Professional development is vital for creating a work environment where employees thrive. Up to 49% of millennials plan to quit their job within two years, and one way to avoid this costly turnover is to provide opportunity for your employees to better themselves personally and professionally. Two tools that work wonderfully for this: coaching and mentoring.

Although the terms coaching and mentoring are often used interchangeably, there are distinct differences  between the two, and it’s important to know when it’s best to use each. Failing to recognize and understand these subtle differences between coaching and mentoring can also obscure objectives and lead to confusion among employees.

So, what are the differences between coaching and mentoring, and how can you use both to maximize your team’s potential? First, let’s define them.

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 goal(s) at hand.

Driven by performance, coaching doesn’t necessarily have a standard method, because a coach will meet the student at his point of progress and work toward the desired end goal.

Even though there is no set design, coaching tends 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, like a mentor might be, and usually does not introduce the student to people of influence in the industry or organization.

Mentoring explained

The Association for Talent Development defines mentoring as “a reciprocal and collaborative at-will relationship that most often occurs between a senior and junior employee for the purpose of the mentee’s growth, learning, and career development. Often, the mentor and mentee are internal to an organization, and there is an emphasis on organizational goals, culture, and advice on professional development.”

Mentoring is relationship-oriented and seeks to provide a secure environment for sharing and relationship building. Mentors want to create balance by improving self-confidence and self-esteem in their mentees, being 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 indirectly involved in a mentoring relationship. The primary connection is between the mentor and the 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.

What is the difference between coaching and mentoring?

The use of words such as trainer or counselor can blur the distinctions between coaching and mentoring further. However, there’s one noticeable difference that these definitions underscore.

Coaching is task-oriented, mentoring is relationship-oriented

In most cases, coaching focuses attention on improving a specific skill or helping the coachee reach certain goals. Mentoring emphasizes a more holistic development of the mentee. In other words, coaching is more task-oriented and mentoring is more relationship-oriented.

Mixing coaching with mentoring

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

Defining the relationship is key with coaching and mentoring

What begins as a coaching initiative may evolve into a broader relationship with many of the characteristics of mentoring. The disciplines have clear and logical differences, and it’s good for everyone involved to understand what’s expected of them. Whichever route you choose, knowing the difference between coaching and mentoring forms a strong foundation for professional development.

Keep up with the latest trends in professional development

Sign up to receive our industry insights in your inbox!

Yes, please!