Coaching vs Mentoring: What’s best for you and your business’ development?

Posted in : HR Updates on 2 April 2019
Mairéad Regan
Clarendon Executive
Issues covered:

Mentoring and coaching are terms that frequently overlap and are sometimes – confusingly - used interchangeably in a workplace context. Whilst similarities exist, with both development approaches delivering tangible organisational benefits, there are some important distinctions.

Mairéad Regan from Clarendon Executive examines the differences between the two management techniques, and advises how to choose which is most suitable to your business and employee requirements.

There was a time when workplace coaching and mentoring schemes were the preserve of senior management, a ‘nice to have’ or a ‘perk’ rather than a mainstay professional development tool. Times have moved on fortunately, with both coaching and mentoring now more widely available and indeed accessible to employees at all levels of seniority within a business. However there still remains a lack of clarity around what each approach means, how they differ from one another, and which is best for your organisation.

‘Potato, potahto’?

At first glance, mentoring and coaching may seem similar. They are both techniques commonly used by management to drive desirable workplace behaviour and support the personal and professional growth of employees. But they are not interchangeable.

Perhaps the fundamental difference lies in the relationship forged between two people. The focus of coaching is usually task and performance whilst the role of the mentor is to build capability. The International Mentoring Group defines mentoring as: “A process of direct transfer of experience and knowledge from one person to another”; and defines coaching as: “A method of achieving set goals.”

The key difference has perhaps been summed up best in the following sentence, as quoted from the Brefi Group, a UK-based change management organisation: “A coach has some great questions for your answers; a mentor has some great answers for your questions.”

Each has its value

Coaching in the workplace can take many forms – on a one-to-one basis or working with teams. Either way, it has the potential to bring about significant change, with both tangible and intangible benefits.

A coach can support the coachee to articulate their hopes, aspirations, needs, beliefs, successes and challenges, explore options and help the individual set meaningful, realistic, measurable and achievable goals. This could include progressing within the business, performing better within their role or, if appropriate, moving out of the business. A coach will not direct or advise but instead challenge, explore, probe, reflect back, support and encourage.

Fundamentally a coaching process can result in the individual feeling more empowered and valued by the business, that their health, wellness and development is seen to be important, and that the company is interested in helping them achieve their full potential. All of this can improve performance and have a positive impact on the bottom line.

Mentoring is a strategic tool that when done right, can attract and retain high-potential talent and accelerate leadership development and readiness. Mentors inspire, give advice, share perspective, motivate and help each mentee develop new skills and new ideas. Mentors do more than help new employees learn the basics of the workplace. They help them develop values and new perspectives.

Not mutually exclusive

Coaching and mentoring, while different, are not mutually exclusive – you may in fact choose to both coach and mentor an employee. Each has an important place in today’s workplace and their suitability will depend on the specific business objective.

Management Mentors offers the following recommendations when deciding which approach is right for your needs:


Consider Coaching;

  • When talented employees are not meeting expectations
  • When staff members must acquire or master specific skills or competencies
  • When the company needs to improve performance in a short period of time
  • When the organisation is introducing a new system or program
  • When a subdivision of the company is attempting something new or untested


Consider Mentoring;

  • When the company wants to develop promising internal talent
  • When there is a shortage of potential leaders in the corporate pipeline
  • When the organisation wants to remove barriers that inhibit the advancement of certain groups, such as women and minorities
  • When it becomes important to preserve internal expertise and knowledge as part of succession planning
  • When established senior leaders are altruistically motivated to give back

Selecting the right mentor or coach

The first key step is actually figuring out what you are trying to achieve as this will help you define the criteria for the right mentor or coach, and ensure that the selected coach and/or mentor can provide you with the type and level of service you require.

Some general questions to ask yourself include:

  1. What specific outcomes and performance improvements am I looking for?
  2. How much time and energy am I prepared/able to commit to achieve these outcomes?
  3. What skills and attributes am I seeking in a coach or mentor – how important are the following: sensitivity, empathy, courage, curiosity, truthfulness, authenticity, respect, excellent questioning and listening skills, a non-judgemental and non-directive approach?
  4. What degree of challenge do I want?
  5. What resources do I have/need to support me in making this change?
  6. What form or coaching or mentoring is right for me – face-to-face, email, telephone or virtual?
  7. What is the expertise and track record of the coach or mentor – talk to them, request and review testimonials and speak to their existing and past clients
  8. What is the coach or mentor’s pricing structure and who will make the investment – company or individual?

Ultimately, a programme should be designed and delivered creatively and flexibly to meet your needs, personal preferences, budget and learning style.

Opportunity for change

It’s clear that organisations that choose coaching and/or mentoring for leadership development face a number of decisions, from choosing which approach is best to deciding how frequently mentoring or coaching engagements should occur.

What is certain is that mentoring and coaching are incredibly important support frameworks in the development mix because they help leaders to actively learn from others and deliver truly transformative change.

This article is correct at 02/04/2019

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Mairéad Regan
Clarendon Executive

The main content of this article was provided by Mairéad Regan. Contact telephone number is +44 (0) 28 9072 5750 or email

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