Exploring the differences between coaching and mentoring
What is the difference between mentoring and coaching?
The terms mentoring and coaching tend to be often interchanged; both come from a long history of helping people to learn, develop and grow. The first recorded mentor was Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Athena took on the appearance of Mentor, to guide Telemachus and his father Odysseus. Mentoring was, and is, used to to help another build their own wisdom.
Coaching from a performance perspective has been central to elite sporting performance for generations and has transitioned into the organisational context, coaching senior executives and the wider workforce to enhance performance. Today, we see mentoring and/or coaching applied in all contexts, including ethics, education and entrepreneurship.
There are many definitions and approaches to mentoring and coaching as they mean different things in different parts of the world. As the fields of mentoring and coaching have evolved, practitioners and organisations have developed different definitions and interpretations of mentoring and coaching.
Coaching and mentoring are personal and professional development approaches based on the use of one-to-one conversations to enhance an individual’s knowledge and insight, skills or work performance. The primary difference is context; mentors tend to have context specific knowledge, such as knowledge of the mentee’s profession or area of work, whereas coaches do not; therefore, mentoring is often described as ‘coaching-plus’. Mentors are often chosen because of their professional background, expertise and the contextual insights they can provide.
Historically, mentoring in the workplace tended to describe a relationship in which a more experienced colleague shared their greater knowledge to support the development of an inexperienced member of staff. Recently, the trend has shifted towards reverse or reciprocal mentoring (mentoring from a more junior colleague) and peer mentoring.
However, common to all approaches is the ability of the mentor to assist and encourage mentees to engage in reflective learning, explore options and opportunities, bolstering the mentee's confidence, and in many cases their skills and capabilities.
Mentors and coaches often draw on shared knowledge, skills, competencies and behaviours; they call on the skills of questioning, listening, clarifying and reframing. Mentors however tend to have the organisational and contextual experience relevant to the mentee’s work and career-related systems, and typically mentoring relationships tend to be longer term than coaching relationships.
Many practitioners consider themselves to be both mentors and coaches. The underpinning philosophies and practices vary depending on the context, purpose and formality of the mentoring and coaching.
Questions for reflection
- Reflecting on the outline above, how do you distinguish between mentoring and coaching?
- Reflecting on your previous experience of mentoring, either as a mentor or mentee, how much did contextual knowledge feature in your relationship?
- Do you think you could benefit from working with a mentor? If so, what will you do next?
To find out more you may wish to consult the following resources: