4 key differences between mentoring and coaching

Some people need a mentor, some people need a coach. Some people need neither but let’s stick with those who’d benefit from a little external help and assistance; and the key question for those people is: what’s the difference?

Well, one simplistic response might be that a mentor will tell you what to do, and a coach will help you work it out for yourself. However, there are plenty of mentors who taking a more ‘talk it through’ approach, and there are coaches who get a little direct once in a while. The question is not so much about labels and what it might say on someone’s CV or LinkedIn profile, more about understanding the differences in process and approach, deciding what’s right for your needs and then seeking out someone (whatever they call themselves) who can give you the help that’s right for you.

Difference #1 – Focus

In terms of what the process is focused on, coaching has more specific outcomes and goals in mind. Often the idea to improve performance on a particular issue or task. Once that’s done, the coach is no longer needed (or if they are, it’s for another specific issue). Mentoring on the other hand, is about personal development, often in an organisational or work context, and is likely to focus on your next job role rather than the current one.

Difference #2 – Long-term or short-term

Generally, coaching is a shorter relationship than mentoring. Focused on a specific task or objective, you may only need a coach for a few sessions. Even if the process goes on for longer, there’s always a definite end goal in mind. Mentoring tends to be a longer-term arrangement based on trust. Of course, you have to trust a coach too, but given that a mentoring relationship may cover a wider range of issues (including ones not predicted or identified at the beginning of the arrangement) trust tends to be a fundamental requirement – and that can take a while to build.

Difference #3 – Process

With coaching, the process is more structured. Whether it’s the classic GROW model or something a little more esoteric, there’s a step by step process to be followed by both coach and coachee; as a result, coaching meetings tend to be more regular and follow a template. The ‘looser’ nature of mentoring means that meetings are often less formal and may happen on an ‘as-needed’ basis, whenever you need some outside advice, guidance or support.

Difference #4 – Experience

A mentor is likely to have experience in your line of work (or the line you’re aiming for), whereas a coach’s experience may vary, it being more important that they are skilled and experienced in the coaching process itself. As the 2013 Ridler Report found:

“…[coachees] rated the coach’s business experience and the coach’s suggestions deriving from their prior career as the least important qualities they look for once a coach is working in their organisation. Senior executives can find mentors if they are looking for advice but the coach’s central role is to help the coachee to come to their own understanding and conclusions.”

In other words, the lines may blur, the nomenclature may change, but what it comes down to is the question of what you want to achieve – that will determine whether you should be seeking out a coach or a mentor.

Categories: Coaching

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