Mentoring and coaching: What’s the difference? Does it matter?

At a meeting this week in Sydney a senior HR professional responsible for tens of thousands of employees commented to me that there is still a lot of confusion around mentoring and coaching and when should one be offered as opposed to the other.

Does the newly appointed CEO, grappling with an inexperienced and demanding board need a coach or a mentor?   Which approach is most useful for the 30 something lawyer trying to make partnership who needs to build their profile and client base? What is most appropriate for the mature employee of a telco who wants to explore new ways of working as she approaches retirement?

Regardless of titles, people want support and advice to progress their careers and lives.  Some need inspiration to think big and long term, others benefit from accountability or constructive criticism to make change. Most of us want a trusted sounding board to test ideas and plans before executing them. It is a timeless practice to seek wise counsel on life’s big decisions – how to secure a new role, manage personal and professional relationships, clarify a career path, perform a leadership role to the best of your ability, combine work, family and life.

Mentors and coaches bring different skills to these relationships.  Mentors are selected in our practice for their experience and interest in developing people; some also have psychology and coaching qualifications.   It is their executive experience that mentees want access to.  How did they succeed in the big roles? Where did they fail? What path did they take to get there?  Did they feel lonely? How did they feign confidence when they didn’t feel it?

Mentoring encourages reflection and discussion and the agenda is set by the mentee.  The mentee’s manager in most cases nominates them for a mentoring program and may offer the mentor a broad brief on the person but is not involved throughout the program.  In a coaching relationship the agenda is set by the manager and the coach reports to the manager throughout.   A coach has undergone training to become accredited and has a set of tools and frameworks they draw on to help people reflect on their performance and set goals.

The purpose of coaching and mentoring also differs.  Coaching is offered to address a skill set or competency that needs improvement or correction, such as delegating, public speaking, managing teams; whereas mentoring supports people in career transitions.  It offers people a confidential and independent adviser with whom they can discuss a broad range of professional and personal issues. In our experience mentoring is offered to emerging leaders or valuable employees to develop their leadership skills as a part of succession planning.  This may be at a time where the company is being restructured, sold, or taking a new direction and mentoring can support people through this period and assist them to clarify their goals.

Another key difference is the time frame.  Mentoring is mostly over a much longer period, the majority of our programs are 12 months and meetings are monthly, as the emphasis is on reflection and implementing change incrementally. Coaching is often fortnightly for 4-8 meetings, it is more intense and focused on skill transfer.

In terms of outcomes, from an employer’s perspective mentoring is measured in terms of retention, promotion, expansion of role and higher leadership and engagement scores.  For coaching there are distinct targets or milestones that the coach works towards.

Over the past decade in Australia we have seen the development of executive coaching, a hybrid of coaching and mentoring which is offered to more senior people to help them address workplace issues and challenges and transition to senior roles.   Many executive coaches have executive backgrounds to draw on, accredited coaching skills and use a combination of coaching and mentoring hats to support and develop people.   Many of our mentors wear both hats and swap depending on the mentee’s circumstances, needs, goals and profession.

This is where it can get confusing, but the earlier points about timing, purpose and the relationship between coach and manager are still distinctions and if you are an employer or manager and considering development for your people reflect on the aim of the program, for the individual and the company, their needs, the stage of their career, and the method that will be most appropriate for them.

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Well structured programs increase ROI

You’ve recognised the value of mentoring to address a business challenge – whether it is succession planning, retention, supporting diversity, building leadership capability or driving change.

Yet successful mentoring programs take thought, planning and careful design to ensure maximum impact and outcomes for the participants and organisation.

Following best practice guidelines and a structured process will help achieve the best results. Here are five steps to follow when setting up your organisation’s program:

1. Formalise and design the program.

Clearly define the objectives and goals of the program. What does success look like for participants and your organisation? When designing the program consider the selection criteria, structure, participants, matching and resources. Set a clear time frame for the program to keep participants focused.

2. Communicate and identify champions

Position the program as a reward and recognition program that is highly valued by your organisation. Identify internal senior champions to inspire participation and promote benefits. Ensure all stakeholders are aware of the program, its objectives and the professional development opportunities for both the mentee and mentors. This will foster a mentoring culture and drive commitment to the process from all parties.

