Breaking Down the Difference Between Coaching and Mentoring

CoachHub · 22 September 2022 · 3 min read

Reskilling and competency development is top of mind for many CHROs―which is imperative when you consider the large gaps in bench strength. There are not enough leaders ready for tomorrow, and the need for new skills and capabilities to meet the fast-changing needs of evolving industries is growing steadily.  The natural place to go in terms of intervention is to “focus on reskilling: however,that’s misleading on its own.

We think that the rate of transformation we are undergoing in society is something we can keep up with―that training and reskilling alone will get us there. While it is absolutely important to ensure that people have the technical or speciality skills they require for a job,it just isn’t enough.

It’s those capabilities―foundational or PowerSkills as Berin labels them―that are going to make a difference. So, that means we need better and more effective ways to help people develop these skills/capabilities. They are highly complex, and require not only knowledge acquisition that comes from training, but also the opportunities for reflective practice, applied learning, real-time observation and feedback as well as guidance.

Mentoring and coaching are two approaches that are important in the development of these power skills. However, they are two distinct approaches to development, used for specific purposes.

mentoring vs coaching

Mentoring vs. Coaching

While both coaching and mentoring have gone through a shift over the last decades―one from a deficit and “fix” model to an empowerment perspective―they are not the same. Let’s first start with formal definitions to see the differences.. 

Coaching involves an experienced coach, partnering with clients to help them reflect on themselves, their situation and context, and to identify new insights and actions to unlock potential, enhance wellbeing and improve performance.  

In comparison, mentoring is an interpersonal relationship of support, conversation and learning, where an experienced person (mentor) invests the expertise and knowledge they have acquired to promote the development of another person (protégé) who has skills to acquire and professional goals to achieve.

From the definitions alone, it’s clear that mentorship is more about guidance and advice giving to aid growth and development, whereas coaching is about asking powerful, provoking questions to enable a person to come up with their own solutions. Further, mentorship tends to be focused on specific skill and knowledge acquisition for career development, usually related to technical skills. Coaching, on the other hand, tends to focus on helping a person grow holistically and is more performance oriented, usually related to growing power skills.

Here are some additional details on the biggest differences, adapted from Jonathan Passmore:

Coaching vs Mentoring

Coaching

  • Overal Approach

    Non-directive: coach-driven questioning, coachee providing solutions

  • Focus

    More performance focus: typically concerned with development of skills for current role and performance and enhance wellbeing

  • Level of formality

    More formal: structured, involving a written a mutually agreed contract

  • Who’s involved in contracting

    Two or three parties: Can often involve a sponsor or line manager in a tripartite meeting at the start and/or at the end.

  • Domain Expertise

    Generalist: coaches typically have limited domain knowledge is needed

  • Duration

    Shorter: typically 4-12 meetings over 12 months or less

  • Training

    More training: coaches are certified, and often have supervision of practice

  • Tools / Frameworks

    Specific coaching approaches; Use of assessments and tools

Mentoring

  • Overall Approach

    Directive: protégé-driven questioning, mentor providing solutions and advice

  • Focus

    More career-focused: typically concerned with long-term career development.

  • Level of formality

    Less formal: less structured, with a word of mouth agreement

  • Who’s involved in contracting

    Two parties: Mentor and protégé.

  • Domain Expertise

    More domain specific knowledge: mentors typically are respected and sought for their domain knowledge

  • Duration

    Longer: typically, unspecified meetings, can often run as little as 1 year to more than 5

  • Training

    Less training: mentors bring more professional experience, rather than certification

  • Tools / Frameworks

    No standard model or approach

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When to use each

Both coaching and mentoring are highly impactful development interventions, with strong evidence to support their effectiveness. Both produce many positive outcomes for the individual being coached or mentored―many very similar. For example, mentoring has been shown to yield positive career-related outcomes such as higher job performance and job satisfaction, result in better career advancement and promotions over time, and have positive psychological benefits (Allen et al., 2004; Underhill, 2006, and Eby et al., 2013).  

Coaching has been linked to higher performance outcomes in terms of goal achievement, great skill acquisition and development, enhanced well-being, higher work satisfaction and productivity, as well as positive psychological outcomes (Theebom et al., 2014; Jones et al., 2016).

While both interventions have impacts on some similar outcomes, these interventions clearly operate differently and for unique purposes. Consider the following questions as a starting point for determining the most appropriate approach for development:

  • Is the focus area of development related to the employee’s current short- or medium-term personal growth and current role performance (coaching), or is it about long-term career management (mentoring)? 
  • Is the focus about developing a personal plan (coaching) or being developed by someone else (mentoring)?
  • Is the focus about managing the self (coaching), or about leveraging connections and relationships from another (mentoring)? 
  • Is it about exploration and greater self awareness (coaching) or acquisition of domain specific knowledge (mentoring).

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Personalizing development with the right path

Organizations are moving away from the ‘sheep dip’ approach to development, and finally leaning into development from the 70/20/10 approach that was evidenced more than 30 years ago through the CCL’s groundbreaking findings outlined in the Lessons from Experience.  This approach is where people learn and grow from 70% challenging experiences and assignments, 20% developmental relationships and 10% coursework and training. By widening and deepening an organization’s toolkit for development, it is better placed to meet the unique needs of its people. Coaching and mentoring are both needed, but each has a place in every organization’s suite of development interventions.

Liz Pavese, PhD
Organizational Psychologist, Employee Experience Advisor and Certified Professional Coach

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