Coaching and mentoring: Spot the difference

When a university professor says there’s little discernible difference between coaching and mentoring, then there probably isn’t. However, others disagree.

Not only is it tough at the top but it is fairly lonely too, as senior executives find they have no-one in the same industry with whom they can share or test ideas. In turn, learning and development professionals can face a dilemma as they are expected to guide senior people and find safe sounding boards for them.

“This is where a combination of mentoring and coaching can come in,” says Sally Baxter, head of executive coaching at Penna. “We were recently asked to work with a client who wanted a combination of leadership coaching and an understanding, at a deep level, of business-to-business selling in a specific sector.”

Baxter’s answer was to put forward the services of both a coach and an external mentor. The mentor was from Penna’s interim department.

“Interims have deep content experience and so are ideal to work with a coach and client to share their wisdom and knowledge,” she says. “The combination of coach and mentor can provide the rounded service some senior executives are looking for.”


Baxter is describing a rising trend. More organisations are either turning to a combination of coaching and mentoring or choosing to blur the differences between the two philosophies. This trend also dispels the myth that coaching has overtaken mentoring as the one-to-one development option of choice.

At Skipton Building Society, head of HR learning and development Chris Worts runs both internal coaching and mentoring schemes for employees. Staff may receive both or either approaches simultaneously, or could even be delivering coaching while receiving mentoring.

“We will typically train our managers in coaching skills to make teams more effective in their role,” he says. “But we also like to take them off role and assign them to a senior person to discuss career progression or relationships. We have taken mentoring to a new level.”

Worts estimates there are 80 staff being mentored at the building society, either at the head office at first line supervisor level or upwards, or at branch manager level. The mentors are usually departmental managers or above, and meet Worts’ criteria of “skills, knowledge and understanding.” Contact is made in person or over the phone.

Worts is stringent about boundaries.

“I make the distinction of coaching being a skills-based tactic, focusing on an individual’s role, and mentoring as the development of people,” he says. He adds that he expects anyone who is acting as a coach to recognise when this approach is not relevant and that the client needs a mentor instead.

At the European Mentoring and Coaching Council, co-founder David Clutterbuck defines mentoring as “more holistic than coaching and about the individual, whereas coaching is about performance”.


He says combining coaching and mentoring is a useful approach for developing a graduate intake. He recently ran such a programme for a multinational organisation. “Line managers were trained to offer coaching to the graduates, and the new recruits had a mentor to keep them on track within the organisation’s command structure,” he says.

Back at Penna, Baxter agrees that mentoring is good for new recruits or following promotion. “The need for an individual to make a rapid impact for the company is a classic situation where the coach and internal mentor can work closely to support the needs of the individual,” she says.

She says that it is up to the sponsoring organisation where and when they use coaching or mentoring, but that above all the client needs to know where they stand. “There is a fine line,” she says. “If a coach over-steps the mark in giving advice and enters the realm of ‘expert’ or ‘consultant’, that’s where difficulties can arise.”

What’s in a name?

“I’ve given up trying to make a distinction between coaching and mentoring”, says Bob Garvey, professor of the subject at Sheffield Hallam University, even though he co-authored a book on mentoring.

This startling admission from a professor of coaching and mentoring is based on Garvey’s latest research for a book on their origins, due to be published in the autumn.

“I have found that there isn’t a difference in the skills and processes of coaching and mentoring but in timescales and context,” he says. “Coaching has a strong performance orientation and mentoring, which is longer term, and has that as a consequence rather than an intention. Both ultimately mean ‘facilitated conversation’, which I am now calling one-to-one developmental dialogue,” he says.

Helen Bailey is head of coaching at Pinna consultancy, which trains the public sector in mentoring. It is also accredited by the University of Central Lancashire to offer certificates in business and executive coaching. Bailey says she expects both terms to become known as “one-to-one dialogue” or something similar – over the next couple of years.

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