Despite there being endless information available on the difference between mentoring and coaching, we are continually asked about the nuances of both and which one is more suitable in certain situations. In this blog, we have simplified the differences and compared the two with the aim of educating our readers on what might be best career development for themselves or their employees in their individual contexts.
Over the past decade, we’ve seen the justified rise of mentoring and coaching to prominence within organisational learning and development contexts. While both once occupied positions on the edges of mainstream learning and development practices, we are now seeing the power of these methodologies being fully recognised.
The 70-20-10 framework of learning and development suggests that 20% of learning at work is through relationship learning - learning from others - whilst 70% is derived from job-related experiences and 10% comes from formal educational events. An effective coach or well-executed mentoring program can provide this relationship learning, with great outcomes for both individual and organisation.
It is important to note that the purpose and practice of mentoring can vary widely across contexts, industries and cultures. For the purpose of this blog, we are looking at both mentoring and coaching in an organisational learning and development context.
What is the difference between coaching & mentoring?
Coaching is a trained and practiced skill that helps high-performing employees set and reach personal goals that are in line with organisational objectives, taking their skills and leadership capabilities to the next level.
Mentoring is based on the experiences of the mentor and focuses on the development of the mentee as a whole person. Mentoring does not require any specialised training, and can be undertaken by anyone senior (or junior, in some cases) to the mentee.
When to use mentoring or coaching
Coaching and mentoring can be beneficial to employees for a range of reasons and in a range of contexts.
One persistent myth surrounding coaching is that it is a remedial intervention, only given to those with shortcomings, missing skill sets and knowledge gaps. In reality, coaching is most effective when used to reward high-performers, giving them the space and guidance to set and achieve goals and become the best version of themselves at work.
Mentoring can be an open-ended intervention, developing the mentee as a whole person, and draws on the personal experience of the mentor. Mentoring can be appropriate in certain situations, however it often lacks the structure of a good coaching program, and can be inappropriate in situations when guidance from a professional coach would better serve the individual.
Coaches work with their coachees to set goals that are significant to them, relating to challenges and opportunities present in their working lives. The opportunity to work with a coach allows high performing employees to explore and meet their potential, through guided goal setting and action planning. Acting as an objective, professional and confidential sounding board, a good coach will develop their coachees’ goal setting and planning skills.
A good coach will help their coachees set achievable goals but will also challenge a coachee when setting goals that are too safe, or that can be achieved though business as usual activities. This encouragement and challenge from a coach serves to energise the coachee and remind them of their capabilities and ability to reach ambitious goals.
Coaching goals may also involve input from the organisation, particularly where the organisation has arranged for leadership coaching to occur. In other instances, the coach and coachee will work together to set goals specific to the coachee’s leadership capabilities.
Mentoring goals are often much broader, and the ownership of goal setting often rests with the mentee. As mentoring goals can be less clearly defined, challenge and feedback surrounding these goals can be less impactful coming from a mentor with no formal coaching training.
Coaching relationships & commitment
External and professionally trained coaches will often be the most impactful solution for coachees. These coaches create a safe, yet challenging environment within which coachees can work to understand their own motivation and behaviours, and identify strengths and opportunities for growth alongside their coach. Finding the right coach is critical to the success of the coaching program.
Trevor-Roberts ensures this by beginning each coaching program with a chemistry check - a meeting between coachee and potential coach that ensures that they are a good match and have the potential to develop a strong relationship. This meeting sits outside the coaching sessions (it is not counted towards the hours of the program), and can be repeated as necessary until the coachee finds the right coach for them.
A good coach will build a robust relationship with their coachee, and will take several measures to ensure the continued success of the relationship.
A coach’s commitment to the coaching relationship is paramount to the success of the program. Coaches will establish a regular schedule of meetings, either face to face or phone, and will hold their coachee accountable to the schedule. A successful coach will make explicit to their coachee the extent of their personal commitment to the coaching program, and the success of the coachee in reaching their goals.
Confidentiality is a big part of a successful and impactful coaching relationship. A coachee must feel as though they can be open and honest with their coach, and that any information shared within the coaching relationship will not be shared outside of it. Trusting that their coach is not providing any sensitive information back to their organisation when reporting allows a coachee to talk openly and honestly with their coach. A good coach will be upfront about discussing and agreeing on program confidentiality with their coachee, as well as disclosing their reporting obligations to the sponsoring organisation.
