The Difference Between Coaching and Mentoring


The aim of this short article is to provide clarity for those in a workplace developmental relationship such as mentoring.


That is, to understand the difference between coaching and mentoring. However, this is not straightforward since there is often much confusion of definitions between practitioners.


Let’s begin with a definition:


A mentor is a more experienced individual willing to share knowledge with someone less experienced in a relationship of mutual trust. – David Clutterbuck


Mentoring is a partnership between two people and emphasises a mutuality of learning. However, mentoring is sometimes confused with coaching, teaching, or counselling.


The aim of this article is to describe mentoring from a European (Clutterbuck) point of view and compare this with other forms of development: coaching, teaching, and counselling.


What’s the Difference Between Coaching and Mentoring?


The difference between coaching and mentoring isn’t clear-cut. A mentor may draw on a number of approaches: teaching, coaching, and counselling.


Indeed it can be argued that these areas often occupy the same developmental space. Nonetheless, one significant difference between mentoring and coaching and other forms of development is the relationship forged between two people.


Let’s have a closer look.




The focus of coaching is usually task and performance. The role of a skills or performance coach is to give feedback on observed performance. Consequently, coaching usually happens at the workplace.


The coach is likely to set or suggest goals for the learner; measuring performance periodically as the learner develops new skills. This needs a good working relationship between learner and coach.




The focus of teaching is to impart knowledge and information through instruction and explanation. And the goal for the student is usually to pass a test. Once again, learning has a one-way flow. However, unlike coaching the closeness of the relationship between teacher and student is often low.




The counsellor uses listening and questioning to build self-awareness and self-confidence in the client. The goal is to help the person deal with something difficult. Once again learning is one-way and the closeness of the relationship low.




The role of the mentor is to build capability. The developmental mentor helps the learner discover their own wisdom by encouraging them to work towards career goals or develop self-reliance.


The Mentor Helps the Learner Discover their Wisdom.


The mentoring relationship is off-line — that is, the mentor does not have authority over the mentee — and centres on the learner’s personal goals.


Because the relationship is mutually beneficial strong bonds are often forged. And these may outlast the lifetime of the mentoring relationship.


What Makes a Good Mentor?


Now that we have an understanding of the difference between coaching and mentoring let’s look at the attributes of a good mentor.


Mentoring involves primarily listening with empathy, sharing experience (usually mutually), professional friendship, developing insight through reflection, being a sounding board, encouraging. – David Clutterbuck


Good mentors provide the learner with the right kind of help and support. What’s more, experienced mentors adapt to the needs of the learner. As a result both mentor and mentee learn from one other and help each other’s development.


A successful mentor:


  1. is committed to learning and helping others learn,
  2. is a good listener,
  3. displays empathy,
  4. builds rapport,
  5. encourages the learner to speak,
  6. observes and reflects,
  7. provides constructive challenge,
  8. is self-aware and understands others,
  9. has intuitive wisdom from life experience,
  10. helps the learner reshape their thinking,
  11. is politically or professionally savvy,
  12. shares experiences,
  13. steps back from the detail,
  14. manages the relationship and not the goals, and
  15. offers friendship.


Finally, the mentor will keep the relationship off-line. What is said between mentor and learner is confidential and never shared with others except in very special circumstances.


To recap, the difference between coaching and mentoring is largely about focus — performance vis-à-vis building capability — and goal setting.


In mentoring the learner sets their own goals. Whereas the coach usually sets goals for the learner.