Developing people, developing schools


Coaching and mentoring are two terms that are often used interchangeably. They are similar but different and I think it is important to consider the differences.

Sometimes it’s simply a matter of context. In football, for example, the term ‘coach’ is used and you would never hear of a football mentor, whereas in education, as another example, teachers usually have mentors rather than coaches. As I’m a coach by training and I work in education as both a coach and mentor, it’s important to know the similarities and the differences, and when one approach to learning and development (L&D) works better than the other. This is because we are all individuals, and what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. If you want to improve L&D in your workplace, it helps to know if a person responds better to a mentoring or coaching style of support.

These days, organisations are increasing applying coaching and mentoring strategies to staff development and performance management. But as with all new trends, they are often adopted without sufficient know-how or adequate training for coaches and mentors. If these techniques are carried out in the wrong way, results may backfire and not only do the learning and development objectives fail, but coaching gains a poor reputation. Therefore, it is important to rememeber that coaching and mentoring are two optional learning interventions amongst others (for example, training might be the best option in some cases). Then do it right, and most importantly, work with fully trained coaches and mentors. Remember as well, that it is important to evaluate the impact of of all learning interventions to ensure that they are achieving the objectives that have been set.


Both coaching and mentoring are development techniques that utilise the skills of listening, questioning, clarifying and reframing, and share one-to-one conversations as the main interaction technique in order to enhance an individuals’ skills, knowledge or work performance.


This is a typical definition of coaching:

‘Coaching is a developmental process by which an individual gets support while learning to achieve a specific personal or professional result or goal.’

Although this definition is true enough it’s very general and can be equally relevant to coaching or mentoring.

It is difficult to find one coherent definition of coaching that all experts and practitioners agree on. John Whitmore, in Coaching for Performance prefers this explanation:

‘Coaching is unlocking people’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.’

Whitmore stresses the importance of an individual’s learning over the role of teacher. He even goes so far as to say that ‘we all have a built-in natural learning capability that is actually disrupted by instruction.’ So, coaches have a strong belief in individuals learning things for themselves, in their own way, and that it is the coach’s role to facilitate the individual’s potential to do so.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) lists these features of coaching on its website:

  • It's essentially a non-directive form of development, though this isn't a hard and fast rule.
  • It focuses on improving performance and developing individuals’ skills.
  • Personal issues may be discussed but the emphasis is on performance at work.
  • Coaching activities have both organisational and individual goals.
  • It provides people with feedback on both their strengths and their weaknesses.
  • It's a skilled activity, which should be delivered by people who are trained to do so. This can be line managers and others trained in basic coaching skills.


Andrew Pollard in his book Reflective Teaching provides this definition of mentoring:

‘Mentoring is a means of providing support, challenge and extension of the learning of one person through the guidance of another who is more skilled, knowledgeable and experienced, particularly in relation to the context in which the learning is taking place.’

Whitmore agrees with this definition of mentoring and says, ‘All the experts appear to agree that [mentoring] has its origins in the concept of apprenticeship, where an older, more experienced individual passed down his knowledge of how the task was done and how to operate in the commercial world.’

One key distinction that is often quoted is that mentoring relationships tend to be longer lasting than coaching relationships. Personally, I have seen exceptions to this criteria, and myself have worked with coachees over several years.

Coaching versus Mentoring

So, what is the difference between coaching and mentoring? The distinction between coaching and mentoring provided on this website  is one I adhere to:

‘Coaches use questioning and listening techniques to bring out the full potential of the individual, whereas mentors act as advisors, suggesting new paths for the individual to take. To mentor effectively, you must possess an in-depth appreciation and knowledge of the subject on which you are advising. Often the relational positions of mentor and individual being mentored are equivalent to that of teacher and pupil. In a coaching event, the positional relationship is much more on a par as the coach’s role is to create an environment for the individual to learn for themselves.’

Why is the distinction important?

Why do we concern ourselves with this distinction at all? Does it matter if the two terms blur into one? Well, yes, it does matter.

