Coaching vs. mentoring – what’s the difference and why does it matter?

Written by Ellen Booth

Working in leadership development throughout our careers, we’ve often heard coaching and mentoring being talked about interchangeably. There are undoubtedly some similarities between the two but at their core they are fundamentally different approaches to developing your skills and expertise. Here, we share why.

Coaching

Why choose coaching?

Coaching is great if you have a particular developmental goal you want to achieve or specific problem to overcome. If you’re a manager that finds yourself at odds with a member of your team for example, you may look to coaching to help you find a way forward.  Why? Well, coaching is more of a reflective practice. Your coach will work with you to help you reflect on your own behaviour and performance and, critically, support you to find your own solutions.

Think of the age-old adage: you can give a person a fish and they’ll eat for a day, teach them how to fish and they can feed themselves for a lifetime. Coaching promotes self-discovery and, ultimately, self-driven growth – perfect for enabling individuals and teams to overcome challenges, increase their own effectiveness and identify their own solutions.

How does it work?

Coaching is a highly regarded skill but, interestingly, your coach doesn’t necessarily have to be an expert in your field. They use their skills to listen and use effective questioning to help you explore your situation and identify the right solutions for you. In many ways, it can be more effective if they don’t have in-depth experience in your field as they can approach your situation without pre-conceived ideas or solutions.

Coaching can be undertaken 1-1 or it can also be delivered as a group where teams need to work through a problem or challenge together.  It is usually formal, sometimes even contractual, with set terms of reference for the relationship.

Mentoring

Why choose mentoring?

Mentoring is perfect if you’re new to a role and/or you’re looking to learn directly from someone with specific experience or skills to further your career. If you’re a new people manager for example you may benefit from learning from someone who has ‘been there and done it before’. This is because mentoring is often more directive than coaching – a mentor will suggest solutions or present their opinion.

How does it work?

The ultimate goal of mentoring is for the mentor to share knowledge, experience and skills that will help you in your job role. As a general rule, a mentor usually has a similar background to the mentee but is further ahead in their career. Mentoring is usually 1:1 but can work in larger groups.

A key difference between coaching and mentoring is that mentoring often forms part of a longer-term relationship. There’s not usually a start or end date put on mentoring. In fact, relationships can continue for many years – or even for the duration of someone’s career! Mentoring can also be two-way (known as reverse mentoring) where skillsets and perspectives are traded.

Coaching and mentoring – how do I choose?

Whether coaching or mentoring is for you depends very much on your individual circumstances. What stage are you at in your career? Are you looking for general advice or to solve a specific problem? Here are some examples:

Coaching

  • Your performance isn’t where you want it to be and you want to ‘up your game’
  • You’re ready to move up in your career and want support to work towards a promotion
  • You and your manager are struggling to communicate

Mentoring

  • You’re new in a role and want advice
  • You’ve taken on a new project that’s outside of your usual area of expertise
  • You want to develop your skills in a particular area

Differences – in a nutshell

Coaching Mentoring
Reflective Directive
Short-term Mid-long term
Formal Informal/formal
Coaching experience Specific knowledge/experience
Future focused Uses past to inform the present/future

How we can help

If you’re looking for support reaching a specific goal or overcoming an issue, then coaching may be the best route for you. We provide coaching support at all levels and specialise in supporting those in or looking to move into leadership positions. Get in touch today.