The Difference Between Coaching & Mentoring

Quite often, it is possible to hear the terms ‘coaching’ and ‘mentoring’ used interchangeably in a personal and organisational development context. Wherever these are used, the success of these development approaches is dependent upon many factors, not least the organisational culture, the skills of the individual mentor or coach, and the emphasis that is placed on learning and development in the organisational context.

It is very important to be clear about the learning objective of the individual in order to choose the right approach. The use of either approach does however require ground rules, particularly confidentiality, which must be enforced (perhaps contractually).

While mentors may use the same skills and tools in their approach to mentoring, the relationship between a mentor and ‘mentee’ is different to that which will develop in a coaching relationship. Mentors can be more ‘directive’ and provide specific advice where appropriate – a coach would not offer their own advice or opinion, but help the individual find their own solution.

Peer learning is a partnership between people at the same seniority level or in equivalent functional roles, and can be used to carry out either mentoring or coaching. Peer learning opportunities can be formal and structured (for example, ‘action learning sets’ described below) or informal and one-off (for example, observing a colleague in a meeting, then giving and receiving feedback). The learning is controlled by those involved.

Coaching can help if an individual recognizes that they need to develop personally, either to more effectively reach personal or work goals or to better deal with current work issues. A coach will assist, challenge and encourage rather than direct, advise or teach. Coaching is a partnership that helps the individual work out what they need to do themselves to improve and, in the process, what motivates them and what gets in their way (attitudes, prejudices, preconceptions, assumptions).

Importantly, coaching can help individuals develop their skills in leadership, self-management and learning, and increase resilience and self-awareness. This can improve confidence and leadership, and most importantly, effectiveness as a leader or line manager, not least because of the increased awareness that many of the problems that the individual face will also be faced by others. Coaching can help staff develop empathy with others, see the bigger picture more clearly and consider issues that they may have ignored or failed to identify as important, and learn how to work more effectively with others. However coaching is not directive and does not offer or provide any direct solutions.

Depending on the individual’s particular needs, a shorter coaching partnership might prove better at meeting an immediate goal, or solving a particular business problem. Coaching can be particularly powerful when used to solve behavioral, or line management problems.

Mentoring is a relationship between two colleagues, in which the more experienced colleague uses their greater knowledge and understanding of the work or workplace to support the development of the less experienced colleague. A mentor can perhaps help an individual if they would value input from someone more senior or experienced in a particular field – for example, project management, leadership or finance. Many organizations use mentoring when people step up to more senior leadership roles for the first time, or perhaps where they move from project to program management and need to quickly assimilate the different skills and ways of working needed to perform effectively in the new role.

Some of the most important differences between coaching and mentoring are:

Mentoring  Coaching
Ongoing relationship that can last for a long time. To be really successful, the mentor and mentee need to develop ‘rapport’.  They often become friends. Relationship generally has a short duration. ‘Rapport’ is not so important, although the client needs to be comfortable with being ‘open and honest’.
Can be more informal and meetings can take place as and when the mentee needs some guidance and or support Generally more structured in nature and meetings will be scheduled on a regular basis.
Agenda is set by the mentee with the mentor providing support and guidance to prepare them for future roles or specific skills development. Agenda is set by the client and is focused on achieving specific, immediate goals.
Revolves more around developing the mentee professionally, particularly regarding their skills and their application to the specific work context. Revolves more around specific personal development areas/issues, perhaps related to behaviour, attitudes or self-awareness.
More long term and takes a broader view of the person. Often known as the ‘mentee’ but the term client or mentored person can be used. Short-term (sometimes time bounded) and focused on specific current development areas/issues.


We hear a lot about coaching and mentoring — for good reason. As Zig Ziglar famously said, “A lot of people have gone further than they thought they could because someone else thought they could.” The words “coaching” and “mentoring” are often treated as if they’re interchangeable, but they’re not.

No matter your stage, both mentors and coaches can be valuable resources. What’s the difference between the two? How do you know which is needed?

Making the Distinction

Traditionally, mentors were assigned within a company to help employees learn the ropes. In the entrepreneurial world, mentors act as advisers, compensated or not.

Mentors are successful people who share their hard-won wisdom to provide insight and guidance as an entrepreneur encounters challenges along her journey. They typically function in a reactive capacity, responding to issues as they arise. Mentors may not have expertise in the mentee’s field, but they understand how to navigate business in general.

Coaches, on the other hand, often have expertise in the same field as the people they’re helping.

Coaches are brought in to help CEOs or entrepreneurs anticipate and tackle specific industry challenges. They’re prescriptive and proactive by nature, actively participating in strategizing and co-creating successful outcomes with their clients.

While a mentor/mentee connection is open-ended and can span decades, the more formal coaching relationship is used to address specific issues — and after a particular challenge has been addressed, both parties typically move on. A hybrid scenario sometimes develops in which the coach/mentor role blurs. Certain issues are handled in a coaching construct, but the relationship is so strong that both parties opt to continue working through long-term challenges and opportunities.


Which Do You Need?

You may already know which relationship would serve you best right now. As you deliberate, consider the following:

1. Remember your stage. One of the biggest factors in your decision should be the current stage of your journey. A first-time entrepreneur in an early-stage startup often needs a seasoned mentor who can respond to basic concerns and challenges.

At this stage, a mentor can offer broader advice and connections to help the business grow. As the company and CEO mature, however, the issues may become more granular and nuanced.

At that point, it’s best to also work with a coach from within the industry. A coach can work preemptively on strategies and point out blind spots a mentor may lack perspective on.

2. Identify your needs. If you can identify a specific need, you’ll likely be served well by a coach. For example, if your company has chronic organizational development issues that need to be addressed to scale the business, a coach with a proven track record in helping companies grow through those issues is a better bet than a mentor.

If you aren’t yet sure of a particular need and want general advice, seek the wisest, most successful mentor you can.

3. Strive to have it all. This doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. The most successful entrepreneurs have a network of mentors and coaches advising them on any number of things. You’re sometimes lucky enough to find individuals who are both.

Having someone in your corner who’s both a coach and mentor is extremely beneficial. A gifted coach/mentor knows which hat to wear in each situation and can seamlessly shift from general mentor to proactive coach, depending on the circumstance.

If you can’t find the best of both worlds in a single person, pinpoint seasoned and talented individuals to fulfill each role.

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