What is the Difference Between Coaching and Mentoring?

 Coaching and Mentoring

What do I need? A Coach or a Mentor?

A Coach or Mentor – Same Same but Different?

The terms coaching and mentoring are often used synonymously but in professional terms there are some subtle yet important differences. Having worked as both a coach and a mentor it is not that one is better than the other, it is that they are slightly different approaches to achieve slightly different things.

It is also worth noting that in practice there can be considerable overlap between the two but mixing up the terms can be confusing and frustrating (Nieuwerburgh, 2014). Therefore the differences in emphasis and approach are important to know, especially if you are looking for either a coach or a mentor and trying to work out what you would suit you best.

What does it mean to be a mentor?

A mentor is someone who is generally more experienced and who passes on that knowledge to someone who is less experienced within a certain area of expertise. The mentor is often someone older but not necessarily so; it is more about the mentor having specialist knowledge that they can impart to the person being mentored.

A classic example would be a senior manager within a company being the mentor for a more junior manager in the same company (but who generally are not in a direct day-to-day line management relationship).

What does it mean to be a coach?

A coach supports a client in achieving a specific personal or professional goal generally through facilitation of learning by the coachee.

There is no one definition for coaching as a profession but there are some common themes that come out of coaching literature. Coaching can be described as:

Unlocking people’s potential to maximise their own performance. (Whitmore 2009: 11)


The art of facilitating the performance, learning and development of another. (Downey, 2003:21)

Simply put, coaching is about helping people to become more effective in their life and work. As with mentoring this primarily happens through one to one conversations.

A typical example of coaching would be a client employing a coach, for a defined number of sessions, in order to address a specific challenge or achieve a particular aim such as improving work-life balance.

Coaching and Mentoring Differences Made Simple

As with the varying definitions there are also various comparisons available but it is important to remember that it is hard to always fix hard boundaries between the two disciplines.

A good simple summary of the difference between coaching and mentoring is outlined by Jonathan Passmore in his book Excellence in Coaching (Passmore, 2010:5) and replicated in the table below:

1. Level of formalityMore formal: contract or ground rules set, often involving a third-party clientLess formal: agreement, most typically between two parties
2. Length of contractShorter term: typically between 4 and 12 meetings agreed over 2 to 12 monthsLonger term: typically unspecified number of meetings with relationships often running over 3 to 5 years
3. FocusMore performance focussed: typically a greater focus on short-term skills and job performanceMore career focussed: typically concerned with longer-term career issues, obtaining the right experience and longer-term thinking
4. Level of sector knowledgeMore generalist: typically coaches have limited sector knowledgeMore sector knowledge: typically mentors have knowledge of organisation or business sector
5. TrainingMore relationship training: typically coaches have a background in psychology, psychotherapy or HRMore management training: typically mentors have a background in senior management
6. FocusDual focus: more typically a dual focus on the needs of the individual and the needs of the organisationSingle focus: more typically a single focus on the needs of the individual

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  • Passmore, J. (ed) (2010) Excellence in Coaching. 2nd edn. London: Kogan Page.
  • Whitmore, J (2009) Coaching for Performance: GROWing Human Potential and Purpose: The Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership, 4th London: Nicholas Brealey.
  • Downey, M (2003) Effective Coaching: Lessons from the Coach’s Coach, 2nd London: Texere.
  • Van Nieuwerburgh, C. (2014) An Introduction to Coaching Skills. London: Sage.

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