Coaching and Mentoring: are they two side of the same coin?

March 12, 2018

An interesting discussion emerged the other day on mentoring and coaching. It led to a conversation on whether mentoring and coaching were fundamentally different or are they simply two sides of the same coin. Is it simply the semantics of definitions that make them seem different?

So, who decides on the definition? An accepted definition of a ‘definition’ is: to describe exactly the nature, scope, or meaning of ‘something’. So, can you describe exactly what is mentoring and coaching, and in doing so, perhaps understand the similarities or differences?

The are several variations in definition however a Mentor is considered to be an experienced and trusted adviser. A trusted counselor or guide. Someone who gives help and advice to a less experienced person. In a verb context: to advise or train are used within definitions of mentoring.

Coaching has a strong historical connection with sports and therefore the words teach, instruct, guide or train are prevalent in definitions. However, if we consider a Career Coach, this broadens to be: a partner, advisor or sounding board who partners with you to set and reach goals, make decisions and find solutions for your problems.

In fact, the concept of a mentor is steeped in history.

Mentoring can be traced back to Greek mythology through the relationship between Mentor and Telemachus. From this ancient time, the word Mentor evolved to mean trusted advisor, friend, teacher and wise person. Since then, mentoring has become a fundamental form of human development where one person invests time, energy and personal know-how in assisting the growth and ability of another person.

The term coaching is a much more recent development and begins as a metaphor for ‘Coach’, derived from the word carriage. A coach carries people and in 18th century England, students used tutors to prepare for exams. The slang reference for tutors became “coach” because tutors quickly and comfortably carried students to their goal of passing their exams. Thus, coaching was first used in an educational context for an instructor or trainer and not in sport as many may assume. However, circa 1830, athletic coaches became known as “coachers” until the late 1880s, when the name transformed to “coaches.” It is therefore not unusual to immediately think of a ‘coach’ in sporting terms: many of us have had the experience of being coached, or being a coach in in some sport related activity at some time in our lives.

Have the historical definitions evolved so that we now see mentor and coach more in a modern work-related relationship world and how has this evolved?

Over the last 30 years or so, organizational mentoring has gained the attention of academics and practitioners. The concept of a mentor to support individuals has also evolved. Career coaches now have a significant role within modern workplaces.

It is beyond the scope of this article to undertake an investigative review of mentor and coaching theory; however, it is in the development of theory that new meanings for terms such as coaching and mentoring are created. Ideally, the evolution of each term is grounded in some academic rigor or framework, or at least influenced or developed by a significant practitioner in the field.

It is not difficult to undertake research to discover the relevant theories and who created them. For example, a large proportion of the research on mentoring in the workplace has been published since the 1970’s following the pioneering work of people such as Levinson, Darrow, Klein, Levinson, and McKee (1978) and Kram (1983, 1985). These early studies suggested that mentoring plays a key role in successful career development (Kram, 1985; Roche, 1979; Vertz, 1985).

Coaching began to shift from sport to the business world in in the early 80’s and gained traction with Graham Alexander, Alan Fine & Sir John Whitmore GROW model. By the mid-1990’s, IBM was arguably the first large company that made use of coaching as a strategy for developing people in a business or work context.

So, overlapping definitions, quite different history, yet coaching and mentoring are often used interchangeably.

A selection of the contemporary material on coaching and mentoring suggests that coaching is a sub-set of mentoring, while other material suggests coaching is a broader function than mentoring. In other words, while an individual is mentoring, some coaching practices may also be adopted; however, in coaching someone, an individual would not assume a mentor role.

Arguably coaching has a sharper focus on achieving outcomes based on identified goals. The process is more reliant on asking “good questions” and helping the coachee explore the best outcomes for themselves. Coaching is about finding solutions from within.

Mentoring is broader in nature; more reliant on experiential conversations between mentee and mentor and has an emphasis on learning from other people’s experience.

Coaching tends to be undertaken within a defined period while mentoring continues if the mentee chooses to remain in the relationship; and mentors probably need to establish rapport or relationships more quickly than a coach.

As you read and consider the diversity of definitions, opinions and evidence on the role of a mentor and the role of a coach, you may form your own opinion and view of what the role encompasses. Regardless of your definition, we suggest that if you are considering becoming a mentor or coach, there are common issues that need to be considered:

• You should build a strong relationship and focus on achieving improvement or development in the individual or groups that you interact with.
• Your relationship must be built on an ethical base which engenders trust and clarifies ethical considerations around “in-confidence”, privacy and disclosure.
• There should be very clear guidelines and a framework for your interactions as a coach or mentor.
• If the relationship is not effective, be prepared to change a coaching approach, or move to a mentor role, if that assists the individual to move through some real or perceived blockage in their development: blind commitment to a definition should not supplant adaptability and refinement in a relationship to achieve the broader objectives the individual (or team) seeks.

Above all else, there must be no doubt regarding the role and relationships you establish with your mentee or coachee. Enter a coaching or mentor relationship only after you have ensured that each party understands and agrees upon the terms of that relationship.

In counselling a professional colleague recently, they were concerned that their initial good efforts at providing support had transgressed so that the mentee was now using the mentor as a source of knowledge and a dependency relationship was forming. The key reason for this: there was no clear up-front agreement on the context, extent and nature of the engagement. Indeed, in analysing the relationship it is clear it appears that a lack of a clear agreement and purpose of the relationship; a lack of defined goals; and a lack of explicit boundaries have contributed to the relationship becoming less effective.

In conclusion, there are significant indications that mentoring and coaching are two sides of the same coin: both seek to improve the lives of others: while the objectives and processes may differ, what is critical for each is defining the relationship and ensuring each party understands and commits to the relationship at the outset.

Robert Cugno, Founder and Head Coach, Future U Coaching

Dr Greg McMillan, Director Career Guidance Centre and Professional Development Agency

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