By Doug Chapman, L&D Consultant focusing Management and Leadership at Thales Learning & Development

The subtleties of business are often underestimated, and one area that has historically caused confusion within organisations of all kinds is the difference between coaching and mentoring. They sound like they could be the same thing but there are a number of aspects that distinguish them and define them as separate entities.

Coaching can help if an individual recognises that they need to develop personally, either to reach personal or work goals more quickly and easily or to deal more effectively with current work issues. Among other things, coaching can help employees develop their skills in leadership, self-management and learning and increase their resilience and self-awareness. This can then improve their confidence in their own abilities, which has a positive knock-on effect for their skills as a leader or manager.

Mentoring is a relationship between two colleagues, in which the more experienced colleague uses their knowledge of work or workplace to support the less experienced colleague in their development. Many organisations use mentoring when people step up to more senior leadership roles for the first time, or perhaps when they have other major changes of role and have to integrate the different skills and ways of working into that role as quickly as possible in order to perform effectively. The mentors aren’t involved in teaching specific skills – they are people to look up to and learn from to help develop a career.

It’s important, therefore, for businesses to be able to distinguish between coaches and mentors in terms of what they do and what their different strengths are so they can always be used in the right situations.

  1. It can be better if they’re part of the company already, but coaches do not have to be sourced from within it. Because they’re focused on specific personal development, they don’t necessarily need to know anything about the company or its culture in order to effectively develop an employee.
Mentors, on the other hand, will generally be part of the company and understand its culture and history (though there has been a trend for remote, anonymous mentoring) – this helps mentees because they’re tailoring advice based upon the context of the work and their experience within the organisation.
  1. Coaching is generally relatively short-term, depending on whether a particular problem or goal (especially within the behavioural and line management spheres) needs to be dealt with. There are likely to be times when a coach is only involved for a short period of time to help an employee resolve a current development area or issue.
Conversely, mentoring is always long-term (unless mentee and mentor don’t get on). It is a process which requires time for trust to be built – initially, the pair are likely to discuss more general issues rather than “deep” issues.
  1. A coach will challenge and encourage rather than directly advise or teach – it’s a partnership that helps the individual work out what they need to do themselves to improve. The focus is on helping the individual to find their own solution to whatever problem they’re tackling.
The focus of a mentor goes beyond areas like goals and competency levels – they can be more ‘directive’ and provide specific advice where appropriate, which makes sense given its aim to help the mentee deal with whatever issues they might be getting on with in the workplace so they can learn and improve in the future.
  1. The employee's immediate manager tends to be an important partner in coaching – in some cases they might even be the coach. The manager specifies the areas in which an employee needs coaching and the coach determines the approach to be employed. The employee’s manager and coach are collaborative partners in the process.
In mentoring, however, the immediate manager is indirectly involved, with no link to the mentor – the pair do not communicate at all during the mentoring relationship. This is for the purpose of maintaining the integrity of the mentoring relationship and avoiding outside influences.
  1. In terms of determining an ROI, coaching is evaluated relatively easily. The results of a successful coaching course should be clear as the employee is noticeably more competent in their work and able to contribute more effectively – a manager will be able to see the results simply by observing the employee’s day-to-day work.
Mentoring is more difficult to quantify. Goals should be a focus as much as possible – if your aim is to create a candidate capable of taking on a management position, the development program can be considered a success if they successfully attain and perform well in said management position. However, this process can potentially take years, so maintaining the original plan and trajectory can be difficult as circumstances and ultimate goals change.
  1. Coaching meetings are structured, with the agenda set by the employee each time. Meetings take place on a regular basis until the immediate goal is met or achieved. The development of a rapport is not particularly important, though both parties should be comfortable and open with each other.
Mentoring is much more informal and not particularly structured – meetings and conversations only have to take place as and when the mentee needs support from the mentor. To this end, they set the agenda and the mentor does their best to guide them. The development of a strong rapport will go a long way towards ensuring that the relationship is a successful and beneficial one, not only for the mentee but also for the mentor.