Coaching and mentoring, aren’t they the same thing?

By WISE Young Professional Board Member, Nadia Earl

No, they are not the same. They are in fact quite different. Read on to understand how each of these might help you.

What is coaching?

The purpose of coaching in human resources development is to create a high-performance culture by enabling employees to unlock their full potential and approach situations in a different way. The task in coaching is to cultivate ability and not to promote task completion. (Schuitema, 2004, p. 153)

In an ever-competitive world, businesses need to keep a competitive edge and one of the biggest areas in which this is possible is its people. Coaching can transform people and businesses by helping people better their skills, improve their effectiveness, approach problems with a growth mindset, and improve working relationships. Transformation coaching is the practice of emotional intelligence. (Whitmore, 2017, p. 39)

Coaching can be used for different purposes ranging from individuals to teams, and from informal/natural coaching, to more formal structured coaching sessions.

Varied uses of coaching


Coaching Learning Resource, Scottish Social Services Council 

Cultivating ability through coaching is achieved primarily through actions, based on a foundation of trust. These actions include, but are not limited to: listening; observing; empowering; reflecting; summarising; asking open questions; and empathising. Stephen Covey describes one of the habits of a highly effective person to ‘seek first to understand, then to be understood’, indicating that one should actively listen and understand before imparting their view or suggestion. When listening with empathy to another person, you give that person psychological air, then after that vital need is met, one can focus on influencing or problem solving through coaching. (Covey, 1992, p. 241). When people feel they are in psychological safety (Dr Timothy Clarke) through an effective coaching relationship, they are able to have higher quality ideas, grow from mistakes, and engage better with company culture.

In the development of leaders, coaching is now a critical skill in business, setting leaders apart from managers which contributes to an individual’s and team’s success. Research by the UK’s Corporate Executive Board in 2009 cited that coaching grew leadership readiness more than any other factor. Google also found that one-to-one coaching with a problem manager led to a 75% improvement in that manager’s performance. (Brent & Dent, 2015, p. 15)

It is important to not take coaching in only the professional context but to also recognise that there may be other factors in an individual’s life which could impact how they work. The underlying theories behind behavioural therapies such as counselling can feature in coaching but, it is important to be aware and identify as a coach, the area where they will and will not coach. This is the coach being able to exercise their ‘psychological mindedness,’ in other words, having a certain level of psychological skill (Bluckert, 2006).

Once one has had practical experience in exercising their potential through being coached, they may be better equipped for other professional and personal life events, which on the whole, yields a more resilient and adaptable individual.

Practical examples of the role of coaching include:

  • Developing peoples’ problem solving skills
  • Increasing peoples’ confidence in their own ability
  • Helping people practice how to better deal with challenges and use growth mindset
  • Helping people to learn how to ask open questions

What is mentoring?

Mentoring is the partnership of two employees, which focuses on the long term development of the mentee. A mentor is a more experienced individual who shares knowledge with someone less experienced, based on a relationship of trust. It is important to have a good quality relationship which allows for honesty, openness and challenge between the two parties. (Brent & Dent, 2015, p. 19).

The role of a mentor is to share expertise, experience and wisdom so that they may learn from you (Brent & Dent, 2015). The characteristics of a good mentor include, but are not limited to: being approachable; actively listening; being trustworthy; being open and honest with feedback; having good communication skills. Some areas in which mentoring can be effective personally, is building confidence through understanding the mentee’s issues, giving guidance based on previous experience, transferring specific knowledge relevant to their role or helping them understand the wider business context, to broaden their horizons. A mentor should have the responsibility to provide a different perspective and/or practical action based on their experiences, being careful not to impart their personal beliefs onto that person.

Organisationally, mentoring can be an efficient way to develop people’s skills because the mentee drives the need, by bringing real life, real time situations to the discussion. The mentor is able to help solve issues by providing a different insight to the issue based on their own experience, in a timely way. (Brent & Dent, 2015, p. 22). This can be a valuable way to accelerate leadership development and can contribute to building a people-centric culture.

Practical examples of the role of mentoring include:

  • Developing people technically in an existing role
  • Developing skills in how to respond to various situations using the mentor’s previous experience
  • Helping people manage conflict
  • Working towards a change in job, by evaluating a new job description and using the mentor to help to close gaps in skills

The difference between coaching and mentoring

The underlying elements for successful coaching and mentoring are the same in that both relationships are based mainly on trust, and they help individuals develop. There are, however, distinct differences which can be explored. A concise summary by Jo Strand (CMI) is as follows.

  • Mentors talk to their mentees
  • Coaches talk with their mentees

Mentoring, coaching and sponsorship – confused?

A small change in the preposition (to/with) can make a big difference to the sentence, and so can peoples’ understanding of coaching and mentoring in practice. We may take varying themes and describe how coaching and mentoring differ in more detail, which are summarised below.

Summary of differences between coaching and mentoring

Coaching Mentoring
Goal Fulfil potential Gain perspectives
Inception Supervisory conversations or organisational initiatives Mentee driven, informal
Nature of the relationship Inquiry Advocacy
Activity Developing problem solvers Ensuring problem is solved
Motivation Goals Practical
Role of advisor Professional, trained to ask open questions Experienced, gives different perspectives
Time frame Short term Long term

We can use an example to evaluate these themes. Imagine an individual who has two conflicting priorities that are straightforward to solve, and only has enough resources to complete one that week. If an advisor comes along and starts asking open questions, adding to the time and stress of the situation, will that necessarily help? In this case, a mentoring approach may yield better results as previous experience in priority conflict may help highlight some tools which the individual can use, such as escalation management, evaluating the benefit of each of the priorities, and alignment with performance objectives. By choosing the most appropriate help tactic to suit the situation, this can ensure maximum impact of that practice. As to not confuse the coachee or mentee, it is important to agree the goals of the relationship so that the person in the advisory role can use the correct skills. Does the person want to be coached or mentored?

There is a fluid scale of skills which a coach or mentor may use. Depending on the type of problem, one will gravitate towards one of the poles, using the skills depicted.

Scale of skills used in coaching and mentoring


Coaching and Mentoring

The nature of the conversations in coaching and mentoring can be simply summarised with inquiry and advocacy, respectfully. The Inquiry and Advocacy Model was first shared by Peter Senge, to describe the two key communication styles which impact social and organisational effectiveness. (Senge, 1990). When an inquiry is made, these are questions which encourage thought and answers in the respondent (being coached). Then, in advocacy, view or opinion is imparted from experience (mentoring).

Coaching and mentoring are different. Understanding these differences can help in seeking a coach or mentor in your work life, to help with different areas of development on more of a personal development level (coaching) or technical development level (mentoring).

Right now, could you benefit from being or having a mentor or a coach?

Article References

Bluckert, P., 2006. Psychological Dimensions of Executive Coaching. UK: McGraw-Hill Education.

Brent, M. & Dent, F. E., 2015. The Leader’s Guide to Coaching and Mentoring. 1st ed. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

Covey, S., 1992. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. 1st ed. s.l.:Simon and Schuster.

Schuitema, E., 2004. Leadership The Care and Growth Model. 2nd ed. Cape Town: Ampersand Press.

Senge, P., 1990. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. 1st ed. New York: Doubleday/Currency.

Whitmore, J., 2017. Coaching for Performance. 5th ed. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Thanks to The General Teaching Council for Scotland and Scottish Social Services Council for granting permission to use their images.

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