Coaching and Mentoring: What’s the Difference?

Coaching and Mentoring: What’s the Difference?

by Kriss Akabusi

It’s a question I’ve been asked a number of times - what’s the difference between coaching and mentoring? And it’s a good one, because sometimes, the distinctions aren’t always clear. Coaches and mentors can employ very similar approaches, and indeed might even fill both roles from time to time.

However, although there are a number of ways in which the two disciplines merge, there are some key differences we need to be aware of.

On this topic, I recently came across this infographic (below) explaining the difference between coaching and mentoring, and it troubled me. Although there are some elements that do go some way to making the distinction correctly, I’d have to disagree on some others, and this made me think about how I’d describe coaching and mentoring myself.


What’s the difference between a mentor and a coach?

Let’s begin with a mentor.   In my mind, a mentor has a visceral experience of the issue the mentee is trying to engage with – real life experience of going through the situation and overcoming it themselves.

For example, a business mentor will have started and grown their own successful business and can therefore provide a mentee with all they need to know to do the same.

Ultimately, a mentor is someone who can say, ‘Where you are, I have been. Where I am, you can go’, and can give a mentee clear directives to achieve this.

A coach, on the other hand, does not need to have walked the exact same path the coachee is trying to follow.   Instead, a coach will identify what a coachee wants to achieve, will listen and observe, and encourage the coachee to identify their own next steps forward to achieve their goals.  Think of a coach as a ‘skilful helper’.

Some of the greatest sports coaches have tried and failed as athletes, but learned so much in trying that they can coach others.  They understand the techniques, and will observe, listen and empower athletes to achieve their potential.

So by using intuitive questioning, a coach will challenge the coachee to see a situation in a different way, teasing out the potential they see is there but the coachee can’t necessarily yet see themselves.  Coaches may not always know the answer, but they will be able to identify areas for development by picking up on their coachee’s responses and encourage them to approach the situation differently.

Who drives the relationship?

A mentor-mentee relationship is two-way.  A mentee identifies where they want to go, and the mentor will lead from the front, identifying the strategies that the mentee should follow to achieve their goal.

In coaching, it is the coachee who drives the relationship.  The coach leads from behind, asking insightful questions that help the coachee see their position from another perspective, finally leading them to the ‘A-ha!’ moment that helps move them on.  How quickly the coachee reaches that moment will determine how quickly progress is made.

Here’s where I disagree with the infographic again.  In a coaching relationship, a coach doesn’t show the coachee where they went wrong.  Instead, they ask questions like, ‘What might have been done differently?’ or, ‘In light of what you know now, how would you instruct yourself in order to get the desired outcome?’ in order to encourage the coachee to be the person to identify new strategies to help them achieve their goal.

However, in mentoring, a mentor will be able to explicitly show a mentor where they have gone wrong.  So, for example, if a mentee approaches a business mentor for help, the mentor will explore the mentee’s current strategies and tell them what to stop or adapt in order to follow the path to success.

Can a person be a coach and a mentor?

It’s perfectly possible for a coach to also act as a mentor, but only if they are mentoring someone through an issue they have directly experienced themselves.  

For example, having been through the process of transitioning out of athletics into a new direction, I could mentor athletes at the end of their careers as they make that transition themselves.  

However, if a woman approached me wanting to overcome gender barriers in the workplace, I could coach her through the process, but could not offer her explicit directives as a mentor, as I have not overcome those specific barriers myself.

How do you know if you need coaching or mentoring?

If you’re starting something new, maybe going in a new direction you’ve never been in before, and are looking for someone who has been there themself to show you the way, you would be best with a mentor.

If you’ve been in a role for a while, but might have a new responsibility and a new team, and would like someone to create the space and environment for you to think issues through and consider the impact of your actions, a coach would be more appropriate.

I’m just going to take a moment here to shake off that age-old myth that people only go to coaches because there is something wrong with them.  In fact, the best business executives in the world have coaches not to address problems, but to re-evaluate their current businesses and identify ways in which they could develop them into something even better.

Business executives at the top of their organisation rarely have the opportunity to sit with someone who will challenge their thinking.  Maybe their employees aren’t giving them the bad news or the honest answer because they’re worried it’s not what the boss wants to hear.   Or maybe the executive feels inhibited to use colleagues as ‘sounding boards’.  

That’s where coaches can come in, offering the opportunity for executives to challenge themselves and see their approach and organisation in a different light.

A personal example of Coaching

I was recently approached by a busy CEO who was facing difficulties due to personality clashes between two of his team.  The General Manager and a Human Resources professional were squabbling so much, the HR professional was finding it almost impossible to engage with his team.

In this instance, I had no insight into the industry, but had subject matter expertise in personal impact.  The CEO wanted to have a crucial conversation with the GM and HR professional in order to put an end to the problem, and through coaching from me, was able to identify the best strategy for this.

I asked him questions around the potential outcome of the conversation he was planning to have, and particularly focused on making him consider the situation from the GM’s perspective, almost getting him to ‘walk a mile in the GM’s shoes’.  

Coaching helped the CEO consider the opposing communications traits of his employees and their different operational habits.  The GM was direct, liked clear objectives and wanted to be in charge, while the HR professional was detail- and process-oriented, but needed to be heard by others.

Having hit upon these key traits, I was able to draw a communication plan out of the CEO in how to motivate both employees to work for the common good, as opposed to operating out of self-interest.

A personal example of Mentoring

A professional sportsman who wanted to make a transition to professional speaking came to me for mentoring, knowing that I had made this exact transition myself.

My first piece of guidance was that he should join the Professional Speaking Association, and I then encouraged him to learn the basics of professional speaking.  Drawing from my own experience, I was able to share key tips, such as honing three key stories and using questions to find out what people would want to know from him rather than simply speaking about what he thought they should hear.

With my guidance, he was able to develop the key components of successful speaking; a powerful opening and memorable finish, the ability to link his story with the audience’s journey, the inclusion of elements of failure alongside stories of success, and of course the most important component – humour!

Coaching and mentoring: in a nutshell

To summarise:

Coaching involves asking insightful questions, designed to get the coachee to see their world from a different perspective.

Mentoring involves getting a mentee from the place the mentor once was to where the mentor is now.

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