Coaching vs Mentoring

Coaching vs Mentoring

Coaching and mentoring, as professions, are not easily distinguished from the point of view of the general business public. The two words are often used interchangeably, so this blog post is designed to highlight the essential similarities and differences.

Coaching, rooted in sports history, was a loose term used to describe whatever the coach did: this included instructional expertise “do it this way” to inviting player feedback “how do you think you could have done that better?”

Today, these two methods of coaching are known as non-directive coaching (guiding the individual) and directive coaching (instructing the individual). Directive coaching is essentially mentoring.

Coaching spread quickly when it was adopted into business. Words like Performance Coaching, Business Coaching, and Career Coaching began to emerge, though all of these disciplines still assumed the umbrella term “coaching” which may or may not be completely understood to the client in the degrees of instruction, guidance, counselling, and support provided. This lead to institutions such as the International Coach Federation (ICF) to develop a set of training standards in order to clarify the practice and role of the coach.

Mentoring generally elicits an image of a young, powerless junior under the apprentice of a wise elder, essentially as an instructor (or a tutor) who pours technical expertise into the head of the grateful youth. In the old days, this was a trade such as a blacksmith, a baker, or a candlestick maker (excuse the rhyme).

THE COACH: In a business context, there are generally three types of coaches:

A “performance" coach: aims to increase the coachee’s effectiveness and productivity at work, especially with setting clear goals and looking at new ways to approach tasks. A “behavioural" or "career" coach: aims to help the coachee get further ahead in their career by improving their skill-set and will often work directly on the individual’s personality, beliefs and values. An “executive" or "business" coach: usually implies a more experienced coach with expertise in both coaching and a specific skill-set (e.g. leadership, marketing strategy, financial planning).

Note: all three terms are often used interchangeably (e.g. someone who calls themselves an executive coach may perform a balance of performance and behavioural coaching).

Role: A coach can be anyone. They do not necessarily have better expertise or skills than the coachee. Their role is formal (their services are paid for). Meeting intervals and session duration is defined. Relationship is relatively short (weeks – months).

Goal: The coach is focused on helping the coachee define and attain goals, performance or results specific to a job. Goals might be defined by the coachee themselves or, for instance, by the coachee’s boss. The coach primarily aims to help the coachee develop their self-awareness, take responsibility, and take initiative. Their goal is to help the coachee draw on, develop, and build their own resources (both mentally and emotionally) to help them achieve their defined goals, rather than simply telling them how to do it.

Behaviour: Largely focused on guiding the dialogue and using questioning techniques, so as to allow the coachee to come up with their own answers.


Role: Someone with expertise or experience in a specific domain or skill-set. The mentor is generally understood to be older, however ‘reverse mentoring’ happens when a younger person teaches an elder (such as on the use of technology). A mentor is often seen as someone to emulate (a good role model). Relationship is usually informal (unpaid) or sponsored by the organisation (rather than being paid for by the mentee). Relationship is relatively long (months – years).

Goal: The mentor aims to transfer some or all of their resources to the mentee.

Behaviour: The mentor largely focuses on an instructional teaching style (doing what the mentor says) and sharing their experience.

Key Similarities: 1. Both are essentially “facilitated dialogue.” 2. Both are aimed at development, learning, or performance.

Key Differences: 1. The coach does not need to have expertise, the mentor does. 2. The coach is more focused on drawing out, the mentor is more focused on pouring knowledge in.

Why only do one? In many cases, to 'only coach' or to 'only mentor' would be like imposing a restriction on natural, free flowing dialogue. Take, for instance, the argument: “When you start giving advice that’s not coaching, that’s mentoring.”

But why only do one?

In business today, it's unlikely that pure coaching (guiding) or pure mentoring (instructing) would work at all times. Working with a client will most likely involve a blend of techniques and behaviours that best meet the demands of the situation.


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