Differences between coaching and mentoring – what’s best for you?

I recently listened to an interesting podcast on BBC’s ‘The Bottom Line’ series entitled ‘Lonely at the top?’ Evan Davis hosted a discussion with an executive coach and two senior executives: one who’s worked with a mentor, another who at various times has worked with an executive coach.

Unsurprisingly, there was a chunk of time spent clarifying what the differences are between coaching and mentoring – and at some points the guests themselves seemed to blur the lines. As someone who delivers training for managers who want to mentor and/or coach colleagues, it’s something I get asked – along with, “Is it like therapy?”, “Am I just advising them or is there more to it?” and “When do I coach?”

So what are the differences and which could be best for you? I hope this helps clarify:


When you want to focus on goals and how to reach them.

Coaches keep their ‘coachees’ (clunky word but we can all see what it means) focused on goals and the behaviour necessary to achieve them.
Executive coaches are often external and paid to work with senior people in organisations. Many employers also have a faculty of trained coaches within the firm, who coach employees from different parts of the business. Increasingly, managers are expected to have coaching skills in their repertoire for managing people. Individuals can engage ‘life coaches’ privately.
Other stakeholders – line managers, peers and colleagues – can be involved.
More on how coaching works from the Association For Coaching.

When you want an experienced sounding board.

Mentoring has its origins in ancient Greek: in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ Mentor provided guidance to Odysseus’ son whilst he went off on his travels.
Historically, hierarchical organisations used mentoring to help someone up the ladder – a powerful mentor’s patronage could get you a long way. In the contemporary business context, mentors typically have more experience of the sector, discipline or function in which the ‘mentee’ works. They’ve ‘been there and done it’. Mentors can be invaluable when someone needs to: quickly assimilate the culture of the organisation; step up into a new and demanding role (that the mentor has probably done); get business advice.
Other stakeholders, such as board members, can be involved.
Counselling and Therapy

When you want specialist help with a problem.

Counselling focuses on the individual and what’s going on for them emotionally.
Counsellors may deal with issues for a particular group of people, for example teenagers, or they may specialise in particular issues such as bereavement.
Psychological therapies take a range of forms, such as psychotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. As the term implies there’s an element of treating a psychological problem, such as an eating disorder, anxiety or post-traumatic stress. The practitioner’s extensive training will vary by discipline.
Both therapists and counsellors usually belong to professional bodies, are regulated and observe ethical codes.
The British Psychological Society has a list of terms relating to different areas of psychology.

Phew (and I was trying to be brief). You can see there are similarities – the focus on the individual – and differences – the reasons to work with and methods used. So what’s best for you? It will depend on your situation. You may work with a business mentor for your start-up and a coach to develop your team management skills, or have counselling and a coach, or – most likely – settle for just one at a time, if and when needed.


You may find this blog post useful: Ask or tell? Which works best?


Dawn is the author of ‘How to be Zoomly at work’, available on Amazon.

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