Coaching and Mentoring—Same, Similar or Different?

Coaching and Mentoring—Same, Similar or Different?

I always smile when I hear people trying to explain the difference between coaching and mentoring.  Particularly when coaches try to describe mentoring and vice versa. Each tends to think their own discipline is somehow better than the other. Bob Garvey, one of Europe’s leading coaching and mentoring academic practitioners, compares the pursuit of truth for the two terms to the Pepsi–Coca Cola wars of the 1970s and 1980s.1

Is there a real thing? Can people really taste the difference? 

As someone who’s been involved in coaching and mentoring for over 20 years, I think the differences are becoming more difficult to pin down. The reason is there’s a growing overlap, as each group learns from the other. 

Inside coaching and mentoring conversations  

When it comes to developmental coaching and developmental mentoring, there is far more in common than there are differences. Both have at their heart the intention of using the conversation to help the coachee or mentee to develop their own capacity—to find solutions, to see new perspectives, to move in new directions.  Many people think mentors only give advice and coaches ask questions but never give advice. Having observed hundreds of coaches and mentors over two decades, my belief is, this simply isn‘t true. Great mentors do much more than hand out words of wisdom, and coaches actually do sometimes give advice—although the most skilled coaches would call this out and ask the coachee’s permission first.   

Although many of the dialogue skills a mentor uses, are also coaching skills, the content and context of the conversations may be different. Mentoring is often about the person’s future professional and career development, whereas coaching may be more focused on the person’s performance in the role and ability to meet agreed targets right now. Mentoring is mentee–driven and the mentee ‘owns’ the agenda whereas the workplace coaching agenda is often driven by the coachee’s line manager. 

How about we draw the line in the sand now. Below are some of the similarities and differences I see between mentoring and coaching in the workplace: 

Features of Coaching and Mentoring
Similarities and differences between Coaching and Mentoring

A closer look at the roles of mentor and coach 

Mentors generally take on broader roles for their mentees, than coaches for their coachees.  Whilst coaches do their work primarily through dialogue, mentors extend beyond conversation. They’re role models. They often open their personal and professional networks to their mentees. They may allow mentees to shadow and observe them at work. Some mentors like to do things with their mentees; for example, attend a conference together. A mentor in a program I managed shared one example I’ll never forget. The mentee was struggling with handling difficult, aggressive people. The mentor suggested a trip to the local parliament to observe and then discuss how politicians behaved during question time. I’m sure that was very educational! 

What is mentoring, then? 

 This is one of my favourite definitions of mentoring: 

Helping someone with the quality of their thinking about issues important to them.
(Clutterbuck & Megginson) 

 Good mentoring provides a space for reflection in which mentees are ‘learners’ who are encouraged and given different perspectives. The aim is to allow them to come to their own conclusions and develop their own solutions. Great mentors help mentees see their own talents and potential. (I’m sure coaches reading this will exclaim—“but that’s what coaches do!” —and yes, they’re probably right). 

Does it really matter how we define coaching and mentoring as long as they’re happening inside organisations? 

Possibly not. But that’s not very helpful if you’ve been tasked with ‘building a coaching and mentoring culture’, as so many organisations today are doing today.  

If we take a bird’s eye view from the strategic level at what the organisation is trying to achieve, it’s actually easier to see the differences and how mentoring can be applied in a very different way than coaching. 

A strategic approach to mentoring 

Mentoring has grown in popularity in recent years because it is a cost-effective, programmatic way, to achieve particular organisational goals. Put in place inside an organisation or membership body, with managers or experienced members as mentors, mentoring programs can involve relatively large numbers, especially nowadays with the help of technology. Mentors are typically not paid, therefore cost per mentee is very low, compared to, say, the cost of engaging external coaches. You can expect to pay between $500 and $1500 per mentoring pair for a well-managed, effective mentoring program run over six to twelve months. This is cheaper than one individual coaching session with many executive coaches! 

Because mentoring can impact more people, structured mentoring programs can be aimed at solving key organisational problems. Think mentoring when you want to: 

Benefits of Strategic Mentoring

9 Benefits of Strategic Mentoring

Unless your organisation has a large team of internal coaches, it’s very unlikely you can tackle these systemic issues with coaching. Usually, coaching is used at an individual level for senior managers or emerging top talent, as an investment in that person for the future. The goals of each coaching engagement are idiosyncratic—whatever the particular individual needs to work on—and agreed with his/her manager.  

When we starting with a new client, we encourage them to think strategically about what problem or issue they want to tackle with mentoring, rather than just making it available to everyone. Because executive coaching is usually reserved for the senior elite or a few key people, mentoring is a great way to engage and develop the often–forgotten middle layers of the organisation. 

We’d love to hear from you about how your organisation uses coaching and mentoring. If you have stories to share, we have an engaged community who would be interested to hear them!  

© Melissa Richardson, 2019 

1. Garvey, Bob (2011). A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book About Coaching and Mentoring, Sage Publications, London.
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A guide to unleashing the hidden value in your organisation through high impact strategic mentoring programs.

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