Let’s Talk About…Coaching vs. Mentoring

Q: I have been offered the option of ‘coaching or mentoring’ at work. I think I understand what Mentoring is – someone from my industry helping me, based on their own experience – and I wonder, is Coaching different? 


This is a really good question, as there are many definitions of both and it can be confusing!


Yes, a mentor is generally a more experienced person from your own industry or discipline. You would learn from her experiences, acquiring specific skills and knowledge. She could tell you about, for example, the different paths available to you. She may advise around changes she sees happening in the industry. She may even, generously, make good contacts of hers available to you.

If you want experienced, practical advice about your role or business, then mentoring is a great idea.


A coach does not need to come from your industry. She is there to work with you towards self-awareness, behavioural enhancements, and ultimately the efficient achievement of goals.

The International Coach Federation (ICF) defines Coaching aspartnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential’. It is about giving a person the time and space to look objectively at what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how.

A coach will not tell you what to do, or do it for you. She is essentially a listener and a questioner; an objective and neutral observer. You say where you want to go, and she supports you in getting there. A coach wants to help you identify and shatter any unhelpful assumptions, come off auto-pilot, and see new perspectives. This leads to greater performance in, and outside of, the workplace. Each session is effectively a Personal Strategy Meeting, and results in greater momentum afterwards. Most importantly, coaching is built around action – if a session ends without you having designed an action to take, big or small, then something has gone wrong!

Some people take offence at the notion of coaching. Why? Top executives have coaches (see Google’s Eric Schmidt on YouTube)! There is no age at which we stop learning, but we often forget to learn about ourselves. The 30-minute cram before your Annual Review is not enough! If you are not the expert on you, then you may not be playing to your strengths; more self-aware colleagues may bypass you on their tailored routes to success.

Sometimes a coach is used for a fixed duration – for example, to help someone learn to promote themselves better internally (lack of confidence? over-politeness? waiting to be noticed?), or to help implement newly learnt leadership skills (bridging the gap between knowing and doing). Some companies allow staff to choose their own coach, which can be good for chemistry. Some companies coach their entire management team monthly, for years.

Every meeting is confidential – this confidentiality is why many are more comfortable with an external coach than with a coach on staff in their company. Either way, good, committed coaches tend to part of international professional organisations (such as ICF) and must subscribe to firm ethics and principles, whether employed or self-employed.

In short, both mentoring and coaching are entirely valid and beneficial, depending on your needs. So, over to you!


This Q&A was first published in Irish Tatler magazine.

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