What is the difference between mentoring and coaching? Does it matter?

Mentoring and coaching are terms which are often used interchangeably. When you then throw into the mix sponsorship and role models, it is little wonder that the whole thing can be very confusing. Whilst these things can be seen to exist on a spectrum, it is helpful to know where the commonalities are and to think about what approach might fit your organization.


What is the difference between all these terms?


Coaching is often thought of in terms of performance, specifically performance enhancement. It is true that a significant part of coaching relates to behaviour change and helping people perform at their best. This does not mean "remedial" which is something that people often think about when the term coaching is offered.


Mentoring can also be thought of as helping people perform at their best. Mentoring is often thought of in terms of senior team members imparting knowledge to more junior members. Mentoring is indeed where someone with experience of a topic or specialism provides guidance and support to someone who is moving up through the ranks. Coaches, by contrast, do not need to have any experience of the area their coachee wants to work on. They use specific tools and training to unlock the knowledge of the coachee themself.


Now the truth is, good coaches sometimes draw on the experience they have and they can provide context where it serves the client. Good mentors also recognise that not all situations are the same and that things that they have done and experienced will have worked because of the unique set of circumstances they were in. A good mentor will draw on his knowledge but will not impose it on his or her mentee and, of course, not all mentoring is top down! Reverse mentoring is increasingly commonplace and incredibly powerful. This is where someone senior in the organisation learns from some of his or her more junior counterparts.


Then there is the notion of role models and sponsors. Again terms that are often throw into the mix and used interchangeably with each other and with mentoring and coaching. Again, it is useful to think of a spectrum here.


A role model is perhaps someone that someone else looks up to. Someone who they can see similarities with and who can inspire and influence. Role models may or may not realise they have this position in the eye of the person who identifies them as such. If they do, they might adopt a role which is more akin to mentoring.


Finally, sponsorship. This is something that we identified in our report as being a critical component to reaching a senior level in professional services firms. We distinguished this from role models in this context. Sponsorship is often organic, but it can be seen as a more proactive than being a role model. This is someone who “has your back and fights your corner”. This is often the result of happenstance rather than deliberate appointment. However, there is no reason why it should come about in this way and thoughtful sponsorship could well be something firms look to adopt as part of their diversity strategies.


Does it matter what we call things?


Purists would say yes. However, whilst for certain things it will matter, for others what is more important is an understanding of what any programme is looking to deliver.


What are you looking to achieve as an organization and what type of programme will best deliver that for you?


What are the benefits and watch-outs?


What can mentors, role models and sponsors learn from coaching?


What mentors, role models and sponsors all have in common is that they tend to be internal to an organisation and they tend to assume this role outside of their "day jobs". This is in sharp contrast to coaches who have trained, undergo supervision and adhere to strict codes of ethics. They are formally appointed and experienced in the task at hand.


There are a number of things that coaches do that can be adopted as best practice in these other disciplines.


1. Create a safe space for the mentee/individual to be able to share. Make sure you set the boundaries. Let people know that it will be confidential. Let people know that they are free to ask questions that they might otherwise be nervous to ask. You are not there to judge but rather to inspire.


2. Build rapport. Listen, encourage questions and be non-judgemental. Maybe share some stories to do that.


3. Set a direction. How will success be measured? What does the mentee/individual want to get from you?


4. Active listening. Whilst you are there to offer tips and experience, it is important to remember that you are also there to listen. Before jumping in with answers or advice think about what other questions you can ask to dig deeper. Think about what is being unsaid as well as what is being said. This will help develop empathy and build the mentee/individuals own skills.


5. Remember that everyone is unique. What has been helpful for you might not work for your mentees. Be mindful of the way you share to take notice of difference. Offer your insights as something that worked for you rather than as the only way of doing things.


6. Be present. When you enter a mentoring session make sure that you are fully present. Try and leave whatever is on your mind to onside and be free from distractions. For some people taking a few mindful breaths in advance can help. For others it might be putting your phone away in a draw.


7. Set goals. Often the power of mentoring is felt outside rather than inside the session. Encourage mentees to set goals to take forward their learning. Mentoring in particular tends to be more heavily led by the mentee. Help them to find direction and approach the experience with the future in mind.


To find out how Client Talk can help you decide what sort of programme is right for you, get in touch.