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Last updated: 20.07.21

What is the Difference Between Coaching and Mentoring?

The majority of organisations have schemes that involve mentoring and coaching in the workplace. Whether these are organised informally between employees or an external professional is brought in to deliver training, both coaching and mentoring can be very valuable experiences that allow for individual potential to be realised and more meaningful support to be offered.

Whilst there are several similarities between the two concepts, it is important to understand the difference between coaching and mentoring if you are going to be organising or engaging with either in any kind of context. Or, you may be considering taking on the role of either mentor or coach, and want to know which your skills and experience will be better suited for.

This article contains explanations of each practice, an outline of the key similarities and differences between coaching and mentoring, and which scenarios are better suited to each one.

What is Coaching?

Coaching is a developmental process that focuses on improving performance and achieving set goals. It assesses what skills, tools and resources are available and builds on these to facilitate progress and achievement.

A fundamental aspect of coaching is that it works on the belief that an individual has everything they need already to achieve what they want to. The objective of coaching is to uncover this potential and help the individual realise how they can succeed using the tools at their disposal, instead of teaching them something new.

Coaching is also about helping an individual to develop self-awareness so that they can realise what skills they already have, figure out what it is they really want to achieve, and develop realistic strategies for getting there. By the end of a period of coaching, an individual should feel empowered and equipped to set and achieve goals without having to rely entirely on someone else for support and guidance.

What is a Coach?

A coach is someone who facilitates development by working with an individual to help them realise their potential and make a plan for achieving their goals. It is not the job of a coach to teach anything new or direct what needs to be done; instead, they ask questions and provide a framework for an individual to find the solutions to the challenges they are facing.

In a professional environment, a coach may be a trained professional who has studied and developed coaching techniques and models and is brought in to work with individuals who are identified as needing guidance. Or they may just be a member of the company who helps other employees to gain better awareness of their abilities and aspirations, facilitating reflection without offering direct instructions.

What is Mentoring?

Mentoring is another developmental process that relies more on the relationship between two people and the transfer of knowledge that comes from this. By pairing an individual with a more experienced peer, learning and development can take place on a more equal level where a relationship of trust and support can be built, leading to more meaningful progress.

There are many different approaches to mentoring that range from focusing on the mentor’s experience and their ability to pass on knowledge, to focusing on what the mentee can get out of the relationship and what they are hoping to achieve. There does not have to be a hierarchical difference in skill or experience in mentoring, as sometimes the mentor may actually be less qualified but possess skills that another team member may benefit from learning.

In a professional environment, mentoring takes place intending to drive long-term growth and career development.

What is a Mentor?

A mentor is someone who has been appointed as a guide and support system for another individual, usually within a group, company or organisation. It tends to be a voluntary position where someone who has a good deal of skill and experience offers to provide training and insight to someone who may be lower down in an organisation’s ranks or at the start of their career.

The role of a mentor can have varying degrees of formality depending on how the approach is organised. Many businesses set up mentoring programmes between senior and junior employees that may have scheduled meetings, structured methods of measuring progress and a set timeframe, whereas other mentorship schemes may be more informal and more about building a supportive relationship between team members.

Key Differences between Coaching and Mentoring

Whilst an overall intention of providing support and facilitating development is the same with both mentoring and coaching, there are key differences between the two approaches that set them apart and make each more suitable for different scenarios.

One of the most important aspects is that coaching is more about providing guidance and a framework for growth and development, whereas mentoring centres around building a relationship between two people. Whilst individuals may build up a good relationship with their coach, a successful mentoring relationship is built on trust and understanding and more time is often invested in making sure that both parties are happy to work together.

The relationship between a mentor and a mentee may also involve using the mentor’s connections to open more doors and provide opportunities for experience and networking or the mentee, which a coaching relationship tends not to offer.

Another significant difference is that coaching often focuses on what can be done in the present, whereas mentoring looks to the future and decides what needs to be done later in order to achieve goals. Coaching does focus on goal setting and overall aspirations, but is more about improving current performance to uncover potential and put systems in place that will allow you to be more successful going forward.

