Coaching, Mentoring: What’s The Difference?

Good question – one I’m often asked. There is a noticeable lack of agreement across various coaching and mentoring lead bodies, and often people use the terms interchangeably, so it’s no surprise that folks get confused. I think the trend to have coaching as part of line managers’ skillset is further blurring the boundary (although I think managers having coaching in their repertoire can only be A Good Thing). So how can you tell the difference?

Coaching is typically non-directive, in that it would be very unusual for a coach to tell a ‘coachee’ what to do. Instead the coach, encourages reflection and uses skilful questioning to get the coachee to identify for themselves the best next steps to take. Typically the focus is on improving performance at work, although invariably personal issues creep in, for example emotions, stress at home affecting work and vice versa. Coaches are trained on fulfilling the role, some are highly qualified and some are supervised in their work. External coaches may not know anything about the client’s sector, organisation or job role; their expertise is purely coaching. However, relevant experience often plays a part in coach selection.

When organisations engage external coaches, the process is clearly laid out, as it is when they have dedicated coaches on the payroll. Where it gets blurred is when coaches have a ‘day job’ and line manage others, yet are coaching someone else’s direct report as part of an organizational programme. Very often, for the sake of clarity within organisations, this gets called mentoring, particularly if coaching skills are a required line manager competency. So Fred manages Jill and uses coaching skills to do so, and mentors but doesn’t manage Jack (and probably uses coaching skills to do so, but read on…).

Mentoring uses a similar skillset to coaching: questioning, listening, challenging, observing, feeding back and so on. However, typically the mentor has extensive insider knowledge and experience, and the process is about sharing that. Often the mentor is on the same payroll as their ‘mentee’. Mentoring can be invaluable for on-boarding new joiners at any level, helping them get clued up on the vital, often unspoken, ways “we do things round here”. As well as newbies, mentoring is used extensively in succession planning, getting people ready for the Board or an overseas post, for example. External mentors can be brought into organisations as members of advisory boards, and here there is often a more directive approach, expected and given.

So what? I think the differences and distinctions only matter if people are unclear about why they’re coaching and/or mentoring and the purpose it’s supposed to serve. Once the reason to bring in coaching/mentoring has been agreed, then it’s a case of adopting the most appropriate approach and being sure that all involved know what it is/isn’t. Then the choice of label needs to be consistently applied so that people know where they stand.

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