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The great debate: Coaching v mentoring


Do you know the difference? Richard Hawkes explores the age-old debate of coaching verus mentoring.


I’m often asked by businesses and organisations whether they need a mentoring or a coaching programme, and what the differences are. It often surprises me that there appears to be confusion between the two. In theory, coaching and mentoring are separate disciplines used for specific situations, which have different effects and benefits.

Coach or mentor?

Mentoring is about skills transfer and it can’t be learnt on a training course. It’s about an individual passing on knowledge in a subject that they have years of experience in – it’s the ‘been there, done that’ experience that is so valuable in a mentor.
Coaching on the other hand is a non-directive and non-judgemental conversation, which uses a series of questions to help and facilitate an individual explore their own goals and aspirations, realise more about themselves and their effects on others, and come up with solutions and ideas to resolve issues. A purist coach will not be able, or want to mentor, and a purist mentor will not be able to coach.
But, we need to ask what does the coachee or mentee want? In my experience of coaching in business, executives and managers want a blend of both disciplines and don’t distinguish between mentoring and coaching. They want the space that coaching gives to explore their own thoughts and feelings, and come up with their own solutions, but they also want mentoring advice and knowledge from someone who has experience of a similar subject or business situation.
And herein lies the dilemma that many purist coaches and mentors come across frequently. To be truly effective, it’s important to provide a service that is tailored to the person’s needs, because ultimately this will have a greater impact on their performance in the workplace.
In practice, coaching and mentoring should be viewed as a sliding scale whereby in most business coaching or mentoring situations a blend of both disciplines is required - to a greater or lesser degree - to help an individual achieve their goals. Matching the right training professional to the recipient therefore becomes vital. 
In an in-house situation, organisations can look at developing a coaching culture to give mentors the overarching support and freedom to introduce coaching-style conversations when they are spending time with a mentee.
External training organisations, on the other hand, should be asking a series of questions to find out what the individual – and their employer - is after to be able to correctly match that person to a coach with the right blend of coaching to mentoring.
What the right blend is depends on a number of factors such as whether the individual needs help with workplace performance or support with behavioural issues such as confidence, communication and self-motivation.

In my view, the way forward in the coaching industry is to provide coaches with some business expertise or specialist knowledge to ensure skills and performance mentoring can play a role – however small – during one-on-one sessions.

When should you use mentoring?
Mentoring is useful in situations where individuals need to improve their skills base or learn about a new subject, or when an organisation needs to ensure tried and tested techniques and valuable skills don’t get lost and are passed down through the ranks, and to new recruits.
When should you use coaching?
Coaching is particularly useful in a situation where a person needs assistance with communication or help with an attitude/behaviour issue.

Richard Hawkes is a leading UK business coach with Unlimited Potential. For more information visit

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