Coaching or mentoring: what’s the difference?

Written by Nigel Girling CMgr CCMI Wednesday 19 May 2021
Quite frequently the words ‘coaching’ and ‘mentoring’ are used as if they’re one and the same. They’re not.
Coach speaking to boxer in the right

Two words that are appearing more and more frequently in articles, on websites and in promotional materials: coaching and mentoring. Any leader or manager can benefit from one or both. and any leader or manager needs to understand how, when and why they might be helpful. This article seeks briefly to explain.

While mentoring and coaching certainly share a common purpose – helping people to develop and grow – the approaches and their implementation are different in some important ways.

Let’s explore their commonalities and key differences.

Commonalities Differences
Typically through one-to-one interactions
Seeking to help leaders to develop and grow
Delivered by skilled exponents
Planned and impact-evaluated
Can be an internal or external person
Coaching often short-term; mentoring often longer
Coach asks questions; mentor advises and guides
Coach need not have similar role experience
Mentor needs to be more experienced in similar role/sector
Mentoring typically relates to professional development

From this table, you can see that coaching and mentoring each has its place, but often at different points in a leader and manager’s journey.

The mentor

The mentor is a more experienced guide and adviser with relevant professional and sector knowledge, passing it on to a less experienced mentee. This is common practice in professional organisations, sometimes under the banner of ‘supervision’. It is particularly helpful to a new leader, less experienced professional or someone promoted to a more senior position where so much can be new and unfamiliar. The leader is typically unprepared for the protocols, techniques and some aspects of relevant knowledge and skills. A mentor is generally there to provide wisdom, build confidence and give a guiding hand, so that mentor needs to possess not only the appropriate and relevant experience, but also the communication skills, patience and approach to help their mentee to develop their understanding, skills and - often – their career. Mentoring is therefore commonly used in succession planning, to prepare an individual for the ‘next step’ and support them afterwards.

The coach

Coaches have a set of skills and capabilities that may not occur naturally in an individual. A good coach is generally one who has been trained in specific skills and techniques of questioning, listening and prompting reflection. Essentially, coaching is non-directive – unlike the mentor, it is not the coach’s place to advise or instruct, but to ask questions and encourage the individual/s they are coaching to find their own answers.

Coach or mentor? I’d value both

In the realm of leadership and management, every leader can benefit from having both a coach and a mentor. Here’s why.

The majority of leadership thinkers and commentators, including myself, believe that one of the greatest capabilities any leader and manager can have is the ability to see themselves clearly and really understand their impact on those around them.

The eminent organisational psychologist and TED speaker Dr Tasha Eurich has conducted many studies of self-awareness in leaders. Her research found that, while 95% of leaders in her study thought they were ‘self-aware’, only 10% actually knew themselves well. She dubbed those leaders ‘self-awareness unicorns’ due to their extreme rarity. She also asserts that self-awareness can be learned and developed. Good coaching and mentoring is one of the ways to achieve that.

A significant challenge for leaders, especially at executive levels, is that everyone typically stops telling them the truth and starts telling them what they think they want to hear. Their key people will often adapt their communication to show themselves and their functional areas in the best light. The courage to speak truth to power is a capability perhaps even more rare than self-awareness. Leaders and managers need a ‘critical friend’. Someone who will hold up a mirror and help them to see themselves clearly – often the job of the coach – and then give them wisdom, ideas and advice to help them grow and develop – often the job of the mentor.

Speaking for myself: I’ve been a CEO, a chairman and an executive mentor for 35 years. I’m considered a subject matter expert in the field of leadership, and I’m a CMI Chartered Companion. I design and deliver professional qualifications up to doctoral level and I’ve headed up four professional qualification schools.

...So surely I’m the ‘finished article’ now?

Hardly. I spend more time on reflection, more time reading and learning, more time seeking input and more time in developmental discussion with my mentors now than I ever have in my career.

The nearer you get to the mountain, the bigger it looks.

Did you know that CMI offers a mentoring service, included with its membership? Find out more to get started on a new path.

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