Coaching vs mentoring - why the difference matters

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People SIG committee member Peter Johnson shared his thoughts on this topic inspired (perhaps not the right word!) by England’s performance in The Ashes. I wanted to explore this in a bit more depth…

Quite often, it is possible to hear the terms ‘coaching’ and ‘mentoring’  used interchangeably in a personal and organisational development context. Wherever these are used, the success of these development approaches is dependent upon many factors, not least the organisational culture, the skills of the individual mentor or coach, and the emphasis that is placed on learning and development in the organisational context.

Learn how to spot a great project manager mentor here.

It is very important to be clear about the learning objective of the individual in order to choose the right approach. The use of either approach does however require ground rules, particularly confidentiality, which must be enforced (perhaps contractually).

While mentors may use the same skills and tools in their approach to mentoring, the relationship between a mentor and 'mentee' is different to that which will develop in a coaching relationship. Mentors can be more ‘directive’ and provide specific advice where appropriate - a coach would not offer their own advice or opinion, but help the individual find their own solution.

Peer learning is a partnership between people at the same seniority level or in equivalent functional roles, and can be used to carry out either mentoring or coaching. Peer learning opportunities can be formal and structured (for example, ‘action learning sets’ described below) or informal and one-off (for example, observing a colleague in a meeting, then giving and receiving feedback). The learning is controlled by those involved.

Coaching can help if an individual recognises that they need to develop personally, either to more effectively reach personal or work goals or to better deal with current work issues. A coach will assist, challenge and encourage rather than direct, advise or teach. Coaching is a partnership that helps the individual work out what they need to do themselves to improve and, in the process, what motivates them and what gets in their way (attitudes, prejudices, preconceptions, assumptions).

Importantly, coaching can help individuals develop their skills in leadership, self-management and learning, and increase resilience and self-awareness. This can improve confidence and leadership, and most importantly, effectiveness as a leader or line manager, not least because of the increased awareness that many of the problems that the individual face will also be faced by others. Coaching can help staff develop empathy with others, see the bigger picture more clearly and consider issues that they may have ignored or failed to identify as important, and learn how to work more effectively with others. However coaching is not directive and does not offer or provide any direct solutions.

Depending on the individual’s particular needs, a shorter coaching partnership might prove better at meeting an immediate goal, or solving a particular business problem. Coaching can be particularly powerful when used to solve behavioral, or line management problems.

Mentoring is a relationship between two colleagues, in which the more experienced colleague uses their greater knowledge and understanding of the work or workplace to support the development of the less experienced colleague. A mentor can perhaps help an individual if they would value input from someone more senior or experienced in a particular field – for example, project management, leadership or finance. Many organisations use mentoring when people step up to more senior leadership roles for the first time, or perhaps where they move from project to programme management and need to quickly assimilate the different skills and ways of working needed to perform effectively in the new role.

Some of the most important differences between coaching and mentoring are:

Mentoring  Coaching
Ongoing relationship that can last for a long time. To be really successful, the mentor and mentee need to develop ‘rapport’.  They often become friends. Relationship generally has a short duration. ‘Rapport’ is not so important, although the client needs to be comfortable with being ‘open and honest’.

Can be more informal and meetings can take place as and when the mentee needs some guidance and or support

Generally more structured in nature and meetings will be scheduled on a regular basis.

Agenda is set by the mentee with the mentor providing support and guidance to prepare them for future roles or specific skills development. Agenda is set by the client and is focused on achieving specific, immediate goals.
Revolves more around developing the mentee professionally, particularly regarding their skills and their application to the specific work context. Revolves more around specific personal development areas/issues, perhaps related to behaviour, attitudes or self-awareness.
More long term and takes a broader view of the person. Often known as the 'mentee' but the term client or mentored person can be used. Short-term (sometimes time bounded) and focused on specific current development areas/issues.

 In my next blog I am going to be looking at a particular type of coaching – action learning.

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Posted by Robert Blakemore on 30th Jan 2014

About the Author

I'm a civil servant and originally became involved with project management in my days as a safety and environmental specialist. Since completing an MBA in 2002, I've worked in a number of functional project delivery areas. These include business and systems development and change management, project assurance and project management. This was first in the arena of safety software and more recently in the wider context of ICT project management.

After 12 months working for Business Innovation and Skills in 2016, I'm now working to advise and lead a project team in the Home Office Immigration Enforcement Directorate working to align the project with wider programme delivery outcomes whilst ensuring the project is delivered in accordance with the SRO's timetable. Quite a challenge. I have 26 years civil service experience in the delivery, assurance and governance of technical delivery projects and programmes.

Much of my experience has involved tackling broader organisational change management through system change (such as Civil Service Reform), particularly through the definition and implementation of the supporting work needed to embed new corporate operating models.

I am currently working in a transformation programme. I establish necessary project and programme controls and safeguards in accordance with Prince2 and MSP. I am trained in Programme and Project Management techniques, and focus on managing delivery risk, ensuring resourced plans and schedules remain deliverable to the desired quality. I always focus on current priorities, re-planning as needed, and ensuring that effort is expended as appropriate to the position of the project in the delivery lifecycle on matters such as approvals, stakeholder management, design, service management or procurement.

I am a professional coach in project management practice, and I use my skills to support wider staff development and I am an advocate of strengthening PPM and ‘Digital’ skills across the civil service. I am the People SIG secretary. I am APMP, APMPQ, Prince 2, ITIL (Foundation), MOR, DSDM Agile Practioner, P3O and MSP qualified. I am also a Chartered Scientist, and a Chartered Environmentalist.

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