Whilst every scenario is different, coaching tends to be a shorter process that may only last until an individual is thought to have made improvements and feels more prepared to continue in their career without additional support. A mentorship relationship on the other hand is often a long-term arrangement where both parties will keep in touch for check-ins and reviews, providing support throughout someone’s entire career or at least their time at a certain company.

When looking at the differences between coaches and mentors, a coach will often have received more specific training in techniques and approaches to coaching development than a mentor, and may be specifically qualified as a business or development coach. Mentors usually have more experience and knowledge of the sector that they work in, but are less likely to have undertaken the same level of training in offering guidance and support as a coach.

Finally, the last key difference between coaching and mentoring is that a coach does not directly instruct the individuals that they work with to take specific courses of action. Their role is to help empower others to make their own decisions and so they rarely offer specific advice or instructions, whereas a mentor can do this if the situation requires it.

Similarities between Coaching and Mentoring

Whilst many key differences set mentoring and coaching apart, the two approaches do also share several similarities.

The first similarity between the two is that both coaching and mentoring have an overall goal of development and progress. The individuals who are coached or mentored will have a desire to improve and usually want to get better in their role through realising and setting goals or working towards new skills.

Both approaches also rely on regular interaction in order to make a change. An individual will often meet with a coach or a mentor to review progress, decide on next steps and gain more insight into what else they could be doing and how, and without these meetings, it is unlikely that any progress would be made.

The exchange of knowledge is a key feature of both mentoring and coaching, with each scenario having an appointed ‘teacher’ and ‘student’ in some capacity. In mentoring this transfer of knowledge is more direct and may be directly related to the role that the individual does, whereas in coaching the information and guidance given is more about how to unlock potential, what methods can be used to reach success, and how to understand your own strengths and weaknesses.

Finally, whilst it’s not a direct similarity, mentoring can often involve aspects of coaching. As well as industry and specific career advice, a mentor may work in a coaching capacity with their mentee to help them improve their self-awareness and facilitate personal development through suggestions.

When Should You Use Coaching?

If you’re in charge of organising schemes for development at a company, or looking for a solution for yourself, deciding between coaching or mentoring will depend on several things. 

If the business or company is large, if those needing support are in a senior position, if you’ve identified employees who are aiming for significant progress throughout their career or feel that staff would benefit from gaining more self-awareness and self-management skills, coaching is the best option of the two. Many businesses choose to employ an external coach in these scenarios, which can be expensive but offers much more targeted and experienced support that is more likely to see impressive results.

When Should You Use Mentoring?

When it comes down to coaching vs mentoring, mentoring is often the more suitable choice if you’re looking to develop leadership and training skills in a workforce, as well as providing them with a scheme to assist in development. If you’re hiring a new cohort of less experienced staff, want to include peer-to-peer support in your company culture, or have a lot of senior or experienced staff in your business who are willing to share their knowledge, mentoring is an excellent choice.

It should be noted that some formal training is often required if you want to set up an official mentorship scheme, providing mentors with the tools they need to work with their mentees and outlining what is and is not expected of them.

FAQs

What is executive coaching?

Executive coaching is a special kind of coaching designed for leaders, those in a senior position at a workplace, or employees who are identified as having high potential. An executive coach will often work with an individual to help them clarify goals and action plans, become more self-aware and maximise their potential. 

What is the difference between training and coaching?

Training is another aspect of personal or workplace development that can be easy to confuse with coaching. An easy way to remember it is that training involves acquiring new skills through the transfer of knowledge, whereas coaching builds on the skills you already have and enhances your existing talents.

What is peer mentoring?

Peer mentoring is a form of mentoring where, instead of being mentored by an external professional, another member of a company, team or group will offer advice, support and knowledge to help improve an individual’s skills. Often, a peer mentor will guide someone through a situation or role that they already have experience with, such as a senior employee mentoring the junior employee in the same role. 

Summary

Coaching and mentoring are both incredibly valuable methods of development and learning, and many businesses and workplaces use both in order to support and enhance their workforce. Whether you’re considering becoming a coach or a mentor, or you’ve been wondering if you’d benefit from one of the approaches, they’re incredibly valuable strategies for everyone involved.

If you’d like to find out more about how you can facilitate personal growth and success, we offer an extensive online Coaching course that is ideal for managers who want to get better at helping their team develop.

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