The Difference Between Coaching and Mentoring

Nicola Cronin

Coaching and mentoring both exist for the same purpose: helping others grow, develop and reach their full potential. Crucially, both methods give the opportunity for individuals to take responsibility for their own development.

The two frequently get grouped together when discussing people development, making it feel like an ‘either or’ decision for organisations. But there are a number of differences between coaching and mentoring, so it's important to see them as separate things and understand how they can work together.

If you're wondering how coaching and mentoring differ, and the various ways they can be used for career development, you're in the right place...

What is a career mentor?

A mentor is someone who can guide, advise, and support you to be the best you can be in your career. They take time to understand you, the way you work, and the challenges you're facing, and then advise you based on their understanding and personal experience to help you improve.

The benefits mentoring can have include increasing confidence, communication skills, aspiration, and exposure to new perspectives. As a result, those with mentors are more likely to feel motivated and progress in their careers.

While good mentors will bring elements of coaching into their sessions, the key elements of mentoring are different to coaching:

Key Elements of Mentoring

  • Long term

Mentoring relationships have the potential to last a lifetime if they result in friendship. Even if you initially get a mentor to support with a specific goal, once you have that connection with someone, you may reach out to them again in the future. Mentoring tends to be longer term than coaching partnerships due to its personal and informal nature.

  • Voluntary

Typically, mentoring is voluntary. Whether the mentoring takes place informally through personal networks, or formally through a company mentoring program, there is rarely an expectation of payment for the mentor's time. Both parties are dedicated to the personal development of the mentee, and the process is also highly rewarding for the mentor.

💡 FACT 💡 Mentors find their jobs more meaningful and less stressful than those who do not mentor, and have also been found to be more likely to get a promotion.

  • Advice & Guidance

The role of a mentor is to listen, learn, and advise. It is about pointing their mentee in the right direction, and aiding their career development. The difference between coaching and mentoring in this regard, is that mentoring is a softer and more relationship-focused form of guidance, as opposed to the structured training approach coaching takes.

  • Mentee drives the sessions

With mentoring, the mentee is responsible for driving the sessions and steering the relationships. A common misconception is that a mentor will tell you exactly what to do and shape you into a more successful person, but the truth is quite the opposite. A mentee must be dedicated to their own development, and utilise their mentor to help them achieve their goals.

Read more: How To Be A Good Mentee.

  • Mentor advises based on personal experience

Due to the personal nature of mentoring, a mentor will more often than not draw on their personal experiences and expertise to help their mentee. This could be in the form of sharing a story that taught them a valuable lesson, or a challenge they overcame in their career.

What is a career coach?

A coach is someone who can upskill and train you in specific development areas. They may identify and prioritise improvement areas, break down your end goal into smaller goals, and work with you to shape and grow your mindset.

Career coaches can help you understand yourself better, train your brain, and equip you with the skills to handle future challenges and situations.

Compared with mentoring, coaching is typically more structured and tailored to specific outcomes, as opposed to general personal development. This more formal structure is also a result of coaches charging for their service, unlike mentors. Here are some of the key elements of coaching that differ with mentoring:

Key Elements of Coaching

  • Short term

Coaching partnerships are more short term than mentoring relationships, due to the fact that they are objective driven and more structured. Someone may seek out a coach to help them develop a specific skill, and the coaching would end once that skill had been acquired.

  • Training & Upskilling

As opposed to advising and guiding, coaching focuses more on training and upskilling to help you develop a winning mindset. A coach can help increase your self-awareness: identifying areas for improvement, and challenging assumptions that may be preventing you achieve your goals. Coaching is often used for the development of leadership skills, where they may train you in the art of questioning to equip you to manage others better.

  • Coach drives the sessions

Unlike in a mentoring dynamic, a coach is more likely to drive the sessions than the client. While the client will naturally have input and is taking responsibility for their development by undergoing coaching, there is less expectation on them to run the meetings.

  • Coach does not necessarily discuss personal experience

A coach is not obligated to discuss anything personal. In fact, they're likely to have no experience in the industry or role that their client works in. This is a key difference between coaching and mentoring, where mentors would draw on their experience and knowledge.

As you can see, from the above lists, coaching and mentoring are not the same thing. However, they're also not worlds apart. Both coaching and mentoring are methods of developing individuals, and they hold similar values at their core.

"It is a journey where the process of learning is as important as the knowledge and skills gained" (Zeus and Skiffington, 2000) 

In both mentoring and coaching, there is:

  • Trust between both parties

  • A desire to develop

  • Knowledge sharing

  • Discussion of goals

  • Exposure to new ways of thinking

  • Skill development

  • Focus on career progression

  • The unlocking of someone's potential

And so the relationships are underpinned by many similar principles.

Once you understand the similarities and differences between coaching and mentoring, you can see how they are able to complement each other as development practices.

For example, as an organisation, you may want to foster a culture of people-focused personal development and implement a company wide mentoring program. Yet you also want to provide a more specific leadership training option to your managers, and so provide them with coaching sessions. The effect of this two-pronged approach to coaching and mentoring is highly valuable. Those managers who have undergone coaching will make very good mentors to other individuals in your organisation.

When you bear in mind that 89% of mentees go on to be mentors, you create a ripple effect culture of learning and development within your organisation that has people at its core.

Curious about how to implement a coaching and mentoring culture within your organisation? Get in touch with Guider!