coaching vs. mentoring: how are they different

There is no question that the focus of performance management has shifted over the years from a traditional once-a-year sit-down with a manager to a more ongoing process where touch-points occur regularly and from multiple sources. The purpose is to increase the frequency, source and timeliness of feedback so employees can be acknowledged and developed when it matters most. Enabling and encouraging these touch-points is only the first hurdle. In order to ensure success with an ongoing performance management strategy, managers also need to be given direction on the focus and quality of this crucial feedback.

The best place to start is by understanding the difference between coaching and mentoring. Many think they are one in the same, but there are clear differences that all leaders need to be aware of to ensure they are driving the day-to-day performance of their teams while also securing the future leadership landscape of the organization.

4 Essential Differences between coaching and mentoring1:

Coaching Mentoring
1. Source Direct manager Individual outside direct reporting structure
2. Focus Performance & skills. Task-based Individual & career development
3. Frequency Short-term Long term
4. Structure Unstructured Structured



Coaching:  An employee’s coach is most frequently their direct manager but can also be a more experienced colleague. A coach is typically involved in the day-to-day happenings of an employee’s role or project and typically has authority to enforce compliance. A coach is often assigned and the employee has no say as to who it will be. In turn, the coach usually has little say in the relationship (unless they are involved in the hiring).

Mentoring: A mentor has no direct link to an employee’s coach or direct manager (i.e. isn’t a part the employee’s reporting structure) and is sometimes not even a part of the employee’s organization. A mentor is often selected by the employee and has no power to dictate action but instead to offer unbiased dialogue and guidance. There is no rule that states that a mentor should be older or more senior. The only criteria is that a mentor has more knowledge or experience in a given area than the mentee, understands the role of a mentor and is willing and available to share information.2 Sourcing and assigning mentors is a separate topic on its own but to summarize, any organization looking to implement a mentoring program within the organization should take into consideration those key points: that mentors are more experienced (not necessarily senior), is completely aware and committed to the roles and responsibilities of a mentor and the mentor is willing to share their experience. Establishing a formal mentoring program inside your organization is a great step towards increasing the quantity and type of feedback and advice that an employee receives.



Coaching:  Coaching helps an employee navigate day-to-day job tasks. Coaching also has a strict agenda: to sharpen an employee’s skill set with the purpose of reinforcing and/or improving the overall output of an employee’s performance in the short term. For instance; coaching would take place to help an employee improve their Excel skills, speaking skills, ability to process customer order more efficiently as well as to reinforce any positive behaviors and accomplishments.

Mentoring: Mentoring helps an employee navigate the long-term landscape of their profession or company so they can develop over time.  The focus of mentoring is individual and career development. It is driven by key relationships where an employee is given a safe space to discuss and develop the softer skills needed to advance their career. In a mentoring environment, employees can discuss underlying challenges in their role, company culture, work/life balance, and confidence and are given access to direction and first-hand experience from a more seasoned individual. Mentoring also helps to transfer the knowledge and habits of seasoned leaders to the next generation of leaders.



Coaching: Coaching takes place frequently and is not structured. Coaching could take place in a matter of moments at any time. For instance, after leaving a meeting, by the water cooler, or via a performance management feedback tool. The more frequent the coaching, the better and good coaches know that coaching is not only about improvement, it is also about acknowledgement. Reinforcing positive performance is just as important as closing performance gaps.

Mentoring: Mentoring on the other hand, is more of a long-term relationship with more structure than coaching. Typically, mentors and mentees make a point to get together for lunch or dinner at least once every few months. We have known mentees that have had the same mentor for 30 years and other who change every 12 months. What is comes down to again, is that the mentor and mentee understand and commit to the role of mentor/mentee and make an effort to connect when needed.

This doesn’t mean that the two roles don’t ever intersect. Sometimes coaches offer mentor-like advice and mentors deliver practical coaching tips. What this does mean is that organizations looking to develop a well-rounded, long term employee feedback and development strategy do need to think about how they plan to assign and recruit the right mixture of coaches and mentors to develop performance alongside the next generation of leaders.

1Source: The Differences Between Coaching & Mentoring by: Management Mentors

2Source: Effectively Assigning Mentoring Roles by: Insala