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Workplace learning with coaching and mentoring
Workplace learning with coaching and mentoring

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3 Coaching and mentoring: an overview of similarities and differences

It is surprisingly difficult to define ‘coaching’ precisely, and this term is used in rather different ways depending on the context. It is also difficult to distinguish definitively between coaching and mentoring. Both rely on the coach or mentor to facilitate the individual’s learning and to help them to take responsibility for, and to manage, their own learning, and both need some foundation coaching skills – although mentoring requires additional skills to do with supporting the mentee through guiding, career counselling and networking (Clutterbuck, 2014).

In the following activity you will spend some time thinking about your own experiences of coaching and mentoring, and you will hear from our panel of learning and development practitioners about what they see as being the differences between coaching and mentoring.

Activity 3: Coaching and mentoring

Timing: Allow around 30 minutes for this activity

Part 1: What do we mean by ‘coaching’ and ‘mentoring’?

Think about what you understand by the terms ‘coaching’ and ‘mentoring’. You may draw on what you have read about each of these and/or on your previous experience, either as a coach/mentor or as a person who has had some coaching and mentoring, either at work or in another context. In the text box below, write a few sentences on each of the two terms and how you think they are different.

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A popular way of distinguishing between coaching and mentoring is to identify that mentors usually have more experience than the person whom they are mentoring, while this is less often true in coaching. However, this is complicated by the fact that many successful coaches, particularly executive coaches, are, or have been, successful senior executives themselves and draw on this experience in their work as coaches.

There is a continuing debate between coaches about how much experience they need of the work context of those whom they are coaching, and how much they can rely on the generic skills of facilitating and supporting learning, which you will practise later in this course. In relation to mentoring, however, there is no real debate about the importance of the mentor having relevant workplace or other experience; this is normally assumed to be necessary.

You may have mentioned in your own definitions that the techniques and skills of coaching and mentoring can also be similar; for example, in terms of goal setting, questioning and exploring options for action. Part 2 of this activity will explore similarities and differences a bit further.

Part 2: Practitioner views

Now watch the video below in which our panel of HRD experts talk about what they see as being the differences between coaching and mentoring. As you watch, make notes in the text box below of the main points about coaching and mentoring.

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Differences and similarities between coaching and mentoring
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In the video, the practitioners mention the following differences and similarities:

  • a coach probes for answers, while a mentor may only ask the individual to reflect
  • a mentor is more likely to be older than their mentee
  • a mentor is often an expert in the work, role and organisation, and can offer specific advice; a coach may or may not be an expert in the work, but enables the coachee to explore options and unlocks the coachee’s own knowledge and problem-solving capacity.

You will already see that drawing a distinction between coaching and mentoring is not simple. Clutterbuck (2008) highlights the features that they seem to have in common; both:

  • require, and draw upon, the helper’s experience
  • involve giving advice in some form
  • coaching and mentoring are based on goals set by, or for, the learner
  • methods deal with significant transitions the learner wishes to make
  • deal with personal growth ambitions.

However, there are key differences between coaching and mentoring. Passmore (2007) provides a useful table describing some of these differences in seven areas: level of formality, length of contract, outcome focus, level of business knowledge, training, client, and supervision or support.

Table 1 Key differences between coaching and mentoring
Coaching Mentoring
1. Level of formality More formal: contract or ground rules set, often involving a third-party organisational client. Less formal: agreement, most typically, between two parties.
2. Length of contract Shorter term: typically, between 4 and 12 meetings agreed over two to twelve months. Longer term: typically, unspecified number of meetings with relationships often running over 3 to 5 years.
3. Outcome Focus More performance-focused: typically, a greater focus on short-term skills and job performance. More career-focused: typically, a concern with longer-term career issues, obtaining the right experience and longer-term thinking.
4. Level of business knowledge More generalist: typically, coaches have a strong appreciation of business or commercial realities. More sector knowledge: typically, mentors have detailed knowledge of organisation or business sector.
5. Training More relationship training: typically, coaches have a background in psychology, psychotherapy or human resources, or have undertaken specialist coaching training. More management training: typically, mentors have a background in senior management, with limited coaching/mentoring training.
6. Client Dual client: more typically, a dual focus on the needs of the individual and the needs of the organisation. Single client: more typically, a single focus on the needs of the individual.
7. Supervision or support Formal: typically, the coach will be in (or be expected to be in) supervision as part of their CPD. Informal: typically, the mentor may have period discussions or briefings from HR, if based within an organisation.
(Adapted from Passmore, 2007, p. 13)