While speaking with many nurses, I have noticed that some confusion exists regarding mentoring, precepting, and coaching. It is important to distinguish among these entities and avoid using them interchangeably.
Mentoring is a relationship that you have with an experienced nurse who has the skills, knowledge, and attitude to support and guide you through your organizational or professional journey. Mentoring is most often defined as a professional relationship in which an experienced person assists another typically less experienced person or nurse in developing specific skills and knowledge that will enhance the less experienced person's professional and personal growth. Often, the mentor helps or supports the mentee in processing professional job options or difficult situations or disappointments.
Many ask what mentors actually do, and there are several important roles a mentor may assume. First, the mentor can function as a teacher, especially about specific areas such as learning about professional associations and the importance of involvement in these associations. The mentor may also serve as a tutor regarding a specific skill set, such as how to work constructively in both giving and receiving feedback. The mentor may be a facilitator who supports the growth of the mentee by sharing resources and networks. Mentors often challenge the mentee to think about a topic in a different way or to stretch beyond their comfort zone. Above all else, the mentor creates a safe environment in which the mentee can speak their truth and say whatever they want. The mentor is holistic in their approach, focusing on the mentee's total development (Reh, 2019).
The mentor role differs from a preceptor in its purpose and structure. The job of a preceptor is to help the preceptee learn a set of specific skills and often the preceptor is responsible for assessing competencies related to the specific skill set. They are usually assigned to the precepting task, which could be for a new nurse on the unit or a nursing student. The association is of short duration and usually occurs within a set time frame, such as the formal orientation period. For example, the distinction between precepting and mentoring is so important that the 2019 Magnet® program document warns applicants and appraisers to differentiate between mentoring and precepting (American Nurses Credentialing Center, 2019).
In contrast, precepting constitutes a formal program of preparation of a new employee or a student to a position or area not previously known or understood. A preceptor is a person who guides, tutors, and provides direction toward specific performance goals. Within nursing, the employee preceptor is defined as assisting and supporting a new or transferred employee through a planned orientation to a specific clinical area. An effective preceptor is essential to a nurse's clinical development, medication accuracy, job contentment, and the organization's overall retention rate. When considering each of these aspects, it becomes clear that an excellent preceptor affects the nurse turnover rate and the bottom line of the facility.
For a nursing student, a preceptor is described as a nurse who assists and supports learning experiences for a student's clinical experience. A good example would be the senior capstone experience in nursing school, where students are frequently paired with a specific preceptor for the semester—sometimes working the same shifts as the nurse preceptor—learning how to manage and care for a group of patients, as opposed to a single patient. In such instances, a preceptor is usually assigned to a specific student because the student has key qualities such as specific clinical expertise, organizational skills to care for a group of patients, a talent for teaching, a fair amount of patience, an understanding of leadership, and, most importantly, the desire to be a preceptor. With today's complex and sometimes chaotic health care environment, we hear about entire units refusing to take students because the staff is burned out. Such situations are diagnostic of nurse preceptors not feeling skilled or supported in these roles. Preceptors need the benefit of a standard preparation course specific to the skills needed for the role and leadership that has a real understanding of how to make appropriate assignments for nurse preceptors, so they have sufficient time to work with the preceptee.
Confusion also exists when the concept of coaching is introduced. Coaching empowers others to establish their own goals and to find their own answers. Effective coaching is an approach that emphasizes respect, openness, empathy, and a true commitment to speaking the truth with compassion (Sherman, 2019). Coaching conversations are about collaboration and possibilities, rather than about authoritarian or superior versus inferior discussions. At the same time, coaches must hold coachees accountable in a nonjudgmental manner for what they want or for what they say they will do. Coaching is not therapy. Coaching focuses on the present and the future, not on the past. Coaching honors the individual as a complete human being—an individual who is naturally creative, resourceful, and whole and who can discover solutions to problems and issues (Reh, 2019). Solutions are inside of us. We, as human beings, want support in discovering additional pathways to reaching professional and life goals. This is why coaching can be so helpful to many people: it reaffirms who we are and that we are enough as we are.
Executive coaching has received considerable emphasis in the literature, but the significant financial commitments required to support this have created a limited availability. Usually, top executives are the people who receive coaching. Because coaching is not regulated or licensed, anyone can say they are a coach. If you want or need a coach, please check with the International Coach Federation ( https://coachfederation.org/), which is the leading global organization dedicated to advancing the coaching profession by setting high standards, providing independent certification, and building a worldwide network of trained coaching professionals (Dingle, 2018). The International Coach Federation defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.
In subsequent Teaching Tip articles, we will address each of these skill sets—precepting, mentoring, and coaching—in more detail in order to further enumerate these three tools.