The Difference Between Executive Coaching and Mentoring

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 18th March 2016

Some confusion exists between the sometimes interchangeable use of the terms ‘coaching’ and ‘mentoring’ when applied to the development and support of leaders.

The distinction is argued about extensively by academics, HR professionals and practitioners in both camps, but how does this impact on you as a leader?


What’s the difference between executive coaching and mentoring?

At a basic level, the difference between executive coaching and mentoring is this: while coaching is all about helping leaders to explore their own ideas, mentoring involves a high level of input and direction from the mentor. Coaches help coachees to identify and solve their own problems by prompting them to ask and answer their own questions. Mentors, on the other hand, can often answer the mentee’s questions themselves, applying knowledge the mentee doesn’t already have. Find out more about using mentoring in the workplace here.

However, there are more subtle differences than this. The CIPD, in their helpful factsheet on the subject, gives the following table of comparison between the two concepts.

Ongoing relationship that can last for a long timeRelationship generally has a set duration
Can be more informal and meetings can take place as and when the client needs advice, guidance or supportGenerally more structured in nature and meetings are scheduled regularly
More long-term and takes a broader view of the person. Often known as the ‘mentee’ but the term client or mentored person can be usedShort-term (sometimes time bounded) and focused on specific development areas/issues
Mentor usually passes on experience and is normally more senior in organisationNot generally performed on basis that coach needs direct experience of client’s formal occupational role
The focus is on career and personal developmentFocus generally on development/issues at work
Agenda is set by the mentored person with the mentor providing support and guidance to prepare them for future rolesAgenda focused on achieving specific, immediate goals
Revolves more around developing the mentee professionallyRevolves more around specific development areas/issues

©CIPD 2009

How should you respond?

When thinking about how the differences affect you, here’s my advice: don’t worry about it.

It doesn’t really matter what you call it, and both approaches have the ultimate aim of providing support to enable a leader to become more comfortable, confident and capable in their leadership role.

One of the most important things you can do as a leader is to find someone you can discuss complex and significant issues with, and this can come in the form of a coach, a mentor, or a combination of both.

Sometimes you’ll need someone to coach you, asking the difficult questions in a supportive way, and giving unbiased feedback. At other times you’ll require someone with experience and wisdom, who can point you in a particular direction or suggest a strategy. These different approaches may even come in the form of the same person, who can tailor their approach to various contexts.

The shared focus of coaching and mentoring

Whether using a predominantly coaching or mentoring approach, the goal is to help you, as a leader, address your own character and behavior. As anyone who has been on one of our higher-level leadership programmes knows, this is the key to great leadership.

Often the biggest advantage (or the biggest obstacle) to a leader’s effectiveness is how comfortable they are in their own skin. Leadership that involves bullying, that is aloof and distant, that does not engage, or that transmits stress in all directions, is typically the result of internal issues and unresolved tensions.

The major challenges of the contemporary leader are mostly issues of balance; balancing passion and enthusiasm with calm and rational decision-making, balancing the need to engage with external stakeholders with the need to be visible and accessible to colleagues, and balancing your own goals and tasks with the need to enable others to focus on theirs. All of these require a high degree of maturity and a resilience that stems from legitimate self-confidence.

An executive coach, mentor, or coach/mentor can be a huge help in reaching that state. Holding up a mirror, they can help you to shape, and learn to love, what you see, while supporting you to remain absolutely focused on the needs of everyone else. This means you can have significant belief in yourself while ‘inverting the pyramid’ (I’ve mentioned this before), and serving the greater good.

I’ve had a mentor for 25 years (though it’s actually been two different people) and the help they’ve given to me is almost beyond measure. I recommend you do the same.

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