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  • Writer's pictureDaniela Vargas

A Simple Guide to Coaching vs Mentoring

Coaching vs Mentoring
We often hear the terms ‘coaching’ and ‘mentoring’ used in day-to-day business talks. But do we know what they mean and how they are different from each other?

Today we’ll try to demystify that! We will go over these two tools, their histories, how are they different and how they are similar. We’ll even throw in some bonus tips on being a good mentor, coach, mentee and coachee (that’s a mouthful!).

Before we begin, a couple of opening remarks:

  • Neither is better than the other. Each of these tools has a place and time.

  • They often work great in combination, and they can be done separately just as well.

  • The starting point for both is the same: a person has a goal they need to achieve, and they need support to get from point A to point B.

Now that we have that covered let’s define the two terms.

What is coaching?

The word “coaching” has a very illustrative origin. Before the car was invented, people would travel in horse carriages. And the person guiding the horses and ushering them to either move, turn or stop was called a coach. So, in a way, it wasn’t the coach who made the carriage move; it was the horses. But the coach was the one to steer them in the right direction.

One of the founding fathers of coaching, John Withmore, in his book Coaching for Performance (2010), writes, “Coaching is unlocking people’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.’

We can also say that coaching can help you find an answer that is already ‘in you’, but you cannot find it yourself for whatever reason.

The way it works is that in a conversation, a coach will listen to you and ask compelling questions to help you bring out the answers inside you. Coaching largely depends on bringing self-awareness, and that’s why it is a very personal form of learning.

What is mentoring?

If you’re curious about the history of the concept, you will need to travel all the way back to Ancient Greece. When Odysseus was getting ready to leave his home to fight in the Trojan war, he entrusted his son’s education to his wise advisor, Mentor. He asked him to teach his son everything he knew. And thus, his name lived on for centuries.

Hollywood has given us some fantastic movies that show how valuable a mentor can be. If you are a Star Wars fan, you are familiar with the relationship between Yoda and Luke Skywalker. If you are a Harry Potter fan, you can see the same between Dumbledore and Harry Potter.

One thing all these movies have in common is someone with the experience and authority who helps the less experienced ones truly come into their own by sharing their know-how and skills, challenging them, encouraging and supporting them. Aka ‘the mentor’.

Key differences



Often short-term. Short scheduled sessions. Done on a need basis.

Tends to be long term and looks at the future career development of the person

Coaching is one-on-one – usually one coach at a time

Can be done with many mentors at the same time (for different areas of learning)

Is based on asking focused questions that will help in self-reflection and ownership of final decisions

Is based on giving instructions, recommendations, and guidance

Uses open-ended questions and supports the coachee to come up with their own course of action

Has a directive approach and may involve asking clarifying questions

Requires the coach to be highly skilled and trained (sometimes even certified) in the art and science of coaching

Relies on the personal and professional experience of the mentor, doesn’t require training

The learner sets the goals, the coach sets the pace and aids the learning process

Mentees have the responsibility to initiative the interaction

Coach doesn’t have to be a subject matter expert in a particular field or industry

Mentor is someone who has a high level of experience and exposure in a specific field or industry

Coaches focus on personal and professional learning and development

Mentors are helpful for career planning and growth

Key similarities

Both of these processes utilise:

  • strong rapport and trust between the coach/mentor and the learner

  • the use of assertive communication

  • vulnerability, specifically willingness to admit mistakes and learn from them

  • eagerness to self-reflect and act on findings

  • either formal or informal relationship and process

Pros and Cons

Just like any other development method, both coaching and mentoring have advantages and disadvantages. Let’s see what they are.




Informal conversations that can shorten the distance between the coach and coachee

Process is completely tailored to the learner

Learner is 100% responsible for their learning and progress

Not everyone is ‘coachable’ (e.g. when a person lacks skills and knowledge needed to accomplish their goals, they would be better off getting some formal training first)

Success of the coaching depends on the coach’s skills




Emphasis on the individual needs of the learner

Builds secondary skills, like listening, praising, expressing support and encouragement, giving and receiving feedback, etc.

For mentors - hear different perspectives, learn from the younger generation

Relies on the availability of the mentor, especially if the mentor is a senior leader

More junior employees may feel intimidated by the senior leader

How to be a good mentor or coach

Whether you are a mentor or a coach, you should consider the following skills to support your assigned learner:

Build the connection

Mentoring and coaching have their foundation on trust and respect from both sides. Effective relationships are formed when people are comfortable, vulnerable and eager to work on the process.

Clear expectations and goals

Be clear and concise about what they want to achieve from the sessions. Ask exactly what they want to ‘get done’ and define (at least approximate) timelines. Specific goals will lead the way to find the best ways forward.

Recognize and capitalize on strengths

Learners tend to overlook their strengths and capacities. Observe a lot, allow the learner to talk freely and do your best to make them aware of what is already within them to achieve the proposed goals.

Have goal checkpoints and measure ongoing results

Regularly ask, “How are you doing?”. “What have you achieved?”, “What are your roadblocks?” These are valuable questions to ask often during the process. Schedule specific time in your sessions to review traction and measure results.

Motivate enough and praise often

We all need motivation and recognition. Take the time to understand the best way to do this for your learner. Motivate them on progress, and remind them constantly how far they have come.

Provide simple, transparent feedback

Talk about what was good and what needs improvement. Have specific examples to illustrate. Transparent, kind feedback builds a bond that ignites either of these learning processes.

How to be a good mentee or coachee

Ready to start a mentoring or coaching process? Here are a few tips to help you enjoy a purposeful, focused and meaningful experience:

Own it!

Your attitude is critical to the success you wish to achieve. Work hard! Not only during your sessions but especially between them. Be accountable for the actions agreed upon at the end of each session. Remember, it is your process!

Be honest

Answer all questions and challenges with the truth, not with what your mentor or coach wants to hear.

Be patient

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Hang in there. This is a journey of discovery and learning. And it will take time. Be kind to your progress, expect small changes.

Show gratitude

Not just to your coach or mentor but to yourself. If you’ve put in the work, take a moment to thank yourself. Also, seek feedback and accept it as a gift.

Finally, whether it is mentoring or coaching that you are looking to receive or provide, both experiences are symbiotic. They pay great dividends for both parties in the long run. Don’t think about it any longer. Plunge into it!

What are your experiences with coaching and mentoring?


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