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Coaching and Mentoring

Coaching and Mentoring: What’s the Difference?

November 22, 2012 by Dr. Jon Warner in Coaching and Mentoring

Coaching and Mentoring: What’s the Difference?

In the last ten to fifteen years both coaching and mentoring efforts inside organizations have gained considerable popularity. However, the terms “coaching” and “mentoring” are often used almost inter-changeably and yet are quite different in their intent and focus and in this brief article we will focus on the similarities and differences.

As the chart below indicates, there are some significant similarities for both roles to succeed. These include the ability to actively listen, bring external knowledge and experience to the table, help individuals in terms of career progress, build a trusting relationship and help an individual to succeed in general organizational life (and all of these are expanded upon below). However, as the chart shows on the right, there are also some striking differences.

5 Similarities 5 Differences
Active Listening

Both coaching and mentoring are best done by individuals who can actively or attentively listen. The ability to therefore hear what is being said, read between the lines, and interpret feedback is a critical common skill before any coaching or mentoring advice can subsequently be given.

Task versus Relationship focused

Where coaching is generally task or project oriented, mentoring is more relationship-centered in its focus. Hence, where coaching may focus on communication ability, developing financial acumen or improving presentation skills, mentoring is unlikely to focus specifically on issues such as this (except in concept terms). Mentoring is more likely to focus on issues such as self-confidence, work/life balance, and dealing with the organizational culture etc.

External Experience/Knowledge

Both coaching and mentoring are concerned with providing an external and experienced person to whom a coachee or mentoree can talk about workplace issues. This person usually has special skills or knowledge and regularly meets with the coachee or mentoree to discuss any issues raised.

Shorter versus longer-term

Coaching is typically short term. A coach can successfully be involved with a coachee for a short period of time, such as just a few sessions (although it may last longer) Mentoring, on the other hand, in order to be successful, requires time in which both individuals in the relationship can learn about one another and build a climate of mutual trust and appreciation.

Career progress focus

Both coaching and mentoring are concerned with career enhancement or progress for the coachee or mentoree (although will focus in different areas to help achieve this). People in both roles will therefore take careful account of coachee and mentoree input and provide advice and guidance on what might enhance career progress or may limit it.

Performance versus Development driven

Coaching is performance driven. The purpose of coaching is to improve the individual’s overall job or task performance. This involves either enhancing current skills or acquiring new ones. Mentoring is development driven. Its purpose is to develop the individual not only for the current job, but also for the future.

Building a Trusting Relationship

Both coaching and mentoring are concerned with establishing a solid, safe and trusting relationship in which information can be exchanged openly and honestly so that each conversation or meeting is as productive as possible.

Unplanned/immediate versus Planned and long-term

Coaching needs minimal preparation or set-up time. Coaching can be conducted almost immediately on any given topic. Mentoring, however, requires the process to be carefully designed so that it can successfully match individuals to one another and set the right agenda for the relationship(s) to work.

Individual success in the organization orientation

Both coaching and mentoring are concerned with the overall contribution that the coachee or mentoree makes to the organization as a whole. They are likely to therefore both focus on what it takes to succeed in the climate.

Boss involved versus Boss deliberately by-passed

A coachee’s immediate boss is typically a critical partner in coaching, providing early input on expectations and feedback along the way perhaps. With mentoring, the immediate manager may or may not be involved but the mentor/mentee relationship is usually separate and private.

In summary then, we should consider using coaching when:

  • When an organization is seeking to develop individuals in specific competencies or skills or to specifically improve performance, often involving both an individual and his or her manager.
  • When an organization what to give individuals new ideas or perspectives from someone outside the organization (with ideas on being more creative/innovative for example).
  • When an organization has a number of individuals who may be falling short of standards or expectations (or has had problem relating to others or been involved in conflict for example).
  • When an organization is introducing large-scale change a new system or program and new skills are needed by individuals.
  • When a leader needs particular assistance in developing a skill further (particularly after a promotion or job change for example)

And we should consider using mentoring:

  • When an organization is seeking to develop its leaders or a group of talented or high potential people as part of succession planning
  • When an organization seeks to develop particular individuals to remove any “hurdles or obstacles which may hinder their success
  • When an organization seeks to more develop individuals in ways that are additional to the acquisition of specific skills/competencies (usually wider issues to do with culture, confidence etc).
  • When an organization is “watching” an individual over time to help them more quickly aspire to higher career levels and may be giving him or her special projects or international experience, for example.
  • When an organization is seeking to retain internal expertise and experience by giving a person access to a senior level person to whom they can talk and deal with any frustrations/other issues.


Although there are clearly some overlaps, coaching and mentoring are not the same. In summary, a mentor has a personal interest and relationship with the person being mentored. In addition, he or she is usually a senior colleague who regularly checks in with an individual and takes a general interest in their long-term development. A coach, on the other hand, typically develops specific skills, deals with particular challenges that an individual is facing (and helps to identify ways of overcoming them) and helps individuals to perform in better ways in pre-identified areas (often involving the person’s boss).

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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  1. Rey CarrNovember 24, 2012 at 2:02 pm

    This is one of the best posts on the differences and similarities. All too often the similarities are ignored, and even the role details are reversed or stereotypes are used in making the case for differences. I’m grateful that you provided this stimulating article.

    • Dr. Jon WarnerNovember 29, 2012 at 8:18 pmAuthor

      Many thanks for the feedback.

  2. Rey CarrNovember 27, 2012 at 11:23 pm

    Any progress on whether we can reprint this article in our non-profit’s online magazine?

    • Dr. Jon WarnerNovember 29, 2012 at 8:18 pmAuthor

      You can Rey as long as the author and the ReadyToManage copyright and blog URL are included (and please snd us the link when you do)

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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