3. Provide training and resources

Provide training to both mentors and mentees on how to get the most out of the experience. Discuss their roles and responsibilities, the level of commitment required and mentoring best practice guidelines. Clarifying expectations and roles will build a more effective mentoring relationship.

Offer tools and resources to help facilitate and structure the process. For example, our one2one online resource increases structure and guidance to the mentor and mentee and shares tips and advice on how to get the most out of the relationship.

4. Connect carefully

Matching is critical to the success of the program. Consider goals, expectations, experience and personality of both parties. Each mentee needs to have the right person to challenge, stretch and guide them. The organisation can match strategically to help drive innovation, collaboration and communication across business areas and skill sets.

5. Measure the program’s effectiveness

Measure and evaluate the program’s effectiveness against goals and key business performance indicators. Reporting also helps participants to stay accountable and encourages them to reflect on key learnings and outcomes. Communicate the results to leaders, managers and participants.

When done well, mentoring can be a powerful unique professional development tool that delivers strong results.

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Top tips for your mentoring program

We know it can be a powerful professional development tool to drive change, engage staff and develop leaders but it has to be done well. Following best practice guidelines will help to achieve an effective program. Drawing on our research Managing Power, People and My Career as well as our experience in designing successful programs, here are our top five tips.


Mentoring programs are most successful in organisations which foster a development culture and whose leaders are champions of mentoring. Mentees must feel participation is highly valued by the organisation
and it is a reward and recognition program to aspire towards rather than a remedial initiative.


Consider the qualities of the participants chosen and train them to get the most out of the relationship. Mentors need to be good listeners, encourage trust and be generous in sharing their experiences. Great mentors stretch and challenge. Mentees need to take initiative, be open and drive the relationship.


The match is arguably the most crucial element of success. It needs to be based on the mentees goals, ambitions, expectations as well as experience. Where possible mentors should be outside of current network or function area to bring fresh perspectives and that they can’t have with their manager or colleagues. Both have to be committed to the relationship and there needs to be mutual respect.


The program needs to be formalised with all parties understanding the purpose, expectations and goals of the program. Establish clear objectives and guidelines at the beginning and ensure they are well communicated. Set a clear timeframe for the program to keep participants focused and outcomes
can be assessed.


Measure and evaluate the effectiveness of the mentoring program against the goals of the program and key business performance indicators. Communicate the results to senior leadership, participants, managers and mentors.

Download Mentoring Program Best Practice Top Tips PDF

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Why do senior women leave their jobs?

McCarthy Mentoring Executive Program Sydney

A new study by global bank Citi looked at the reasons behind their troubling attrition rate of senior females. Surveying 500 men and women who had left the organisation from around the globe, the findings were interesting and sometimes surprising.

These are a few of the discoveries:

  1. Women are loyal. Compared to the men who had left the women had worked with the organisation for longer and many took a lot longer to decide to leave.”There seems to be a loyalty dynamic at play with our senior women that is more prevalent than our male cohort,” Minashi writes.
  2. Women talk to their bosses and HR. While fewer men had discussed their plans with their bosses or HR, 90% of women talked with their manager ahead of time and 50% of women spoke with their HR partner. “I believe this represents a huge opportunity for organisations in that we can raise manager capability to hold meaningful career conversations and encourage greater connectedness in terms of talent and mobility discussions,” Minashi writes.
  3. Flexibility or work life balance is not the problem. Most women surveyed strongly disagreed that flexibility or work life balance challenges had anything to do with their decision to leave. “The message came back loud and clear – “we are here to work, we want large, complex, exciting leadership challenges. Let me worry about what is going on at home”,” Minashi writes.
  4. Family is rarely the reason women leave their jobs. The global study showed just 4% of females who left did so to stay at home. Sixty-three percent went to other corporate roles in the financial services sector – exactly the same as the percentage of men – and 22% started their own businesses.
  5. Female breadwinners are on the rise. Two-thirds of the women in the study reported that they were their family’s main breadwinner. “The mortgage, kids’ education, pensions and financial planning are being funded and supported by senior women as much as the traditional male breadwinner ever was. Promotions, pay and career path are all as equally important,” Minashi writes.
  6. Tipping point. “Female attrition seems to be led by an accumulation of micro disappointments rather than one significant event. It wasn’t the promotion people missed out on, or the change in business model but rather the growing frustration that career pace and trajectory were not aligned with expectations,” Minashi writes.

Read full article by Georgina Dent, 30 July 2014



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