Coaching and mentoring are two distinct forms of guidance and support that play crucial roles in personal and professional development.
Whilst sometimes used interchangeably and whilst they share the common goal of facilitating growth, they differ significantly in their approach, scope, and purpose.
This article aims to explore the key differences between coaching and mentoring, shedding light on their roles, relationships, focus, structure, expertise, accountability, context, benefits, and limitations.
By understanding these distinctions, individuals can make informed choices regarding the type of guidance that best suits their needs.
Defining Coaching and Mentoring
There are many definitions of coaching, some more useful than others in describing clearly the aims and nature of coaching.
Animas founder, Nick Bolton, describes coaching this way:
Coaching is a collaborative, non-directive conversation that brings about change through inquiry, reflection, choice and new behaviours.
Coaching often involves a structured process focused on exploration and decision making and can relate to any area of life.
Mentoring is a supportive and guidance-based relationship where an experienced individual shares their knowledge, insights, and advice to foster the mentee’s personal and professional development.
It should be clear immediately that there are some differences here, most particularly around the idea of non-directive versus guidance. We will explore this next.
Expertise, Experience and the Source of Knowledge
Arguably the most profound difference between coaching and mentoring is the one that relates to expertise.
Coaches are typically experts at the process of uncovering what a client wants, what their obstacles are, and how they can move forward in whatever issue they are discussing. The coach does not have the answers nor, when truly adopting a coaching role, are the considered subject matter experts. They facilitate rather than guide.
Mentors, on the other hand, draw from their own personal experiences and journeys and their professional know-how to offer insights and guidance. Their expertise lies in the wisdom gained through their personal and professional paths, serving as a source of inspiration and support.
It is worth noting that in practice, many coaches have a hybrid role in which expertise and experience can inform the work they do and, indeed, may be a significant factor in why they were hired by the client.
Nonetheless, it is clear that a major distinction between coaching and mentoring is where the source of expertise and knowledge is to be found. In coaching, we say that the client has the answers. In mentoring, the mentor is chosen specifically because they are seen to have wisdom and experience that the mentee can benefit from.
Nick Bolton often describes it this way:
Coaching is drawing out, mentoring is putting in.
This distinction, though knowingly simplistic, allows a coach who holds a hybrid role to know when each is needed. The coach cannot know someone’s motivation – they must ask questions to draw this out. However, stepping into a mentoring role, they may know of an essential resource, a great connection, or a must-do strategy for the client to progress.
Beyond the confines of the corporate space, mentoring has sprung up in many areas further confusing the distinction between the two. Many business coaches act more like coaches sharing well-trodden pathways to a particular business outcome.
Recognising the growth of mentoring in this way, it is useful to remember Bolton’s concept of “drawing out and putting in”. The more the coach-mentor can make this distinction the better can be their work with clients.
Duration of the Relationship
Another key distinction between coaching and mentoring is that of duration.
Coaching, typically, lasts for a fixed period of time based on an initial contract. It may be renewed and some coaches work with the same client for years. But this is rare.
Mentoring by contrast can be short term – particularly when serving a specific function such as the first 100 days of a new executive.
However, it can often be more informal, lasting as long as the mentor/mentee relationship is fulfilling to both.
Focus and Scope
The scope of coaching is limitless. Coaching can be applied to any aspect of life from career to relationships, health to wealth, and even purpose and meaning.
This is a reflection of the facilitative nature of coaching. The coach is not an expert on the topic but rather facilitates their client to think about and make decisions around the subject.
Mentoring, on the other hand, is typically centred around career development with this narrower subject allowing for guidance, knowledge transfer and resourcing.
Structure and Approach
Coaches often follow a structured and systematic approach, guided by a well-defined process.
Even without a clear structure, coaches will use various methodologies, tools, and interventions. Indeed, this is why coach training courses exist to enable individuals to gain these coaching skills. The coaching relationship typically involves regular sessions and progress tracking to ensure accountability and measure outcomes.
Mentoring, by contrast, adopts a more informal approach without a rigid structure. Mentors offer guidance and support based on their personal experiences, sharing stories, advice, and reflections to inspire and guide mentees. There are few, if any, mentoring courses around precisely because mentoring is a more personal, experience-driven conversation.
Accountability and Evaluation
Coaching places strong emphasis on accountability, as coaches monitor progress, provide constructive feedback, and challenge coachees to take responsibility for their actions.
Coaches evaluate performance, measure goal attainment, and support coachees in overcoming obstacles.
Mentoring, being less formal, relies more on subjective evaluation and reflective discussions.
Mentors provide guidance, share perspectives, and encourage mentees to critically analyse their choices and actions.
Coaching is seen a profession and coaches are paid as such. Coaches undertake rigorous training and certification and most will go on to join professional associations and continue their education with further training.
This means that, unless the coach is volunteering, coaching is a paid-fore service. The client may pay directly to the coach or they may be benefiting from coaching as part of an organisational contract. Either way, the coach is paid.
Mentors (of the traditional kind at least) are not paid. Mentoring is a way in which more-experienced individuals can give back to someone who is on a similar journey to the one they have been on.
I mention “the traditional kind” of mentor to distinguish them from professional mentors such as “business coaches”. Business coaches are often mentors in all but name but have professionalised their service so that their mentees/clients pay them for their expertise and experience. This is a perfectly good approach to helping people but the confusion around the terminology is worth noting. What marks them out as mentors rather than coaches, in this case, is where the answers and expertise is to be found – namely with the mentor rather than the client.
Benefits and Limitations
Coaching offers huge benefits which is why it has flourished as a profession. It can improve performance, increase self-awareness, enhance goal attainment, and enable greater levels of self-efficacy across all aspects of life.
Its limitations lie in times when specific knowledge, held only by someone who’s done it before, is required. At times like this, it can be more effective to go to someone who knows rather than to spend time trying to work it out for oneself. Coaching is about discovery, the journey of growth and self-awareness. Sometimes, though, you just need the answer!
Mentoring offers an excellent way to achieve personalised career guidance, knowledge transfer, expanded networks, and personal growth.
The limitation here is that the mentor is just one person and their answer may not be the best. Likewise, mentoring is limited to finding someone who has walked a similar path in a similar way and with whom you can have a constructive relationship. It is more personal and relies on a greater degree of respect for the mentor’s own journey.
In conclusion, coaching and mentoring are distinct approaches to guidance and support, each with its own characteristics, purposes, and benefits.
Coaching focuses on enabling the client to find their own answers in any aspect of life. The coach’s role is to facilitate this journey of discovery and decision-making.
Mentoring centres on career development, guidance, and leveraging the wisdom and experience of mentors. This can be invaluable at the right time and when the relationship works.
Understanding these differences empowers individuals to make informed choices, enabling them to embark on a journey of growth and development tailored to their unique needs and aspirations.