, think those actions through, talk to your mentor or 'wise friend' and get your plan written down (with dates). Share it with your boss to get moral or tangible support, and to increase the pressure on yourself to see it through.

5. Get busy

Don't forget to review your progress regularly and frequently. Set times and dates in your calendar when you meet with yourself and others to hold yourself accountable!


Mentoring is the process that occurs when a less experienced or knowledgeable person gets occasional help and guidance delivered in a confidential and non-threatening manner from a more experienced, knowledgeable, non-judgmental and trusted person. Crucially, the relationship itself serves as a key part of the benefit to the individual being mentored. So if there is no good relationship, there can be no effective mentoring. The mentor does not direct, but helps the individual as a result of their discussions. The subject area is likely to be meaningful and of real importance to the life and personal development of the individual benefiting from the mentoring.


It is highly unlikely that the mentor will be the manager of that individual as a managerial relationship usually makes it harder for the person being mentored to be fully open and honest about their aspirations, feelings and fears.

Mentoring is typically thought of as something 'done' by an older person 'to' a younger person. However, the rapid pace at which technological innovation is permeating our lives has opened up both the prospect and the reality of younger people mentoring older ones on such matters. This trend will surely grow.

Does mentoring work?

Mentoring appears to be growing in importance although it's difficult to find reliable data as to how effective it is. That said, it is not hard to imagine how a thoughtful and growth orientated individual could benefit from a good mentor - irrespective of age. I am a real fan and strongly suggest that you seek out one (or more) potential mentors and talk to them about their willingness to help you. You will need to define and agree the purpose of the relationship together with the frequency of the meetings.

The payback comes as and when your skills mature and are able to mentor others in return.

The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.      

Steven Spielberg