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Posted by on Mar 10, 2016

Is It Coaching or Mentoring?

Is It Coaching or Mentoring?

Coaching or MentoringHave you ever found yourself listening to someone tell you all about how to avoid the pitfalls they experienced in their career, and to heed their advice, when what you really needed was for them to help you draw out your own ideas for how to navigate the situation? Or have you been in a new role where what you really needed was someone to tell you directly how best to navigate your organization and who else to speak with, rather than asking you what you wanted to do?

These examples are indicative of the overlap, and confusion, about coaching and mentoring. Two valuable relationships in support of personal and professional growth, whose differences in intention and approach, when not clearly articulated, can cause confusion and even disappointment.

So what causes the confusion?

Well for one, if a mentor is really good, they are likely using many coaching skills. Both coach and mentor will really listen to you and clarify that they understand your needs. They’ll ask provocative questions that draw on your own competence and capacity. So sometimes a good mentoring conversation can feel very coach-like. But note that a good coaching conversation will rarely feel like a mentoring conversation.

As well, organizations are increasingly building internal coaching resources while continuing to hire external coaches. A mentor can be outside of the organization, though they are likely someone who is still an employee. So, simply knowing whether someone is internal or external to the organization isn’t always a clear indicator of which role they’re playing.

Sometimes, when coaching or mentoring programs are rolled out, clear guidelines, training, expectations, or question and answer sessions have not been provided to participants, only adding to the ambiguity.

Another factor contributing to the confusion is the multiple meanings intended by the use of the words. Haven’t we heard the word “coaching” when it actually means training, teaching, consultation, or some other opportunity to receive advice and learn from the experience of another? (In reality, none of these are in keeping with strict professional coaching standards). And a mentor might mean something as general as someone who helps you think about next steps in your career (which can also be handled by a coach), or as specific as someone who will help you in the application of a particular skill or competency in your work environment, based on their own experience.

Finally, as supervisors wear multiple hats, it’s easy to blur the lines between coach, supervisor, and mentor in a single conversation. What does this look like?

“Well, Natalya, if you want to go after that promotion, what support do you need to prepare for that role? How can you show up at your best during the interview? If you want to move forward on this team, you will need to complete training in financial management, which you haven’t done yet. But you know, I was at a crossroads at your age too, and I thought expanding my skillset would open more doors, and it really did.”

In this scenario, the supervisor acted in all three roles. Initially they took a coach approach that assumes the employee knows the direction they want to move in and just needs some thought partnership to do it in their own way. The next moment, with their supervisory hat on, they listed out requirements or factors that are non-negotiable in order to move forward. But then, in the spirit of mentorship, they reflected on a time they were in a similar situation, and recommend some possible courses of action.

No wonder there is confusion.

So which do I need?

Here’s a quick checklist to run in your head during your next conversation. Regardless of whether you think you want mentoring or coaching, these should help you understand which one you are actually seeking:

What is the intention of the relationship? Is the intention for you to receive guidance or advice from your partner based on their experience, connections, or in-depth domain and institutional knowledge? If the answer is yes, then you are likely looking for a mentoring relationship, not a coaching one. If the intention is for your partner to help you access and expand your internal resources, competence and capacity, and create your own way forward, then you’re likely looking for a coach.

Who is doing the talking? If you find that your partner is doing more talking than you, then you’re probably not in a coaching relationship, but rather are hearing about your partner’s experience or recommendations which is more in line with a mentoring conversation.

Are you focused on past, present or future? Coaching has a heavy focus on the present and the future, with only a little focus on the past, which is done by the coachee. Mentoring can cover the past, present, and future, with both the mentee and the mentor sharing about their respective experiences.

Who is supposed to come up with an answer? In coaching relationships or when taking a coaching approach, the coach isn’t expected to know what the right answer is for the coachee. The coach trusts that their partner is competent and capable, and helps them tap into their internal compass for the right next steps. So if you are coming up with answers for yourself based on their questions, you’re likely receiving some coaching. If your partner is coming up with answers or ideas based on their experience for you to try out, then you’re probably acting as a mentee.

Many mentors enjoy mentoring because they know they have answers, recommendations, and experiences to share. They want to give back. So if your partner is walking into your relationship already sharing answers, then you’re likely stepping into a mentoring relationship. A coach, though rich with skills and experience themselves, does not assume to be an expert in their partner’s life, or have answers that will work for each coachee. They take an approach filled with inquiry and curiosity, helping the coachee to create their own possibilities and next steps based on the coachee’s intrinsic motivations, not the coach’s.

If you’re in the position to create or purchase a coaching or mentoring program, make sure you are clear about the distinctions above, your intentions for the program, and the role you expect your mentors or coaches to play. Double check with coaches, mentors, and other support personnel that they are in agreement with those expectations, and where the boundaries for their roles lie; good coaches and mentors alike should know the difference and be able to tell you.

The table below provides a quick glance of attributes of coaches and mentors. If you still have questions, check out the International Coach Federation, phone an expert, grab a book, or take a class!

Coaching Mentoring
Asking questions Asking questions
Listening Listening
Stays objective, neutral about client’s choices Shares personal point of view based on ones’ own values, perspective, and experience
Seeks to elicit answers from within client by inviting them to reflect and experiment with ideas Advises and makes recommendations to mentee based on their own experience
Offers client ideas, reading, resources to make distinctions externally and internally Offers mentee organizational and network resources or opportunities


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