2 Critical Differences Between Coaching & Mentoring

When I first told people I had become a coach, I was met with many blank stares. After a slight pause, a person would often utter, “Do you mean like soccer?”

After mildly regretting bringing it up, I would describe what professional coaching is. I wasn’t always convinced I’d gotten through, but I at least confirmed that my coaching did not require a whistle or referees uniform.

In the past ten years, I have probably training hundreds of well-intentioned managers who truly believe they are coaching people. In most cases, coaching is not taking place; but rather the manager is telling or mentoring. There is absolutely nothing wrong with mentoring; there’s just enormous value in using the art of coaching to develop employees.

One of the most repeated statements I have seen in anonymous training evaluations is: “I never realized there was such a big difference between coaching and mentoring.”

Workplace coaching and mentoring do share some similarities. Both are made possible via mutual respect. Both seek to engage the adult learner in growth, development and in solving complex problems. At times, both approaches may be used during short or long term career planning.

There are two critical places where the approaches veer. They may seem subtle, but they make a remarkable difference in the style, content and outcome of the conversation.

The first place that coaching and mentoring go their own ways is the actual process.

In a mentoring conversation, someone with more knowledge and expertise is sharing their insight. The conversation might include the following language:

“If I were in your shoes I would ____________”

“I once experienced the same thing. What worked for me was _____________”

“Let me tell you the possible solutions to choose from.”

“If you want to get ahead, your best bet is to __________”

In any of these statements, the information that fills in the blank may be highly valuable. There is something key here to notice: It all belongs to the leader. As I listen to a leader, I may be engaged, interested and even inspired; yet I don’t own any part of what I am hearing or even responding to. I might respond to these statements with questions to get tips or strategies.

In coaching, the leader “disappears.” It’s truly not about them or where they have been. The individual may even WANT to be told, led, advised, but the leader may choose a slightly more challenging route.

Let’s take a look at the mentoring statements and example how a coach approach can yield a different result:

“Imagine one of your direct reports came to you with this challenge. What would you tell them?”

“What are some things that have worked for you in the past?”

“What are some possible ways to solve this problem that you might be willing to try?”

“If you could design your ideal career path, what would it look like?”

Like a polite game of tennis, the leader returns the serve and challenges the individual to do their best thinking. Recalling past successes, brainstorming and even envisioning the future grants something very powerful to that person: ownership. No matter what the mentor has accomplished, the focus is on the untapped thoughts, potential and wisdom of the individual.

While quick and easy answers may FEEL better in the moment, sometimes what we need is quite different from our immediate desire. To truly grow and develop, we must uncover new ways of thinking. We must be willing to be uncomfortable; to dwell in the unknown and chart our own course.

This is the power of coaching. It is a gift we grant to those we lead and may confuse them at first; but in the end serve their highest purpose.

This leads us to the second critical difference between coaching and mentoring: the desired outcome. When leaders mentor, they guide the process of finding a solution by sharing our expertise and advice. They dig into our toolbox and pull out all of the stops because they truly enjoy helping people. Helping people is very noble. It makes us feel good.

When we coach, we create problem solvers. We assert that the person isn’t in need of HELP as much as they are of self-guided awareness. We take the position that the other person’s potential is limitless, and the path to discovery is worth it in the end.

All of this does not mean that we shouldn’t mentor or that every conversation will fit in one box or the other. Mentoring and coaching may be mixed together or used based on the situation at hand.

My suggestion here is to LEAD with coaching. Your employees may squirm at first, but in the end they just may thank you.