It is important to know the difference because individuals respond differently to different learning interventions.  Some people respond well to mentoring and others respond better to coaching. Some people like to hear your expertise, while others do not. If the wrong technique is applied, you will probably fail to achieve the performance or development results you are striving for.

Beginners in all walks of life like role models. Regardless of the activity or task you are working on, when you are a beginner, you tend to want an expert on hand to help you, someone you can learn from, someone who will guide you to the surest route of success.

What is interesting though is that as you develop and grow and your technical know-how increases, you start to form your own opinions of what is right or wrong. You test things out based on your own values, principles and preferences, which are often unconscious. As this happens, you become less interested in receiving advice from other people. In fact, you might even come to dislike people giving you advice. If you haven’t asked for advice it usually means you don’t want it. You may have heard it said, ‘When I want your advice, I’ll ask for it.’ Only, this type of retort is not often heard at work as it’s considered rude and ungrateful. Usually, we say nothing, and just bite our lip.

Managers leading on CPD

But, managers tend not to notice when an individual is transitioning from beginner to novice to experienced practitioner. Well, perhaps they do notice, but they don’t realise that their own leadership role needs to change at the same time. They see themselves forever as the expert over the people they line manage or lead, and therefore adhere to what they think is expected of them, that is the more traditional director’s role, telling people what to do. As a result, they often becoming increasingly frustrated with their team members who no longer listen to them and do as they are told. Have you heard managers complain about this before? Have you said it yourself?

The diagram below tries to illustrate this transition. At the beginner end of the continuum, the individual (the team member) is keen to receive the expert’s guidance. The message is ‘Tell me what you know’. But at the other end of the continuum the role of the individual has changed. They now want you to listen to them. They have expertise they want to share with you.  Thy want the leader to value their know-how and insight, and if it is not sought out, they get demotivated and start to disengage at work. They certainly lose the desire to learn anything new.

Beginner to Expert

     I want your guidance                                                                                 I don’t want your guidance

     Tell me                                                                                                        Listen to me


The right learning partnership: experience and relationship

It can be a difficult pill to swallow, but just because you are the team leader it doesn't mean you are necessarily the best person to help other people to continue their professional develop. The two critical criteria for a successful learning partnership are expertise and interpersonal relationship.  I’m sure everyone reading this article will agree: we listen to people we believe are credible in their knowledge and experience, and who we trust. We believe they know us well and have our best interests at heart.

And the person we deem as credible isn’t necessarily older than us. It isn’t about age, though this fact is often misunderstood. It isn’t because of your age that you don’t want other people’s advice. It might be because you’re older, but it needn’t be. It depends on the activity or task. You can feel like an experienced language teacher at the age of 25 but a total beginner in learning yoga at 50. Therefore, the kind of expert relationship you are looking for depends on the activity in question; you want your learning partner to relate to you in different ways depending on the activity, i.e. a coach might be better suited to engaging with the experienced teacher, whereas a yoga mentor will help the same person learn the basics of yoga.

Coaching is popular as a learning intervention because the coach does not tell the coachee what or how to learn, or what they need to think. They treat the individual as an expert in their own right, as someone who has their own answers to their own problems. They give the coachee a chance to shine. And then, if the coachee wants to hear the coach's ideas or point of view, they will ask for it.

What now?

Whatever your leadership position or role might be, it is important to reflect on the different ways that one can bring out the best in each and every member of the team. This requires building your emotional intelligence, as you need to know yourself and how others see you, and also to fully understand the other members of your team. It requires that you accept the idea that sometimes you are not the best person to help every individual in your team to learn and grow in their professional lives, and you can delegate the responsbility to someone else.

Continuing professional development is vital in today’s workplace. Whatever your role at work, it is important to continue learning and developing. There really shouldn’t be a choice to opt out of learning. However, every individual should have some choice about who they would like to learn from, or with, and what they would like to learn. There has to be some synergy between what the organisation needs them to know as well as tapping into their own interests and motivations.

No matter how experienced you are, or whatever your age might be, you still hold great potential to continue developing your potential towards the future. Once an employee has moved beyond the novice stage, coaching is potentially an excellent way to reignite the motivation to keep learning.