A coach ensures the success of the coaching relationship by providing honest and constructive feedback. The integrity of the coaching relationship is dependent upon the coachee trusting that the feedback and advice they receive from their coach comes from an authentic, truthful place. A good coach will carefully consider the feedback they give their coachee, ensuring that it is contextually relevant, and will help their coachee to enact changes based on the feedback.
Mentoring relationships & commitment
Mentoring relationships can be created either formally or informally, and mentoring is often an unpaid exercise. Unlike coaching, mentoring typically has less explicit expectations of commitment from mentor and mentee, and meetings can be less frequent and regular than coaching meetings. A mentoring relationship can often be quite personal, as the sharing of stories and experiences from mentor to mentee is a key aspect of this relationship.
It is generally expected that a mentoring relationship be confidential, as trust is important in the sharing of personal stories and experiences. It is usually up to the mentee to clarify the reporting requirements (if any) of their mentor, and any other aspects that may affect confidentiality. This discussion is critical to the mentoring process, as mentors may work within the same organisation as the mentee (though should always be outside of a reporting relationship), and it is important that the mentee can trust that their mentor will not discuss anything they say with others in the workplace.
As a mentor is often untrained, they can be less effective at contextualising their advice and experience to the situation of their mentee, and can lack the skills to properly create an action plan with their mentee in response to feedback. Mentors can provide suggestions and advice based on their own experience, and this can often be helpful to the mentee (especially in an organisational context), though the planning of specific steps and goals can rest with the mentee.
Our recommendation is always that an organisation setting up a formal mentoring program should provide training and ongoing support to their mentors. This training will provide mentors with the skills, tools and confidence to effectively work with mentees. Ongoing support offered to mentors will allow them to address any specific areas they are uncertain in, and help their mentees with issues as they arise. Personal and organisational outcomes are enhanced when mentors are given the training to provide contextualised, relevant advice and to help their mentees set goals and create action plans.
Outcomes & benefits
Coaching is beneficial to both the coachee and their organisation. Coaching allows employees the time and guidance to work on goals and improvements relevant to their work, giving them increased confidence in their roles and their own ability. Coaches can also help their coachees to work on more personal aspects, such as work-life balance, which can see improvements to job satisfaction and overall happiness and health.
Research has shown that leaders who are more confident about what they need to do are better able to provide motivation and leadership to those within their circle of influence and thereby generate a healthier bottom line. A good coach will also leave leaders with the ability to coach their reports, creating improvements within their team.
While mentoring may produce less specific and measurable outcomes, it can be a valuable experience in overall improvement for the mentee. It may work best in situations where the mentee is looking for advice about how to navigate organisational politics and opportunities for progression within the organisation or industry.
Mentoring does however carry the risk that personal advice drawing from the mentors’ experiences may not be relevant to the mentees current situation, or may not relate to issues they are dealing with.
Research has shown that in some situations, it can facilitate the passing on of biases and negative cultural aspects within an organisation. Mentors can sometimes lack objectivity, and this creates the risk that a mentee may be given misleading or false ideas based on their mentor’s personal experiences and opinions.
This highlights the important of training mentors. A well-planned and delivered training program will give mentors the necessary tools and skills to ensure that they are providing relevant, appropriate and useful advice to their mentors.
Why are these definitions important?
Both mentoring and coaching are “helping interventions”, often sought by managers and those in human resources roles for employees within their organisation. Clear definitions and understandings of these interventions ensure that arrangements are based on a mutual understanding of client needs and practitioner approach.
Pressure on resources within an organisation also influences the need for a mutual understanding of what mentoring and coaching involve. Time constraints and limited budgets mean that those organising mentoring and coaching for employees need to ensure that they can consistently make the appropriate selection for the needs of each individual.
Clear definitions of mentoring and coaching assist with the necessary evaluations of effectiveness and outcomes of each activity.
A clear understanding by the mentee or coachee of the type of intervention they are being offered will help with boundary setting with their mentor or coach, with both parties having an awareness of the purpose of the relationship.
Most importantly, understanding and appreciating the differences between coaching and mentoring is essential to ensure that the correct intervention is chosen, and that all involved parties have an understanding of the outcomes intended and likely to be achieved.