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Coaching vs mentoring - why the difference matters

Recently 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.

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.


Alun Hughes

You've given a very clear explanation of the differences between coaching and mentoring, something which often confuses people.  I wonder whether anyone could share their own experiences of being mentored or coached?

I'm really looking forward to your post on action learning.  It can be so powerful.  I read a fantastic book about how the technique was used to help farmers in rural West Wales solve problems in their businesses. The facscinating aspect was that farmers in that area are often lone workers and unused to sharing their problems with anyone.  The consultants came from Ashridge.  People would be forgiven for thinking the two groups might struggle to work together.  Nonetheless, the action learning approach adopted was incredibly successful, albeit some pretty committed people were involved. The programme was called Agrisgop and more info can be found here for those interested.

Adrian Pyne

...they would probably find 1000 ways to divide up the bill.

Robert your concise article lays out the difference well. And yet, just a simple google search will find all sorts of contradictions, even from academic sources (or should that be especially?).

the only real difference I have found that works consistently is that a mentor has to be "superior" in some way, e.g. more experienced, senior in the organisation, enjoy a reputation in the subject being mentored. A coach is not limited by this.

And to complicate matters there are the Executive Coaches.  Proper Executive Coaches are specialists who have demanding specialist qualification, skills and experience, and have to regularly refresh. Such people can be "trusted" to coach executives as executives. A quite different example is myself, I for example, sometimes coach executives as project sponsors. I have the expertise, skills and gravitas to do that, but no way am I an exdecutive coach.

I look forward to your piece on action learning. The principle of learning by doing that has been seen as one of the best ways of learning since.................Socrates?




There is another really good analysis – consistent with Robert’s perspective from Dr. Lynda bourne at



My take is mentoring is very much about enabling personal development from within the mentee to help them unlock their potential. Coaching is about skills or capability development (much needed by the Cricket team??). But these are not definitive categories - there is a continuum from teaching through to mentoring.

Kieran Hearty

Hello all - I'm new to APM (but not to project management) and am also an accredited Executive Coach and Coach Mentor/Supervisor for my sins!

A couple of quick additional points on this excellent topic.  On the question of 'rapport' - this really is important in coaching as well as in mentoring. Rapport, and relationship is critical, particular when you challenge the client, or hold them accountable (as contracted) for their commitments.  Building rapport is embedded into the key competencies of the ICF (International Coaching Federation) and a lack of it can torpedo the effectiveness of the coaching. On the question of 'the work', coaching revolves around far more than just personal development. Coaching has helped clients solve tough strategic issues, business issues, or career challenges, as well as the usual suspects on the behavioural side.



Robert Blakemore

Some interesting comments. Of course it's possible to start off in a coaching situation, only to find that it rapidly becomes a mentoring one, and indeed vice versa. It really does depend upon what the issues really are, rather than what they might be supposed to be at early on, and sometimes these only become completely apparent after several meetings. The important thing is that to really work, coaching or mentoring needs good organisational support to set up and sustain (time, facilities and even the right culture for it to be seen as an 'acceptable' and beneficial use of working time for instance). Perhaps more importantly, whoever is leading the arrangement needs to be sufficiently skilled and/or trained to be able to make just the right level of interventions, be sufficiently self-aware to avoid inadvertantly leading the mentee/client to a particular solution, and on occasion, willing to step back to a role of facilitation. Good facilitation helps the mentee/client understand what they really want from the meetings, what the objectives of the meetings are, and how they might use the greater insight that they gain from their current performance in their own development and training plans, to more fully address any competency or skills gaps that become apparent to them as a result of the discussions that ensue.  

Debra Cummings

I completely agree, often mentoring will involve coaching but they are distinct.  I find that if a mentee is unused to being coached, it can sometimes help to position a 'coaching' session in advance with a mentee.  Of course that's not always necessary but particularly with a young or inexperienced mentee who may be looking to you to provide the answers and can be confused when you appear not to do so, so that expectations are set and they themselves start to appreciate the difference and appreciate when the input you're looking for from them has changed.  Once used to being coached, a mentor can switch between coaching and direction fairly seamlessly as the mentee will be used to being challenged in their own thinking.