Coach or mentor – Whom do you need?


Coaching and mentoring are terms often used interchangeably even though there are significant differences. It’s important to identify which role will fit the need at hand.

There is no point in providing employees with a coach when they need a mentor or vice versa.

At the workplace, the term ‘coach’ has a vastly different meaning than what we see in the world of sports. In fact, most of us would have first heard the term ‘coach’ at school. Coaching in the corporate world is way different.

Coaches: Coaches offer a partnering relationship to the clients to help the individuals become who they want to become and achieve a desired outcome. It is a creative process that empowers and inspires the clients to make choices and take action that will serve their goal(s).

Coaches do not give advice. Instead, they ask powerful questions, make observations, and offer assessments to help unlock and amplify the client’s awareness and commitment.

Mentors: They are experienced and trusted advisors with their only goal in the mentoring relationship being to support the professional and personal development of their mentees. Mentors are usually more senior and/or more experienced than the mentees and serve as an advisors, models, counselors, and guides to those with less experience. Mentors are responsible for sharing knowledge and providing advice and counsel to the mentees.

Mentoring vs Coaching

Mentoring is a long-term relationship based on mutual trust, respect and commitment. The relationship should have clear, mutual expectations, but it is generally less structured and has less frequent interactions than coaching. While some organisations offer in-house mentoring programmes, sometimes as a follow-up to a leadership programme, it is just as common for mentees to have mentors outside their organisation. When it is a part of an internal development programme, I recommend creating a clear process that spells out the expectations and responsibilities of both parties.

Coaching also requires mutual trust, respect, commitment and clear expectations, but it often spans a shorter period of time, typically lasting three to twelve months.

Coaching follows a more regular and structured approach. While coaching clients, the only objective should be to help the clients reach their goals. Professional coaches have no attachment to a specific outcome. Unless the outcome results from the client’s own motivations, it is a pointless exercise.

I often describe the role of a coach as that of a ‘tour guide’, while the client is the ‘driver’ on this journey. Coaches listen deeply and ask powerful questions, noticing, in the present moment, what comes up when the client considers those questions.

Clients consistently do a superb job in identifying what is really going on, and they figure out what must happen to achieve their goals. Within the safety of a successful coaching relationship, people evolve, make significant discoveries, and shift mind-sets as they are invited to tap into their own well of wisdom.

Both coaching and mentoring are relationships that require complete confidentiality and unconditional positive regard for the individual. This means, the coach or mentor is a confidant who is unfailingly supportive and non-judgmental.

We must remember that there is an adult on the other side of the relationship. The coach or mentor’s job is not to ‘fix’ anything or anyone; it is not to parent, enable, judge, or insist on a particular path forward. It is about helping the concerned adults understand their choices and how those choices relate to their goals.

Coaches and mentors are not therapists, trainers, or consultants. They provide a safe space and opportunity for individuals to discover what they need to know in order to reach the outcomes they desire. Mentors have the additional role of providing advice and guidance requested by the mentees.

Training vs Coaching

Training is not coaching. Training is focused on transferring specific knowledge or skills, such as what is or is not a legal question to ask when interviewing a candidate.

Coaching and mentoring are about enhancing and building upon an individual’s knowledge or skills for developmental purposes, by asking powerful questions and making observations that can lead to greater awareness, learning and change.

A comparison of ‘coaching’ and ‘mentoring’ is listed below. Employee supervision is not formal coaching, although supervisors may see better results when using a coaching approach and techniques.

Specific performance issues that arise, and the best way to address them, need to be identified, explored and put into action. Managing performance in real time, with clear expectations, clear measures, and clear consequences is part of every leader’s normal job.

When considering whether to provide a coach or a mentor, identify the goal you and your direct report wish to achieve. If you are wondering whether a coach or a mentor is the best fit for your need, here are some guidelines.

Choose a coach when you want to

1. Prepare a high-potential employee for advancement in the organisation.

2. Address a behavioural habit that is blocking or slowing professional progress.

3. Encourage someone to take on new responsibilities quickly.

4. Support leaders in addition to, or in place of, formal training or development programmes.

5. Inspire high-potential employees to maximise their talents.

Choose a mentor when you want to

1. Provide a role model for highly effective leadership or other important roles.

2. Transfer knowledge from more senior and/or departing staff to more junior staff.

3. Increase cross-functional interactions and collaboration.

4. Broaden diversity of ideas, people, and perspectives within the organisation.

5. Inspire high-potential employees to imagine what is possible in their career and life.

Prior to having an introductory coaching or mentoring conversation, the coach or mentor and the hiring leader or HR must discuss ethics and expectations and agree to an explicit agreement about confidentiality. The rules and expectations of these relationships must be discussed and agreed upon, and then a written record should be created for all parties prior to commencing with the coaching or mentoring agreement or contract.

No one worth hiring or assigning will share the content, tone, or outcome of these private conversations without receiving explicit permission from the client.

Being involved in a coaching or mentoring relationship can enhance one’s professional and personal life in ways one cannot achieve on one’s own.

If you have ever been coached or mentored, you know what I mean.

Whether you are the coach or mentor, or together you choose a coach or mentor for your employees, paying it forward is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do in your quest to retain top talent. People put a lot more energy into things they want to do than things they have to do. That means, as leaders we need to take the time to be present, observe, and ask staff members about their motivations. We then need to provide productive and appropriate opportunities to keep them engaged and wanting to continue to work for us.

Find the ICF-credentialed coach today and partner to maximize yours and your team potential

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) is the world’s largest organisation leading the global advancement of the coaching profession and fostering coaching’s role as an integral part of a thriving society. Founded in 1995, its 50,000-plus members located in more than 145 countries and territories work toward the common goals of enhancing awareness of coaching and upholding the integrity of the profession through lifelong learning and upholding the highest ethical standards.

Through the work of its six unique family organisations, ICF empowers professional coaches, coaching clients, organisations, communities and the world through coaching.

In India, ICF is represented by six vibrant chapters, all led by volunteers — ICF Bengaluru, ICF Chennai, ICF Delhi NCR, ICF Hyderabad, ICF Mumbai, and ICF Pune.

The author, Roxi Bahar Hewertson is a leadership expert, Presence-Based® Certified and ICF Credentialed executive coach and organisational development expert. With over three decades of practical experience in higher education, business, and non-profits, she is the CEO of Highland Consulting Group, Inc. and author of two highly-acclaimed books, Hire Right, Fire Right: A Leader’s Guide to Finding and Keeping your Best People and Lead Like it Matters…Because it Does. Her no nonsense, practical insights have graced the TEDx stage and been featured by premier media outlets. She holds an MPS from Cornell University, where she was adjunct faculty and a senior administrator.

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