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Tax & AccountingMarch 02, 2020

Coach vs. Supervisor - What's the Difference?

Author’s Note: The opinions and advice in this blog post are mine and do not necessarily reflect official CLA policy around our Career Coaching program.

A coach or mentor should play a role very different from an employee’s daily supervisor. And while in some cases the direct supervisor can also be a good choice as an employee’s coach, I don’t recommend it – here’s why.

In most cases, supervisors direct their subordinates’ work schedules and daily activities. They set performance expectations, have regular project and status update meetings, and should provide in-the-moment feedback to help build skills and technical knowledge. The supervisor needs to be focused first on making sure their team is completing projects and meeting department and company-wide expectations. Supervisors may not have the bandwidth to do all of that and be truly independent in the role of coach to those very same people.

Coaches and mentors, on the other hand, focus on the individual. Coaches are the people who know career dreams and inspirations, what types of work the employee enjoys the most, and which supervisors or roles inspire them. There will be times the employee needs a safe place to talk about uncomfortable situations at work, how to transfer into another department or problems working with their supervisor. A coach should be a sounding board and source of unbiased and confidential advice at these times.

A coach should know the employee’s strengths – those areas where the employee consistently achieves high marks – as well as their growth areas, and celebrate with those they coach. Most importantly, and this is key, a coach or mentor should work with the supervisor to find new career growth opportunities for the person being coached.

At CLA, we start every new hire off with a coach, regardless of experience level. In my role as Coach Champion, I suggest new hires look beyond their immediate supervisor when choosing a coach. Why? I’ve found that managers and supervisors can have a natural bias against moving people onto new projects or assignments if it means disrupting their team. Working with a coach who is not invested in the employee’s current role can mean a broader view of opportunities and projects that could improve their skills and provide career growth.

If you walked up to me right now and asked me what qualities you should look for in a coach, I’d tell you this: it doesn’t matter what level of seniority you are at, choose someone knowledgeable about your department and its managers, but not someone you report to daily. Find someone who can look at the larger picture, and who will advocate for you, suggesting your name for assignments outside your current group.

And above all, find someone who will celebrate your successes, provide a listening ear when you experience disappointments, and continually push you towards greatness.


Ready to learn more about the coaching and mentorship process? Check out other posts in Jackie's coaching and mentorship series.


Jackie Fiesher
Jackie Flesher, CPA, CGMA
Jackie is a Coach Champion and Director at CliftonLarsonAllen (CLA) in the Washington DC region in their outsourcing division. Jackie’s clients are medium-sized private sector businesses as well as not-for-profit organizations. Jackie’s passionate work is to support the firm’s coaching program and help her colleagues get the most from their coaching relationships.
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