What’s the difference between Mentoring and Coaching and why does it matter?

by Dr Jill Andreanoff
11 July 2019

It seems that a number of people are still hung up on the difference between mentoring and coaching or have set ideas of what separates them as interventions. There are many articles that define coaching as a goal focussed, short term intervention and mentoring as longer term more holistic approach. Initially this might sound like a sound interpretation. But on reflection, what sensible coach would fail to take into consideration the whole person during their coaching sessions? And if needed, I will coach individuals on a longer-term basis according to their different and changing needs.

A good mentor is supposed to be a good listener, build rapport, encourage the client to speak, help the client to re-shape their thinking through reflection and is committed to developing the individual with whom they are working. Aren’t those same skills required for coaching?

Having been involved in mentoring and coaching for more years than I am prepared to admit to, I have seen some organisations use mentoring as a remedial process to improve or correct performance and coaching for talented individuals to fast track their careers. Other organisations use the reverse; coaching for improving poor performance and mentoring for identified high potential individuals! Obviously as a consultant I adapt to the individual organisation.

Interestingly, when talking at events, I often use an interactive voting system to ask people what attributes are required to be a successful coach followed by another question, asking what the required attributes are for successful mentoring. The answers given are usually surprisingly (to the audience at least) similar. Much of this opinion is formed by personal experience and the historical mentoring and/or coaching that is used within their organisations or from where they have studied.

In my opinion Mentoring (more so than coaching) often ends up being more directive or unidirectional which can easily stem from a lack of training. If you do not know how to ask effective questions to elicit answers to better understand your ‘client’ then it is easier to rely on your own experiences to ‘put them on the right path’ by offering the wisdom of your advice. However, we are all so individual and what worked for you may not necessarily work for your client making this a risky thing to do. I am a firm believer that everyone has the answer to their issues within them and with the use of expert questions and active listening you can draw those out, sometimes with surprising results. I have known many a client to decide upon and successfully take an action that I would never have imagined. Mentoring, in particular is used by mentors to relive their career through the mentee which is not the developmental or learning process that it is supposed to be! This type of intervention does not lead to the self-efficacy and independent thinking that is hoped for in a good mentoring relationship.

So why does it matter whether an intervention is mentoring or coaching?

In my opinion, it doesn't. What matters it how it is perceived by the recipient and played out. Some people (due to their personal experience) will be receptive to coaching but not mentoring and vice versa. As long as you actively listen, ask effective questions, negotiate some goals and actions as well as explore options there should seldom be the need to give advice. Advice giving can also lead to complaints when the ‘wrong advice’ is given – going back to individuality and everyone solving their own issues using the best route for them.

What is important is to define the type of support you are offering, particularly if you are working as part of a mentoring or coaching programme. Define exactly what the intervention is. Is it cognitive or coactive coaching? Is it the coach as ‘expert’ or perhaps ‘reciprocal’ coaching, or enquiry vs advocacy (directive or non-directive mentoring)?

This way, the client knows exactly what to expect and importantly, it helps us all to better evaluate coaching and mentoring outcomes and impact. For decades, there has been a call to provide evidence of impact of such interventions. Woodd (1997) suggested that ‘what is being measured or offered as an ingredient in success is not clearly conceptualised’, Gibson (2005) and Chao (2009) reproach others for not clarifying the precise definition of the support in their studies and Jacobi (1991) and D’Abate, Eddy and Tannenbaum (2003) report that the lack of clarity in the terms makes it difficult to compare and contrast the different interventions and determine whether they were successful or not. The ambiguity in terms continues but if you define the process of the intervention clearly then it is possible to differentiate between them to determine what works.

Furthermore, I would go on to suggest (if you are delivering a coaching or mentoring programme) that you clearly define the aims and objectives of your programme. Whether this is to attract more female members of staff to apply for senior leadership roles, develop leadership skills or to improve employee retention it needs to be clearly stated. This gives something by which to actually measure success. Whilst coaching and mentoring can be very supportive and enjoyable, to make it meaningful, both parties need to know exactly what it is expected to be achieved through the sessions.

As it becomes increasingly difficult to obtain funding for interventions like these, it makes sense to put these measures in place. Stakeholders want to see clear evidence and outcomes for their investment, and this is the start to obtaining them. So, don’t get hung up on deciding whether your programme is mentoring or coaching as long as it is good practice, the process of the intervention is clearly described with well-defined aims and objectives.

Look out for forthcoming blogs on achieving ROI for coaching and mentoring interventions and what constitutes exemplary practice. What needs to be in place?