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What's the Difference Between Coaching and Mentoring?

A business coaching session

There is often confusion surrounding business coaching and mentoring.

People tend to think they are the same thing.

There are even organisations that use the terms interchangeably.

But business coaching and mentoring are different. And it is crucial the differences, as well as the benefits of each approach, are understood, so leaders are clear on the best way to develop their people.

So, let's begin with the obvious question – what is the difference between coaching and mentoring?

To answer this, I had a chat with Tienie Loubser, the BCF Group's learning and development director.

He believes the best way to explain the difference is through the 80/20 rule.

"A lot of people are confused about the difference between business coaching and mentoring," he said.

"Sometimes people walk away from a conversation and think "I've been mentored", when in fact they have been coached. And, sometimes, they think they have been coached when they have been mentored.

"But there is a big difference.

"When you are coaching someone, you are listening for 80 per cent of the time and for the other 20 per cent you are asking questions to help the individual think differently about a situation.

"When you are mentoring, you are pushing your knowledge and experience 80 per cent of the time. You are giving them everything you know based on an area where they want to grow or a problem they need to solve.

"In the other 20 per cent, you might be supervising or building a scenario where they might replicate what you do.

"Mentoring is you doing all the work. And coaching is the person you are speaking to doing the work and the thinking."

To elaborate on what Tienie said, when you are coaching, you are:

  • Using the individual's mind to help them overcome their challenges
  • Challenging assumptions and perspectives through questions that help explore other avenues
  • Empowering the person to find solutions.

When you are mentoring, you are:

  • Using your experience to move things forward
  • Guiding and providing ideas
  • Creating simulation activity

Another crucial difference between coaching and mentoring is time. Coaching is typically a short-term commitment focusing on specific goals.

Whereas mentoring is often a long-term relationship, sometimes lasting several years, with a broader focus on career development.

"Coaching tends to be much shorter," says Tienie. "At the moment, there is a real focus on what tends to be called 'sprint coaching'.

"This typically consists of weekly 45-minute sessions over three months and the aim is to change one or two things.

"And it tends to be informal. It is about being curious and asking questions about the situation the person is experiencing."

So, is it better to be coached or have a mentor?

"That's a question that will always generate different views," says Tienie. "It is like asking people to name the best racehorse.

"Some believe that if the person you are talking to is new and inexperienced, then it is best to mentor them and get them to a position where they have some knowledge you can then help them to apply when you coach them.

"Another argument is that self-directed learning is prevalent today, so just ask questions. That way they can work out how to solve issues and problems themselves.

"And then you get the other extreme where the aim is not only to coach someone, but also to teach them that you are not required anymore because they can coach themselves – we call this one redundant coaching.

"What I would say is that there has been a shift. Coaching is no longer viewed as remedial, where coaches are called in to fix behavioural issues.

"Now it is about getting even more from the high-performers and helping them to unlock their full potential."

But actually, it should not be about a choice between business coaching or mentoring. Leaders and organisations should offer both.

This is why our ILM Level 7 executive and senior-level course and our ILM Level 5 qualifications include elements of business coaching and mentoring. And why, as well as offering bespoke business coaching courses, we can also offer tailored mentor training.

Tienie said: "My recommendation is that leaders should offer both coaching and mentoring.

"Both have a crucial role to play. Standing back and help people discover their route to a solution through coaching and asking the right questions is a brilliant approach.

"But sometimes coaching can hit a barrier if the person being coached doesn't have the capability or skills to help themselves.

"This is where you can jump in and move into mentoring by asking them if they are happy for you to share ideas and possible solutions with them.

"Asking permission here is crucial – when you are coaching you are empowering that individual. So, by asking for their permission, you are still empowering them to decide whether or not to listen to your ideas and advice.

"But, because they are stuck, they will want to take your advice.

"Once you have offered that information, you move back from mentoring to coaching and ask "now that you have got that information, what are you going to do now to solve the problem?"

Ultimately, Tienie believes it is not a question of business coaching or mentoring. Instead, it about the result for the person you are helping to develop.

"Whether it is coaching or mentoring, it all comes back to the value we provide," he said. "It is not about the activity.

"You should always ask yourself why people want to be coached by you? What are some of the reasons why you should be their coach or mentor? And what value can you bring to their career and their development?"

The BCF group has been helping organisations develop their talent, inspire their people and overcome obstacles and challenges for the past 25 years.

We deliver training that makes a difference. Find out more about our business coaching, management training and interpersonal skills options.

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ILM Level 7 Executive and Senior Level Coaches and Mentors Qualifications

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The ILM Level 7 Qualifications for Senior Level Coaches and Mentors are designed for senior leaders/managers (or those working in a training and development role) who are regularly coaching or mentoring at a senior level.

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ILM Level 5 Qualifications in Effective Coaching and Mentoring

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This programme has been created to sharpen a leader's skills - enabling them to balance control, commitment and empowerment through productive conversations with individuals and teams.

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