Mentoring vs Coaching – what’s the difference?

With much focus being on new goals and challenges for 2019, it’s only natural that we should seek out mentors and coaches to help guide and support us in this quest. While the end-point may be a crystal clear vision, the pathway can be foggy and littered with cumbersome obstacles. But, who would serve us best in navigating this journey? The terms ‘mentor’ and ‘coach’ often appear interchangeably, which can lead to much confusion and disillusionment to anyone entering into one of these partnerships if it’s not quite what they thought they were signing up for.

It was only in the last 6 months, having been asked to be a mentor, that I took the time to understand what was fully required of me within the mentor/mentee partnership. One of the mentor competencies that I reviewed suggested that the mentor needed exceptional ‘goal clarity’ themselves in order to best fulfil the role. Naturally this process generated some introspective contemplation as to whether I needed a new mentor for myself, or whether a coach was more appropriate – or could I have both? And so, I took my own advice from The greatest gift (posted 24/12/18), and decided to brush up my skills over the festive season: I entered the abyss of coaching/mentoring literature and courses, and finally surfaced on the other side of the new year somewhat wiser. To give you the brief 101:


  • someone who advises based on their own personal and professional experience and expertise.
  • someone who is usually the more experienced of the two, within the mentorship partnership.
  • utilised by a mentee when they want to learn something that the mentor already knows, or has the role that the mentee aspires to.
  • provides advice from the field of interest or relevant organization.
  • provides the opportunity for the mentee to learn from the mentor’s own mistakes and challenges


  • someone who provides independent impetus for the development of new competencies or behaviours.
  • often without a power differential to the coachee
  • often not a technical specialist in the coachee’s industry/field.
  • someone who focuses on performance and accountability
  • an effective coach is evident when the coachee is able to demonstrate long term excellence in performance, is self-correcting and is self-generating (Flaherty, 1999).

While the coaching partnership is usually a formalised arrangement, mentorship can be somewhat flexible. It can be beneficial to have a formally-assigned mentor when you first start out in an industry or organization; they can sign-post you to various individuals or resources, as required. In such a vulnerable situation it’s reassuring to have a trusted advisor as an impartial sounding-board. Over time, however, the most fruitful mentoring partnerships will result in the election of the mentor to the mentee’s personal ‘board of directors’ – a group of 3-5 people who you can turn to and run ideas by. In turn, these partnerships become less rigid and do not adhere to a formalised structure. So, if you find yourself looking around wondering whether you have a mentor to guide you on your path through 2019, you may have accrued them long ago and they’re awaiting your call – reach out!

Selected resources for further exploration:

James Flaherty, Coaching: Evoking Excellence in Others (2010).

Photocredit: C. Davey.

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