The coaching vs mentoring debate

April 26, 2017
Jeremy Gomm

Jeremy Gomm

EMCC UK Business Development Director

If you’re looking for the difference between coaching and mentoring, you are unlikely to get a simple answer. If you Google ‘definitions of coaching and mentoring’, you will find literally scores of options. In fact there as many questions as answers.

This blog is part of our coaching series.

The definition debate

The first question is: does it matter?

Those of us who are qualified coaches and/or mentors work with clients who want to know what we do. To answer using the terms ‘coach’ or ‘mentor’ serves only to generate more questions around the theme of ‘what does that mean, exactly?’ And so we are required to answer in a way that makes sense to us and our clients.

‘Does it matter?’ is also an issue for professional coaching and mentoring organisations, particularly my own, the European Mentoring & Coaching Council (EMCC), in pursuit of its aim to professionalise practice. Its purpose is to establish basic standards of qualification and practice, eventually which can be enshrined in law, not only to illustrate what good looks like but also to protect coaching and mentoring recipients from malpractice.

And ‘does it matter?’ is also an issue for you and me. We are skilled practitioners… in what, exactly? If we don’t know whether we are coaching or mentoring, or don’t notice, how does that impact the quality of what we do?

The EMCC take

A few years ago, EMCC sought to define what it meant by the terms. This led to a lengthy and fractious international online debate which became quite heated as different people in different countries promoted their understandings of each. There was no consensus, but rather a hardening of different positions.

A definition of sorts was achieved outside of the debate and agreed between three professional bodies – EMCC, Association for Coaching and the International Coaching Federation. It was presented in the Professional Charter for Coaching & Mentoring, which states:

“Coaching and mentoring are activities within the area of professional and personal development with focus on individuals and teams and relying on the client’s own resources to help them to see and test alternative ways for improvement of competence, decision making and enhancement of quality of life.

“Thus, a professional coach/mentor can be described as an expert in establishing a relationship with people in a series of conversations with the purpose of serving the clients to improve their performance or enhance their personal development or both, choosing their own goals and ways of doing it.”

Effectively, then, the combined intellect of three professional bodies avoids differentiating between coaching and mentoring and introduces the term coach/mentor to bring them even closer together. How does this help us explain to our clients what we do, or to ourselves?

Peer Support

Splitting the difference

The Charter then follows this with optional definitions of coaching and mentoring, each mitigated by being ‘one of’ or ‘can be described as’. So we see:

“Coaching is facilitating the client’s learning process by using professional methods and techniques to help the client to improve what is obstructive and nurture what is effective, in order to reach the client’s goals.”

And, “Coaching is partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximise their personal and professional potential.”

While these definitions are not contradictory, neither are they clearly saying the same thing.

It then states that mentoring “can be described as a developmental process which may involve a transfer of skill or knowledge from a more experienced to a less experienced person through learning dialogue and role modelling, and may also be a learning partnership between peers.”

So mentoring is a learning partnership while coaching is a learning process or partnering with clients... One clear difference is that mentoring “may involve a transfer of skill or knowledge” although how that is achieved, other than “through learning dialogue” isn’t clear.

Different definitions for different organisations

It is instructive to seek current examples from the environment in which we work as coaches and mentors.

Here are a couple, one from the public sector, the other from the private sector. This first example is a distillation of a narrative within a leadership development strategy document which identifies key differences in the eyes of a substantial public sector organisation.

The second is from a respected consultancy with a successful track record of helping organisations design and implement internal coaching and mentoring programmes. This was generated to try to capture the differences in a simplified way for line managers in a client organisation, with the caveat that such differences tend to be client specific. It is not the organisation’s definition of either, simply an illustration of what is current.

Jeremy gomm table 2

There is agreement here on the length of the relationships but disagreement with ‘focuses on capability and potential’. Coaching ‘develops thinking through change and transformation’ or is ‘concerned with task’.

Is either of these right or wrong? No, they are both arguable perspectives and again illustrate the interchangeability of the two terms.

I came across an EMCC Conference blog from 2012 which noted that coaching as a label had received a lot of attention and development in recent years, whereas mentoring had not. It referenced three hugely influential sources to describe mentoring: “The work of Kram (1983), Megginson & Clutterbuck (1999) and Garvey et al (2006) have provided us with some dimensions to understanding mentoring in context e.g. role modelling; acting as a sounding board; being a critical friend; offering advice and the benefit of experience; sponsorship; and assisting with networking.”

It went on to note that these attributes needed “challenging and reframing to account for the way that mentoring is currently enacted in today’s organisational and economic context.” Interestingly, none of these attributes are reflected in the two lists above although they are undoubtedly still relevant.

The importance of context

So where do we go from here? My background in journalism encourages me to find straightforward (sometimes simple) ways of expressing complicated issues. So my approach is to first understand what is the same about coaching and mentoring rather than what is different. As we can see from the sample definitions and descriptions so far, there is a good deal of similarity.

What I see is a skill set and practice which is pretty much identical and uses the same spectrum in determining an appropriate approach to support a client’s development.

It is perhaps most easily seen in Myles Downey’s model of the coaching spectrum, which identifies activities from the non-directive end (starting with listening) to the directive end (giving instruction). The spectrum is equally attributable to mentoring.

In my own coaching, I contain myself to the non-directive end with the caveat that making suggestions and giving feedback are skills I will apply in appropriate circumstances (when a client is stuck, for example).

I regard myself as mentoring when I go further and offer guidance or on rare occasions give advice. That’s as far as I go. However, if I was I a sports coach I would probably start at the directive end.

Directive and non directive From Effective Coaching, Myles Downey (1999) Texere

Coaching and mentoring both focus on helping an individual to be the best they can be, however the client chooses to define best.

The key difference for me is that the mentor needs to understand the client’s context by having been there and done it. The coach’s understanding of that context does not require such personal experience.

So the focus of coaching in organisations tends to be about an individual’s development needs in the broadest sense, quite possibly addressing aspects of the client’s life outside of the work environment if they are impacting on it.

The mentor’s focus tends to be on the client’s organisational role and how best the client can address issues related to it.

Of course, this is only one opinion. There are many more, as your Google search will testify. If you can pick out some commonality which enables you to clarify your own differentiation, it will have been worth the search.

"The key difference for me is that the mentor needs to understand the client’s context by having been there and done it. The coach’s understanding of that context does not require such personal experience"

This is an evolving debate as more people become involved, particularly those in organisations who receive coaching and mentoring or run their own internal programmes and have to convince senior management of the purpose and value of any investment. So we may find in future that the market has a stronger influence in the debate than the practitioner.

Even now, we are finding that the opinion which matters is the one the client accepts or already has in place. For external coaches like me, having a fixed definition doesn’t actually help – to sell the benefits of coaching and mentoring there is a need to express what will actually occur and to relate that to whatever the client is trying to achieve, rather than to have a definition which may not fit the language, the culture or the need of the client.

It would be interesting and instructive to know how you position coaching and mentoring in your own practice. Would you care to share in the comments below?

Jeremy Gomm is Business Development Director at EMCC UK (voluntary) and a practising coach and mentor, specialising in team coaching and cultural change.

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