The difference between mentoring and coaching

Kai Kirkkopelto

The phrases mentoring and coaching are often used interchangeably. But regardless of this common misconception, the two are in fact very different concepts. Both are independent in their own rights, and have a really valuable place when it comes to employee development. In this article we’re going to explore the differences between the two, and the benefits they both bring to the table. 

So, let’s start with some simple definitions: 

What is mentoring?

Mentoring is a reciprocal and collaborative experience. Often between a junior and more senior employee, mentoring is designed to support the younger employee’s growth, learning and development. However, in recent years there has been a shift. Instead of assuming younger employees are the only people to benefit from mentoring programmes, more often older employees in the workplace are benefiting from reverse mentoring. Whichever way the mentorship works, the ultimate end goal is to help the mentee with their career development, which is usually completed through meetings, calls and on-going support from the mentor. 

Donna Peters, Leadership and Career Coach summed up mentorship really nicely, saying “Mentorship comes from a position of love, and has your best interests in mind. It’s the intersection of someone who is standing on a mountain, and is leaning back to pull you to the top of the mountain with them. But once you’re on the top of the mountain, they’re showing you all the possibilities that are in your best interests.” 

What is coaching?

Conversely, coaching is about raising awareness of an individual to unlock potential and maximise performance. It’s about encouraging the person to learn, rather than teaching them. Helping them to change in the way they wish and helping them go the way they want to. Coaching should be delivered by people who are trained to do so, such as line managers or others trained in coaching skills. This is because coaches do not offer step-by-step processes or advice, instead they ask the right questions to ensure the coachee leverages the knowledge and skills they already possess in order to achieve their goals. 

So, what’s the difference between mentoring and coaching?

It’s clear to see why people use these phrases interchangeably. So, what are the differences between the two?

  1. Timeframe. Mentoring is a long-term relationship that often spans years. Coaching is a short-term process, lasting until set goals are achieved.
  2. Structure. Coaching is usually more structured with regular scheduled meetings. Mentoring is more of a natural, fluid relationship – guided by what works for the mentee and mentor. 
  3. Agenda. Similarly to structure, the agenda varies greatly between coaching relationships and mentorships. A coach will be helping an individual reach one specific goal, and as such will bring with them a clear agenda. Whereas in a mentorship, the agenda is usually set by the mentee (with the support of the mentor, of course!)
  4. Focus. Coaching usually focuses on one measurable goal. And as such, success of the coaching relationship is easily defined. However mentoring relationships are development driven – and focus on developing the mentee, driving them to their next stage in their career growth. 
  5. Advice. Mentors give advice, they leverage their personal experiences and use these to guide their mentee through any challenge they may face. Conversely, coaches do not give advice – they help people realise their own potential with clever questioning and guidance. 

The expert’s opinion

In the first and fourteenth episodes of our podcast series “The Mentors Who Made Me” we spoke to two coaches, Lucy Mullins – Co-founder of StepLadder and Executive Coach, and Donna Peters – Leadership and Career Coach. We asked both what the difference is between coaching and mentoring.

Lucy Mullins – Co-founder & COO of StepLadder & Executive Coach

What’s the difference between mentoring and coaching? Well, it’s a continuum. Coaching is at one end and mentoring is at the other. On the one side, you have really strict mentoring, where one party (the mentor) has more knowledge and experience in a particular industry. They will then give the mentee a detailed plan about how to progress in that particular field, in a very structured, clear way. At the other end you have coaching. In its purest form, coaches give absolutely no input at all. They understand the person they are coaching has all the knowledge and information they need – and it’s their job to help draw it out, organise it and help make decisions. Simply put – the difference comes down to putting information in, and drawing information out. But clearly, there’s a huge gap in between, where you can do a bit of both.”

Donna Peters – Leadership and Career Coach

Donna echoed Lucy’s sentiments: “Coaches are trained in the neuroscience of leadership. They understand what’s needed for behavioural change to stick. They ask the right questions and uncover the beliefs the coachee has that might be limiting their progress. In comparison, Mentors are there to give the mentee advice. They will often give this advice in the ilk of “if I were in your shoes, this is what I would do. One person can be both a coach and mentor. However they should clearly signpost when they are ‘changing roles’ by asking the coachee or mentee “Would you like to know what I would do if I were you?” or similar.

You can check out Lucy’s and Donna’s episodes of “The Mentors Who Made Me” by clicking here.

So, do you need a coach or a mentor?

Often it’s hard to decide whether you need a coach or a mentor. And sometimes it takes some trial and error to find out the right answer for you. But one important fact to remember is that they are not mutually exclusive. You can have a mentor and a coach. Both of these individuals can help you with different aspects of your life. And will equip you with the tools you need to hit your goals. But asking someone to be your mentor, or coach, is often difficult. So we created this blog to help you out. Good luck with popping the question to your mentor (or coach!)

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