I’m often asked to explain the difference between coaching and mentoring by business owners and leaders. The terms are sometimes used interchangeably when they are quite different processes. But both approaches offer great benefits to individuals, wherever they are in their careers.
I use both executive coaching and mentoring in my work with client companies and leaders, so feel able to explain the differences. To begin, I’ll quickly define each approach and then summarise the key differences between coaching and mentoring.
Defining Executive Coaching
Executive coaching is a targeted and goal-oriented process that consists of a working partnership between a coach and an individual, or team. There will be a focus on enhancing the performance and/or effectiveness of the individual (or team) at work. This might be to address specific challenges (see my blog on the most common coaching topics) or to support and accelerate personal and professional development.
Coaching engagements should be time-bound – I typically work on a maximum of six sessions with clients – and structured around specific, measurable, objectives. It is a solution-focused approach that targets desired behaviour changes, or the enhancement of skills, performance, and leadership capabilities. The coach works collaboratively with the executive to define goals, create action plans, and measure progress.
My job as a coach is to ask insightful questions, provide unbiased and different perspectives, and offer constructive feedback. This ensures that clients gain valuable insights to refine their leadership skills or meet other agreed objectives. A crucial aspect of the coaching process is for the coach to hold their clients to account. We exist to ensure that individuals make tangible progress towards their goals – there is no purpose to coaching without results – and to empower them to take ownership of their outcomes.
While I believe that all leaders and managers should learn how to coach, it is often more effective to engage an external executive coach to work with staff on specific issues. This provides a more confidential, safe, environment for open, honest, and sometimes difficult conversation topics.
To be a successful coach, there is no requirement to be an expert in any specific industry or job role. Experience, and knowledge, of what good leadership looks like, and a strong understanding of psychology and behaviour are important, however. The key qualities of a coach are:
- the ability to ask great questions
- active listening and understanding
- being non-judgemental
- being resourceful – able to provide a variety of tools, techniques, and perspectives
- being adaptable and inclusive – all clients are different, and so are their requirements
- being goal/outcome-focused
While coaches tend to focus on targeted growth areas with clients, mentors play a broader role in an individual’s personal and professional development. Mentors are industry, or sometimes job, specific professionals who leverage their experience and wisdom to guide and inspire others.
I often think of it as passing the baton of knowledge and experience on to others.
Mentors provide invaluable advice, guidance, and support, drawing from their wealth of practical experience. The most important difference here is the provision of advice, something coaches generally don’t offer. Mentoring relations are often more informal than coaching, and they can last for a much longer time – sometimes over years. They might lack the structured framework of coaching, but this allows for a more flexible and evolving arrangement.
Given my own background, I act as a mentor to start-up, and high-growth, business owners, sales leaders, and individuals working in the HR, recruitment, and related sectors.
Mentors can frequently be more senior colleagues in the same organisation: people who use their first-hand experiences in the company, industry, or the job function to support others coming through the business. Whether an internal, or external, resource mentors should generally have been there, done that and got the t-shirt.
Some of the key characteristics required in a good mentor are similar to that of a coach. Some additional things to look for in a mentor are:
- experience and expertise in their field
- availability and accessibility – successful mentors make time and make themselves available to their mentees
- a well-developed network – most mentors leverage their network to connect mentees with resources, opportunities and contacts
- an empowering approach – I’ve met mentors who can be too “hands-on” with a tendency to control, rather than empower. Getting the balance right is crucial.
What’s the Right Choice for you?
Understanding the different scenarios where executive coaching or mentoring is most beneficial is crucial for managers seeking professional growth. The decision between whether you, or your organisation, should engage or a coach or a mentor will hinge on your specific needs and goals.
For new managers, with limited managerial experience, executive coaching can bridge the gap between theory and practice. Coaches provide valuable insights into effective management techniques, communication strategies, conflict resolution skills, and many other areas. This bespoke support will empower the new manager to approach their role with confidence. And it ensures a smoother transition into new leadership positions.
On the other hand, a mentor can be of greater value for experienced managers seeking guidance on handling more day-to-day issues in the job, developing their leadership style, working within a specific organisational culture, or considering their long-term career trajectory.
It may be helpful to consider that addressing specific immediate or short-term goals is ideal for a coach, while longer-term career development, or navigating company/sector/role complexities lends itself to working with a mentor.
It is important to recognise that coaching and mentoring are different, but not mutually exclusive. Many successful leaders benefit from a combination of both and make the most of the strengths of each approach.
Summary: the difference between coaching and mentoring
|Primarily on skill development, performance improvement, and achieving specific goals.
|Emphasizes overall career development, including guidance on career paths and broader organizational dynamics.
|Nature of Relationship
|Often a formal, short-term relationship with a specific focus on skill enhancement.
|Typically a more informal, long-term relationship that extends beyond skill development to overall career guidance.
|May not have direct experience in the mentee’s industry but is skilled in coaching methodologies.
|Usually has significant experience in the mentee’s field and shares industry-specific insights.
|Involves setting specific, measurable goals for skill improvement.
|Focuses on broader career and personal development goals.
|Provides immediate and task-focused feedback.
|Offers more general, long-term advice and feedback.
Finding the Right Fit:
While the benefits of executive coaching and mentoring are clear, finding the right fit is crucial to getting a return on your investment. When selecting an executive coach or mentor managers should consider factors such as expertise, approach, and compatibility. It is essential to establish a rapport and trust that will enable open and honest communication.
I always recommend meeting with several service providers before buying coaching or mentoring services. If you are looking to engage a coach or mentor, then I would be happy to talk to you about your goals and ambitions.