Abrasive US comedian George Carlin was a master of the one-liner, once asking his audience, “Is there another word for synonym?”
The English language is full of words that commonly get mixed up but, on closer inspection, reveal themselves as two quite separate things. Two words that often find themselves used in this apparently interchangeable way are ‘coaching’ and ‘mentoring’.
So is there a difference? I believe so and would like to distinguish them.
The best starting point is the overall goal that is trying to be achieved. Coaching often has shorter-term goals usually associated with raising a person’s performance in their current role. Mentoring has a more future-focused aim, addressing itself to an individual’s long-term aspirations, often their career or life goals.
A coach is usually someone who is directly responsible for the coachee – think of a work boss, personal trainer or sports coach – and both parties are often agreeing shorter-term and specific goals that are relatively easy to define.
A mentor – as I discussed in my recent book ‘The Fit Mentor’ – can be drawn from a variety of backgrounds. It may be your boss, but is probably more likely to be a senior individual or someone whose connection occupationally might be fairly tenuous.
There’s no denying that many of the skills a coach and mentor use can be similar. A coach will normally use a sequence of questions (sometimes referred to as ‘Socratic Questioning’) that allow the coachee to arrive at their own conclusions. Such a method tends to strengthen critical thinking and deepens the understanding of the coachee.
In discussions with their coachee, the coach can usually predict a ‘right answer’ but nevertheless facilitates a discussion that creates the opportunity for the coachee to think logically through to the same outcome.
A mentor may also coach, but will occasionally be more directive in their conversation:, challenging and advising, playing ‘devil’s advocate’ where necessary and acting as a ‘sounding board’ for the mentees reflections and hypotheses. It may be argued that this is a more skilled requirement as the mentor must have the mental dexterity to know when to deploy which approach.
A mentor also has to have the ability to deal with the ambiguity of a discussion that often has no definite direction; yet they must allow – through searching conversation – the time for the mentee to explore what is often uncharted territory.
Bringing it all together
In 2004, the book ‘Coaching and Mentoring’ tried to sum it up as the following:
Goals Improve job performance or skills
Initiative Coach directs learning
Volunteerism Protégé agrees to accept coaching; may not be voluntary
Focus Immediate problems & learning opportunities
Role Focus on telling with appropriate feedbac
Duration Short term needs; “as needed”
Goals Support and guide personal career growth
Initiative Mentee is in charge of learning
Volunteerism Both mentor and mentee are volunteers
Focus Longer term personal development
Role Focus on listening, behavioral role model, making suggestions and connections
Duration Longer term
(Source: Coaching and Mentoring – Harvard Business Essentials – 2004)
The Right Tool
So are we getting bogged down in semantics here? I don’t believe so. It’s important that we can pull out the right techniques for an individual to support their growth and meet their personal aspirations. Choosing the wrong approach can often have a severely negative effect and – in some cases- derail that individual’s progress and development entirely.