Coaching and mentoring – what’s the real difference?

There is an old theological debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Whether it has to do with discussing the relative merits of having angels dancing on a pin, some profound theological riddle, or just a question created by pinheads for the sake of it, it smacks of the great mentoring/coaching debate.

For years there has been discussion as to what is the defining difference between mentoring and coaching. Various learned men and women have held forth their views as to it being one thing or another – but to my knowledge, it has yet to be settled.

So here I go…

First, is it important, and what would it mean if we were to define a clear and specific difference between the two?

I suppose, as in many situations, we should look to the market. If you are coming from outside an organisation, how many times have you been hired specifically as a mentor to pass on particular skills? Or have you been brought in because of your ability to bring a new perception to the client that allows them to unlock more of their potential by creating new realisations and insights? Do we market ourselves as coaches or mentors?

Perhaps there is confusion because of the many training programmes that are touted in the marketplace. These unleash vast numbers of semi-educated coaches into the world, who then proceed to advertise themselves as having diplomas in mentoring.

By the way, can anybody tell me why a programme that has no academic affiliation or accreditation can be called a ‘diploma’?

For me, the difference between mentoring and coaching is as follows: a mentor is involved in transferring job-specific skills or culture-specific knowledge to someone who is junior to them, but not in their direct line of management within an organisation.

This inherently means that a mentor must have specific knowledge of the role, skills, and the organisation’s structure and culture, that they can pass on. For example, a banker mentors a banker, an engineer an engineer and so on.

A coach does not require such knowledge. They usually focus on the client’s perception of the challenges they face. This allows the subject to unlock their own insights and realisations to accomplish more. The result is that the coach focuses on the person while the person focuses on the role.

True mentoring is also focused down the line or chain of command, whereas coaching can be applied peer to peer, as well as down and up the line if the proper contracts are in place.

The real question is do mentors also coach, and if they do, what should we call them – hybrids?

Sean Weafer presents his solution to the great coaching and mentoring conundrum

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