The question came up just a couple of weeks ago in our One of many coaches group. One of our certified coaches had been approached by a colleague to provide some support – only, was it coaching they wanted, or mentoring? It got me reflecting on just how coaching is different from mentoring and why it’s so important that we get that distinction right.

Why we need to know how coaching is different from mentoring

At first glance, it might not seem like a massively important distinction. After all, if you’re looking to make progress in your career and need some wise counsel from someone else to do that, does it really matter what label you stick on it?

But there are lots of reasons why it’s really crucial that the distinction is clear from the outset of any relationship like this. Here are just 3:

  • Trust: Coaching and mentoring have different expectations around things like confidentiality and the scope of each session. It’s vital that both parties understand what’s being asked for – and offered – before they take part.
  • Payment: Coaching is a professional undertaking which usually requires payment. In many, though not all, professions mentoring is something offered for free by more senior individuals. For obvious reasons this is an area that it’s very important to have clarity around from the start!
  • Training: If you’re working with a coach, it’s reasonable to expect a certain level of professional training or significant experience; a mentor might not have formal training, but there will likely be certain pre-requisites of taking on this role.

Without clarity in these areas, any relationship can quickly become strained.

So how is coaching different from mentoring – and what should you be clear about from the start?

Here are 5 key areas the two can differ in – and some questions to ask before you start.

1. Coaching and mentoring have different goals

Typically, a coach will work with you towards an agreed goal. For example, you might want to focus on a particular ambition, like reaching a new level of financial growth in your business; getting clarity on your purpose; or improving a specific relationship, with your partner or your children for example. Within an organization, a coach might support you to reach a specific sales target or quarterly goal.

The purpose of mentoring is likely to be slightly different. Mentors tend to be more focused around career growth, often looking at a result that which the person mentoring has already achieved. They might support you with developing your leadership, managing a team, or writing a book. Often (though not always) the goal will be less specific, and the relationship more open-ended, than a coaching one.

Questions to ask: What’s the purpose of this relationship? How will we know when we get there? At what points will we review that goal?

2. Coaching and mentoring require different training

One of many coach Jane Lewis noted this important distinction:

“Generally a mentor is an expert in your mutual field; usually more expert and often better connected than you. A coach may know much or nothing about your field. Typically a mentor may be more directive BUT both – if they are any good- will demonstrate devoted listening skills, and great questioning ability.”

Jane’s touched on an important point here, which is that good mentors and coaches often have overlapping skills and even experience – both may be successful, good listeners, and have an aptitude for helping others to grow.

However, coaching is a distinct skillset in itself, and one which can be trained in specifically. Coaches use specific tools to help activate growth and empower you to take control of a particular area of growth.

A mentor, on the other hand, may simply be able to provide advice through virtue of their experience so far. That can be just as valuable, so long as you’re clear about what they can and can’t offer.

Questions to ask: What training have you completed? What kinds of strategies have you used to help other people? Will you be using these tools to help me reach my goal?

3. Coaching and mentoring cost different amounts

This is one of the most important differences to be clear on from the start, whether you are the person being coached or the one giving the support!

The expectations of mentorship vary greatly in different professions and organizations. In some, senior roles come with the expectation that mentoring less experienced colleagues is part of the equation. In others, mentorship is considered something to be paid for.

Coaching, by contrast, is more often expected to be paid for – if not by the person receiving it, then by the organization who have arranged the coaching. If you’re at all unsure then make sure you ask this question clearly.

And if you’re the person charging for the sessions, then needless to say you must make certain you have the clear understanding and agreement of the person you’re coaching before you begin.

Questions to ask: What is the expectation around payment? If I’m paying, what is included in the cost?

4. Coaching and mentoring take place over different timescales

There are no hard and fast rules here. But mentoring is more likely to be an open-ended or fluctuating arrangement, whereas coaching packages often last for a set length of time, and have sessions of a fixed length – typically one hour.

You might meet every quarter with a mentor to receive “big picture” advice on your career, and fortnightly with your coach for specific support around a goal.

Or a mentor might invite you to stop in for a quick chat whenever you have a query, or want to get their thoughts on a project, whereas your coach might set you tasks to complete in between fixed sessions.

Whichever is true for you, be sure to ensure that you leave space to review the arrangement, so that everyone’s clear about what will happen if things change, and when you’re finished working together.

Questions to ask: How many sessions will we have? How long will they last for? How will we know when it’s time to finish working together?

5. Coaching and mentoring ask different things of you

Coaching often involves significant transformation. It requires a level of trust on the part of both parties and a real commitment to growth on the part of the person being coached.

Mentoring, on the other hand, can be more about developing your skills within a specific profession. While calling on you to grow, there may be less of a personal growth focus and more attention paid to your abilities in practice.

Questions to ask: What’s expected of me in this relationship? What can I expect of you? What do we think will be the outcome of our work together?

Every relationship is unique

Mentoring and coaching are both hugely valuable processes – and both are relationships based on trust. As you can tell, although there are “rules of thumb” when it comes to expectations there are key areas where they can overlap, and so it’s really important to make sure expectations on both sides are clear before you start.

If you find yourself providing advice or guidance to other women, and are keen to develop your skills and gain clarity around how you can best support them, then take a look at the free online training:

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