What is coaching? 3 differences between coaching and mentoring

A black and white illustration of two speech bubbles on a yellow background.

Coaching and mentoring have common traits, as they both offer professional support through dialogue. However, like a sort of falsos amigos, their differences are far greater. This article offers 3 key differences to guide you when walking in the direction of coaching or mentoring depending on your unique needs and expectations.

1. Mentoring vs coaching: advising and guiding vs partnering in a thought-provoking process

The first difference between mentoring and coaching is purpose. We go to a mentor when we want to draw from the experience of someone else, usually someone more senior than us. We wish to be guided: Have we considered all the available options? Is it too early to move roles? What was your experience in that country? The (usually) helpful advice from a mentor is based on their experience, which is openly shared with their mentee. Frequently, mentors employ similar narratives; for example, ‘When I applied for that job…’ or ‘When I used to work for that client….’ We go to a mentor because we wish to hear, and be inspired by, that experience.

In coaching, the coach supports a professional not by openly offering their best advice but by engaging the counterpart in a thought-provoking process. What this means is that the coach invites the counterpart, through a structured and progressive questioning journey, to explore all the way-forward options available to them and what they would view as a good outcome. And why. Hence, a coach may ask, ‘Who do you need to support you with this matter?’ while a mentor’s advice could sound like, ‘I think it will help if you discuss this with Mark’.

The mentor experience is therefore offered in the form of open suggestions and advice; the coach experience is translated and offered in the form of thought-provoking questions.

2. Mentoring focuses on supporting development, coaching focuses on increasing performance

The second difference between mentoring and coaching is focus. Say we want to discuss our career ambitions and how we are growing into a team leadership role with our mentor. Or that we engage with our mentors for advice on how we can position ourselves for a new project. Have they got any experience to share? The relationship with a mentor is often open ended because it focuses on accompanying a professional in their development in the long run – sometimes for one or two years, although when the mentorship relationship is high on trust, it can be much longer than that.

Organisational coaching primarily focuses on improving performance in the workplace. Naturally, this interplays with personal development. The way the support is focused, however, tends to be more time structured (say, a period of time, like 6 months, or a series of 8 coaching sessions). The work around increasing performance also follows a structure and employs measurable criteria, which are identified during a coaching session: what will progress look like to you?

Coaching aims to dive into the individual potential and unique strengths and explore what’s in the way of getting where we want to be. Using the project example above, a mentor will likely offer their view and sound like, ‘This project will expose you to a lot of new issues and will build up valuable experience’. A coaching conversation will instead likely centre around, ‘How important is this to you?’ and perhaps challenge us: ‘More precisely, how do you see this project building valuable experience for you?’

The interplay between increased performance and personal development, in my view, is that what’s ‘in the way’ of performing better is often a combination of external limitations – obstacles and alternatives our human blind spots cannot see in full – and internal perceptions – what we believe we can do.

3. Mentoring is directive, coaching is non-directive: what does it mean?

The third difference between mentoring and coaching is in the approach. I have had great mentors throughout my career journey. I loved hearing how professionals more experienced than me overcame similar challenges and how they made sense of my same difficulties. Their experience was relatable and gave a deeper and sometimes new meaning to mine. Mentoring offers a precious space where experiences, stories and suggestions are shared: we develop as we are inspired and guided to look in other directions shown to us by our mentors. Mentoring, in this sense, is directive.

Coaching poses the full attention on us based on the belief that once we have acquired the information we need, each of us knows better. We are the only ones who can make things happen and drive long-lasting changes – no matter how fantastic and spot-on the advice we receive is. However, and similarly to physical exercise, at times it’s hard to push ourselves to our limits. That’s why, from time to time, we look at our movements in front of a mirror in order to see ourselves ‘from the outside’.

Coaching uses dialogue as the mirror. It offers a partnership to unlock potential – our own unique potential – to stretch old thinking. In the landscape of new thinking, we intuitively move around using our strengths. Coaching does not direct us east or south; it is built around the belief that if we find out ourselves why going east is best for us – based on our own subjective criteria and perceptions – that self-acquired knowledge will have greater impact.

Using the physical exercise metaphor, when our muscles have been truly warmed up, when we have chosen where to go and see the obstacles in front of us, we are finally able to run as fast as we truly can.

Experiencing any of these issues? Find out how coaching can support your specific challenges.

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