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Coaching and Mentoring: Understanding the Differences


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Organisational development solutions provider Joanna Lamb-White outlines the differences between coaching and mentoring; a distinction necessary to achieve an efficient, cost-effective business practice.

Recent CIPD surveys have reported that the use of coaching and mentoring as development tools are on the increase within organisations. According to respondents, 72% use formal mentoring schemes and 88% expect line managers to deliver coaching as part of their day to day work.

All too often we hear the terms coaching and mentoring used interchangeably, as though these processes are one and the same. However, whilst this is good news in itself and organisations are finally realising that the development of individuals can act positively and contribute to the ‘bottom line’, it is important that the differences between these powerful processes are understood in order to avoid wasting time and money.

History and definitions
In order to understand some of the subtle differences between coaching and mentoring it is necessary to undertake a short history lesson and explore where these tools originated.

A coach has been defined as a person who teaches and directs another person via encouragement and advice. The use of the term coaching (as in the art of coaching people) has its origins in English traditional university “cramming” in the mid 19th Century. The name apparently recalls the multi-tasking skills associated with controlling the team of a horse-drawn stagecoach.

By late 1800, in the US, most college sports team employed coaches as well as managers and by the 20th Century, non-sporting coaches were emerging, those who were not specifically experts in the skills of their clients but who offered what Wikipedia terms ‘generalised motivational and inspirational advice.’

Many would argue that coaching has been around as long as parents have been around, nurturing and coaxing our offspring.

Mentoring, on the other hand, refers to a more developmental relationship with a more experienced ‘expert’ and a less experienced (and usually younger) protégé.

Mentoring has been around for centuries and centuries, the word itself deriving from a character in Homer’s Odyssey, where a goddess takes on an old man’s appearance in order to guide a young boy through a difficult time.

There are many more definitions of these terms and it is not within the remits of this article to advise which are more representative. Suffice to say that there are subtle differences in the application of these processes and therefore quite naturally in the outcomes.

Key differences
It goes without saying that both processes enable individuals and therefore organisations to achieve their full potential and share many similarities. However, there are three key differences which need to be taken into consideration when deciding on the most appropriate intervention:

  • Coaches do not need any specialist experience within the area in which their client requires support, and as such do not offer ‘advice’. They are skilled in questioning and listening (as are many mentors) but it is the coach’s role to enable the individual to find answers within themselves.
  • Mentors are usually experts within a particular field and have a wide ranging and recognised wealth of experience within the field in which they are advising and supporting others.

  • Coaching is usually an intervention which is designed to assess and improve a particular area (often performance related) and concentrates on specific issues which are identified as goals with clear outcomes.
  • Mentoring is usually delivered as part of a development plan or at induction and forms part of a longer term professional development path, which opens doors, shares experiences and widens individuals’ networking systems. It is less ‘defined’ than the outcomes specified for coaching.

  • Coaching is usually a ‘time bound’ relationship with a defined duration to meet the specific goal identified. Individuals will often use the same coach to support them with different issues.
  • Mentoring relationships can go on for a long time, seeing progress through many stages and often survive through numerous relocation and career changes.

Use in personal development
Coaching and mentoring are both ‘helping’ activities, which if applied correctly can have a powerful impact on individual and ultimately organisational behaviour.

Coaching in particular is one of the fastest emerging industries of the past decade within three key markets: United States, Australia and the UK.

The processes are often used together, providing complementary but nevertheless different roles. Therefore it is essential that individual learning needs, which are aligned to organisational objectives, are determined before the appropriate interventions are agreed upon, in order to achieve the desired outcome.

On a final note, the CIPD survey of organisations also identified that 41% do not identify coaching within a manager’s job description and 54% are not rewarded or recognised for providing these activities. Perhaps now they have got some of the basic principles right in terms of provision, training and understanding, now is the time to concentrate on the harder issues of cultural change.


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