What’s the Difference Between Mentoring and Coaching?

by Rik Nemanick, Ph.D.

I am often asked what the difference is between “mentoring” and “coaching”. While many people use the terms interchangeably, I think of them as being related but different. Part of the distinction can be seen in their respective definitions:

 Coach: a tutor who gives private or specialized teaching.

 Mentor: an experienced and trusted adviser.

As an activity, coaching tends to be focused teaching that usually has a brief timeframe for the purpose of improving the learner’s skills. Mentoring, on the other hand, builds more on the experience of the mentor than specific teaching, and is more of an advising than a teaching role. Below, I explore some of the distinctions between the two terms.

Focus. Coaching tends to focus on specific, job-related skills, often with the goal of closing a skill gap. While such coaching may go on in a mentoring relationship, a mentor’s focus tends to be broader and covering more diverse topics like career development, organizational politics, company strategy, etc.

Time Frame. Coaching also tends to have a shorter time horizon. Progress in coaching is often measured in weeks or months, while the impact of a mentoring relationship may last for years. As a result, mentors and protégés may have longer ramp-up periods at the beginning where they are building trust. As trust increases, mentor and protégé are able to explore larger and more complex issues over time.

Primary Beneficiary. In coaching, the organization tends to be the primary beneficiary of its impact, while a protégé is the primary beneficiary of a mentor’s guidance. In both cases, both the individual and organization benefit. However, a coach focuses on what the organization needs the individual to be and to do, while a mentor focuses on where the protégé wants to go and what goals he wants to set.

Mentor’s Role. The last distinction has to do with the larger role a mentor plays. Coaching is something someone does, while being a mentor is something someone is. While a mentor may coach a protégé, she also may be a role model, a connection, or an advocate. A protégé may learn more through watching a mentor in action than can be gleaned from a coaching conversation. These facets of the mentor’s role often go beyond what a coach provides. They are also where the greatest benefit of having a mentor is derived.

 Understanding the difference between the role a mentor plays and the coaching one receives from bosses, peers, and others helps highlight the different benefits one can receive from both. I tend to think of coaching as better suited for tactical, near term changes and reserve a mentor for more strategic, longer term thinking.