Coaching vs Mentoring: many similarities, one critical difference

I Googled ‘coaching vs mentoring’ and I was shocked. There is so much confusion! For example, Wikipedia describes coaching as providing training and guidance. This is just plain wrong.

There are many similarities between coaching and mentoring, but there is also one critical difference. It’s important you understand this, as coaching and mentoring are both important roles that you play as a manager.

This article explores the similarities between coaching and mentoring and clarifies the one critical difference.

Here we go!

Coaching vs Mentoring: one significant difference

Coaching is a skill, (learn more about coaching skills for managers).

Mentoring is all about sharing knowledge, experience and expertise.

Let’s expand on that critical distinction.

Coaching is a skill: a great business coach can coach anyone on anything. A business coach does not need experience or expertise in the topic of the conversation. They use skillful questioning, and a structured conversation, to support the coachee’s learning. This learning is achieved by the coachee through self-reflection, self-exploration of the options and thoughtful action.

Here are a few key quotes from ‘Coaching for Performance’ by John Whitmore:

Coaching is unlocking people’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.

Coaching requires expertise in coaching but not in the subject at hand. That is one of its great strengths.

We must see people in terms of their future potential, not their past performance.

This video (not mine) provides a clear and accurate description of coaching:

As you can see, coaches do not offer solutions themselves, they do not insert their views into the conversation, they prompt the coachee to explore the topic themselves and to take responsibility for developing the solution.

Mentoring is all about sharing knowledge, experience and expertise: a great mentor has the knowledge, experience and expertise that is relevant to the development of the mentee, and has the interpersonal skills required to effectively share these resources.

A mentor advises and guides a mentee, for example:

  • Sharing experience of how to be successful in a specific role
  • Advising on how to prepare for future roles
  • Introducing contacts (internal and external to the business) that may be useful to the mentee
  • Providing advice on ‘how to get things done’ (navigating the business)
  • Advising on more ‘macro’ issues such as industry trends, business strategy, etc.

Because of these roles, mentors are likely to be more senior than the mentee (so they have the knowledge, experience and expertise to share!).

It’s also important to note that reverse mentoring is becoming increasingly popular. In a reverse mentoring program it is the younger, less experienced individual who mentors the more senior.

Who has the gold in the relationship?

A great coach that I worked with years ago explained it to me in this way:

In a mentoring relationship it is the mentor who has the gold: they have the experience, expertise and network, and they share their gold with their mentee.

As a coach the opposite is true. You have to believe that the coachee has the gold, you have to believe that they can find the solutions for themselves.

The similarities between coaching and mentoring

As you can see, coaching is fundamentally different from mentoring.

However, there are also many similarities between coaching and mentoring:

  • Both support a person’s development
  • Both are based on 1-1 relationships
  • Both work best when there is good personal rapport between the two parties
  • Both typically involve a series of meetings, over several months
  • Both involve personal agreements (sometimes signed ‘contracts’ between the two parties)
  • Both can be integrated into L&D programs

Coaching and Mentoring: Tendencies

Most of what I’ve covered so far is quite clear and unambiguous. However, some aspects of coaching vs mentoring are a little more blurred.

I’ve called these ‘tendencies’: they’re true most of the time, but not all the time:

  • Mentoring tends to focus on longer-term topics (though a Mentor can also support someone in their current role.). Coaching is more likely to address immediate topics related to skills and performance in the current role.
  • Because of this first point, mentoring tends to be a longer-term relationship. Mentoring agreements tend to be for at least 6 months. Coaching does include a series of meetings, but tends to be for a shorter time frame, perhaps 2-3 months.
  • Mentors are more likely to be from within the business. Coaches are more likely to be sourced externally.

It is also important to note:

  • A mentor may sometimes use the skills of coaching (eg: asking questions to prompt reflection).
  • A coach may sometimes share their experience (when it is helpful to the coachee).

This should not confuse the fundamental difference of coaching vs mentoring.

When to use coaching vs mentoring

Your role as a manager includes both mentoring and coaching your team members.

There will be times when is helpful for you to share your experience with your team members. Perhaps a particular task is new to them, then sharing your experience is a great way to support them. Or perhaps they’re struggling to collaborate with a stakeholder from another team. If you have worked with this stakeholder previously, and have some insights, then it’s natural to share! Be mindful that in these moments you are mentoring.

There may be other times when a team member is struggling with a task that is core to their role. In these situations, it can be beneficial to resist the temptation to jump in and tell them what to do. If you want them to build awareness and responsibility for their work, put your coaching hat on. Ask them coaching questions… and in that conversation, hold them responsible for finding the answer.

You can be both a coach and a mentor in your 1-1 meetings with your team. But be careful not to shift roles too quickly, if you want to coach your team members you need to stay with it for some time to create a coaching moment in which it’s clear you’re expecting the team member to come up with the answers themselves.

You can also talk with your HR team and bring in coaches and mentors to support your team members.

You’ll most likely use a coach to provide additional support for the development of one of your team when:

  • They are facing a specific challenge
  • Their development goal relates to immediate skills development and their performance in their current role
  • The person is capable, but needs support to reflect and learn, to improve in their current role
  • You have coaching capability within your business, or the budget to go external to source coaching partner

You’ll most likely use a mentor to provide additional support for the development of one of your team when:

  • A person’s learning goals related to understanding the organization, future opportunities, building their network or understanding the industry
  • The person is capable, but lacks the experience and can be supported to accelerate their development
  • You have senior staff who are willing to give back to the business and support the development of less senior staff in a 1-1 mentoring role.

In Summary

I hope this article clarifies the one critical difference of coaching vs mentoring. Let me just summarize:

Coaching is a skill: a great coach can coach anyone on anything. A coach does not need experience or expertise in the topic of the conversation. A coach uses skillful questioning, and a structured conversation, to support the coachee’s learning.

Mentoring is all about sharing knowledge, experience and expertise. A great mentor has the knowledge, experience and expertise that is relevant to the development of the mentee, and has the interpersonal skills required to effectively share this ‘gold’.

More on how to be a mentor.

There are also many similarities between coaching and mentoring:

  • Both support a person’s development
  • Both are based on 1-1 relationships
  • Both work best when there is good personal rapport between the two parties
  • Both typically involve a series of meetings, over several months
  • Both involve personal agreements (sometimes signed ‘contracts’ between the two parties)
  • Both can be integrated into L&D programs

Understand the critical difference and the many similarities and you’ll be well placed to incorporate both mentoring and coaching into your role as a manager.

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