At first glance, mentoring and coaching may seem similar. They are both techniques commonly used by management to drive desirable workplace behavior and support the personal and professional growth of employees. The terms are not interchangeable, however.

International Mentoring Group (IMG) defines mentoring as, “A process of direct transfer of experience and knowledge from one person to another.” In the workplace, a mentor provides guidance and direction to a mentee—usually a junior–level employee with similar interests who may aspire to the position of the mentor. The mentor has achieved success within the industry, and voluntarily shares his or her expertise with the colleague. IMG defines coaching as “a method of achieving set goals.” A coach, who may or may not be a company employee, helps clients achieve specific, immediate goals as defined by the organization.

Organizations can utilize both mentors and coaches. This article will examine some key differentiations between mentoring and coaching, and illuminate when upper level management might consider one technique over the other.

Key differentiators between mentoring and coaching

#1: Orientation

Mentoring is oriented around relationships. Although the mentor and mentee might initially focus on certain learning goals or competencies, over time they develop a bond and rapport that often transcends specific workplace issues.

Coaching is oriented around defined tasks. Coaches are often called upon to help individuals become more proficient in certain areas or address important workplace skills they might be lacking. Some examples might include conflict resolution, strategic thinking, or public speaking.

#2: Drivers

Mentoring is development driven. The focus is on the future. The mentor shares his or her experience in an effort to positively influence the personal and professional growth of the mentee.

Coaching is performance driven. The focus is on the present. The purpose is to improve, enhance, or acquire new skills that can be leveraged immediately.

#3: Duration

Mentoring requires a significant time commitment from both parties. Mentors and mentees may start out as casual acquaintances, but often build strong fellowships that can continue for years.

Coaching has a defined ending. Parties may meet just once or over a period of time, however the relationship usually terminates when the trainee masters the specific skill or goal they were working on.

#4: Input from leadership

Mentoring requires little oversight. Although a manager may be assigned to administer the logistics of a mentoring program, formal supervision is rarely required. For the most part, mentors and mentees steer the direction of their relationship.

Coaching requires active engagement. A manager must monitor the progress, solicit regular feedback from the coach, and oftentimes determine when a coaching initiative should conclude.

#5: Evaluation

With mentoring, success is usually measured in broad terms. While benefits may include improved morale or lower turnover, it can be challenging for organizations to identify specific key performance indicators (KPIs) that result from a mentoring relationship.

With coaching, measurement is easier. Specific goals are clearly defined in advance, and the accomplishment of those goals can be tracked and measured.

Mentoring vs. coaching

Mentoring and coaching both play an important role in today’s workplace. Depending on the situation, one may be preferable over the other. Management Mentors, a global firm that provides a range of mentoring services, offers the following recommendations:

Consider mentoring:

  • When the company wants to develop promising internal talent
  • When there is a shortage of potential leaders in the corporate pipeline
  • When the organization wants to remove barriers that inhibit the advancement of certain groups, such as women and minorities
  • When it becomes important to preserve internal expertise and knowledge as part of succession planning
  • When established senior leaders are altruistically motivated to give back

Consider coaching:

  • When talented employees are not meeting expectations
  • When staff members must acquire or master specific skills or competencies
  • When the company needs to improve performance in a short period of time
  • When the organization is introducing a new system or program
  • When a subdivision of the company is attempting something new or untested

In conclusion

Mentoring and coaching are two management techniques that often overlap but should not be confused. While similarities exist, there are also some salient differences. Brefi Group, a UK-based change-management organization, sums up the key difference between mentoring and coaching in this thought-provoking sentence: "A coach has some great questions for your answers; a mentor has some great answers for your questions."