Coaching and mentoring have become commonplace in today’s work environments. However, knowing which one is most relevant and necessary to an individual can be a bit confusing since the terms are used interchangeably, but there are distinct differences.

What’s more, failing to recognize and understand these subtle differences may muddy the objectives and lead to confusion about what each intends to accomplish.

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that both coaching and mentoring borrow from the same category of skills and processes. For example, among the options open to an astute mentor may be the opportunity to coach a mentee.

Coaching explained

According to the International Coach Federation, coaching is “an interactive process to help individuals and organizations develop more rapidly and produce more satisfying results; improving others’ abilities to set goals, take action, make better decisions and make full use of their natural strengths.”

Coaching is task-oriented with a focus on specific skill or performance issues. The learner is typically looking to improve or master skills. This type of relationship is often short-term, but it can last as long as necessary to accomplish the task(s) at hand.

Driven by performance, coaching doesn’t necessarily require a design, because a coach will meet the student at his point of progress and work forward from there to the desired end goal.

Even though there is no set design, coaching does tend to be more formal and structured. Sessions are regularly scheduled in specific and predictable venues. The immediate manager of the coachee is involved directly as an active partner.

A coach is not typically viewed or regarded as a role model as a mentor might be and usually does not broker or introduce the student to persons of influence in the industry or organization.

Mentoring explained

Although it’s a bit formal, Business Dictionary says mentoring is an “employee training system under which a senior or more experienced individual (the mentor) is assigned to act as an advisor, counselor, or guide to a junior or trainee. The mentor is responsible for providing support to, and feedback on, the individual in his or her charge.”

Mentoring is relationship oriented and seeks to provide a secure environment for sharing and relationship building. Mentors want to create balance and improve self-confidence and self-esteem in their mentees driven by the desire to help them develop personally and holistically. This type of working relationship is almost always long-term and involves mutual sharing and the creation of a climate of trust necessary for personal growth.

Unlike coaching, mentoring usually involves a design phase to examine strategic purpose, areas of focus, and tactical details. The direct manager of a mentee is only indirectly involved in a mentoring relationship. The primary connection is between the mentor and mentee.

Mentoring tends to be informal, and meetings can take place in a variety of venues, including over dinner, on outings or in private settings. A mentor is often regarded as a role model and frequently advocates on behalf of a mentee. The mentor may also focus on introducing the mentee to persons of influence in the industry or organization.

Bringing coaching and mentoring together

Use of words such as training and counselor tends to blur the distinctions between coaching and mentoring further. Nonetheless, there is one noticeable difference that these definitions underscore.

In most cases, coaching focuses attention on improving a specific skill. Mentoring emphasizes a more holistic development of coaching. In other words, coaching is task-oriented and mentoring is relationship-oriented.

Coaching interactions are of shorter duration than mentoring relationships. That is not always the case, however. The relationship between a world-class athlete or high-powered executive and a coach may start with the desire to hone specific skills. But it may grow beyond that—moving on to other performance tasks and even evolve into a broader and more personal connection that is a mix of coaching and mentoring.

Perhaps the best way to quickly gain an overview of the differences between coaching and mentoring is to provide a summary in chart form. While these judgements may not be valid 100 percent of the time, they hold true in a majority of cases.

The line between coaching and mentoring is sometimes fuzzy. And what begins as a coaching initiative may evolve into to a broader relationship with many of the characteristics of mentoring. Nonetheless, the disciplines have clear and logical differences, and it’s good for all participants to understand the intent of the relationship they’re entering clearly.

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