Friday, 9 November 2012

Coaching Vs. Mentoring: a Common Confusion, Explained.

Post by Anirban Bhattacharya
8th November 2012

I often hear this - "Mentoring helped me deliver on my goals at 110% last year..." Or: "My coach helped me understand the value of developing a well-rounded personality..."

While the mentor or the coach in question may very well have done these, and helped the coachee/mentee achieve all that he/she wanted/needed to, these statements can be a tad confusing. And often, when working with corporate sponsors, we are asked to help "mentor" a "coachee", an arrangement that is a tad conflicting at basic levels.

So, what is Mentoring, and how is it different from what we do - Coaching? The difference, at one level, is quite simple - something like the difference between a benevolent uncle and a math tutor. Both may have the ward's (sorry for the archaic term) mathematics prowess in mind, but while the former is likely to be focused on the child's overall development and progress in life, the latter is expected to have a more specific goal-focus - to make the child do well in the next term exam...

Let me put it in another way. Mentoring is often delivered by someone who is an expert in the field and who offers advice, often, but necessarily, on a larger context. Coaching, on the other hand, avoids any advice and instead encourages independent thinking through questioning, with a specific goal in mind.

So, if coaching is more Pep Guardiola, mentoring is Shifu.

Or if mentoring is Robin Williams in 'Good Will Hunting', coaching is Denzil Washington in 'Training Day'... kapish?

Let me switch the above simple example. If the same child went to a teacher, who was mentoring him, and asked for the best way to deliver a lesson; the mentor would give some ideas and suggestions. If the same question was asked of a coach, the coach would ask a series of questions to get him to try and solve the issue himself. Not general guiding principles, but specific plans, steps, tools, inputs, to deliver on specific goals...

If one needs to see the differences in greater detail, there would be about five key aspects where the two processes differ.

1. Coaching is task oriented. Mentoring is relationship oriented. 
Coaching focus is on concrete issues, such as managing more effectively, speaking more articulately, and learning how to think strategically. 

Mentoring, on the other hand, seeks to provide a safe environment where the mentee shares whatever issues affect his or her professional and personal success. Although specific learning goals or competencies may be used as a basis for creating the relationship, mentoring's focus can go beyond to include things, such as work/life balance, self-confidence, self-perception, and how the personal influences the professional.

2. Coaching is short term. Mentoring is always long term. 
A coach can successfully be involved with a coachee for a shorter period of time, as long as is needed, depending on the purpose of the coaching relationship. Coaching relationships, therefore, are more concrete, clearly contracted, with predefined outcomes. In our practice, an average coaching assignment lasts 4-6 months, extended based on need.

For mentoring to work, the process requires time to go deeper and look at issues and challenges beyond specific problems. Relationship building, while important in coaching, is far more critical in mentoring, and the relationship covers much more than identified performance-related issues. Successful mentoring relationships last nine months to a year.

3. Coaching is performance driven. Mentoring is development driven.
The purpose of coaching is to improve the individual's performance on the job. This involves either enhancing current skills or acquiring new skills. Once the coachee successfully acquires the skills, the coaching agreement should cease, and may get renewed to cover other specific needs.

Mentoring looks to develop the individual not only for the current job, but also overall, with an eye on life in general and the future. 

This is the most important distinction, and also differentiates the role of the mentee's immediate manager and that of the mentor, thereby avoiding conflicts.

4. Coaching does not require design. Mentoring requires a design phase
This is somewhat of an artificial distinction, but can be true in cases. In some cases, based on the mandate, coaching can be conducted almost immediately on any given topic. In most cases, an amount of design is involved in order to determine the competency area, expertise needed, and assessment tools used, but this does not necessarily require a long lead-time to actually implement the coaching program. However, in our practice, most coaching assignments have lead-times to build on trust, comfort and credibility, as well as get necessary information from managers, peers, partners and other key relationships.

In mentoring, in order to determine the strategic purpose of the intervention, the design phase is critical, to build on of the relationship, the specific mentoring models, and the specific components that will guide the relationship, especially the matching process. 

5. The coachee's immediate manager is a critical partner in coaching. In mentoring, the immediate manager is indirectly involved. 
The sponsor in the coaching assignment is required to provide the coach with feedback on areas in which his or her employee is in need of coaching. This coach uses this information to guide the coaching process. This can be structured feedback, or general inputs.

Although she or he may offer suggestions to the employee on how to best use the mentoring experience or may provide a recommendation to on what would constitute a good match for the mentee, the manager has no direct link to the mentor and they do not communicate at all during the mentoring relationship. This helps maintain the mentoring relationship's integrity.

So, at the end, mentoring is more focused on general and overall development of an employee. Coaching, or, as in our case, Executive Coaching, is more specific and time-bound, with clearly set objectives and goals, with greater measurability of results.

Sources: Inputs from Management Mentors ( and other sources.

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