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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