Mentoring vs. Coaching: When to Use Each

With the upswing in the economy putting an enhanced focus on talent acquisition and development, both mentoring and coaching have become popular resources in the talent professional’s tool kit.

The two development approaches can be applied both independently and integrated as part of leadership and talent development programs, and both are popular thanks to the high-touch and individualized nature of the experience they bring.

But to maximize the return on investment, talent professionals should recognize the difference between the two methods and carefully consider which is most relevant to a given situation.

First, to better understand the best uses of mentoring and coaching, consider each method’s history.

The practice of mentoring derives from Greek mythology, when Odysseus entrusts the education of his son to his friend, Mentor, by saying, “Tell him all you know.” Mentoring, therefore, is analogous with traditional forms of teaching, where an accepted expert imparts information through direct knowledge transfer like a lecture or, as in more modern times, presentation.

Coaching’s roots, as Linda Edwards writes in learning and development journal Industrial and Commercial Training, can be traced to Socrates. He believed that people learn best through personal experience, taking responsibility for the outcomes along the way. Based on this historical connection to the Socratic method — the practice of asking questions to promote inquiry and learning — coaching is tied closely to asking questions to facilitate self-discovery and then taking actions based on that discovery.

The word “coach,” meanwhile, was first used in the 1500s as a mode of transportation, according to executive coaching experts and authors Robert Witherspoon and Randall White. When considered in the context of movement forward, it serves as an apt definition of the end goal of the coaching process.

In more recent history, coaching appears in the context of sports — both as head coaches of college and professional sports have gained notoriety as reputable leaders and teachers, and as individual athletes increasingly turn to coaching to improve specific aspects of their craft. From a business perspective, many coaching researchers trace the method’s use as far back as 1937, though most of the academic research on coaching in business didn’t proliferate until the 1990s.

Mentoring relationships tend to occur earlier in a career. As University of Georgia professor Daniel Feldman and Melenie Lankau of Wake Forest University wrote in 2005 in the Journal of Management, mentoring typically involves being paired with a more experienced person who can teach by virtue of his or her subject matter expertise or stature in an organization or industry.

At its core, a mentoring relationship is about the more experienced practitioner sharing his or her knowledge with the less-experienced learner. The historical underpinnings of mentoring suggest that mentors who have already walked the path of the mentee can share their experience as a guide for the mentee’s own personal or professional development. A mentoring relationship can also sometimes happen organically and informally, developing without a formal contract for service and lasting for years as a result.

Coaching engagements, meanwhile, tend to be used with employees and leaders at higher levels within an organization for a specific development- or transition-related goal. Furthermore, coaching relationships are defined for specific periods of time under an agreed-upon contract, according to a 1999 Harvard Business Review article, “Coaching: The Ten Killer Myths.” This is an important distinction when differentiating coaching from mentoring.

Finally, the skills required to be a coach and the experience needed to serve as a mentor also signal stark differences between the two development tools. The implications for talent professionals abound, as the differences alter the situations in which either coaching or mentoring should be applied.

Here are three approaches for talent managers to consider for executive coaching, mentoring and when using both together.

Be intentional with executive coaching assignments. Coaching serves as a vehicle for valued people — such as high potentials or C-suite executives — so engagements should be organized with the individual and organizational interests in mind. Learning and talent practitioners are well-positioned to ensure the alignment of these two constituencies through a well-constructed coaching engagement design and implementation.

For instance, developing a coaching engagement plan that includes the individual’s goals and their alignment to the organization’s priorities is ideal. An individual may set a goal of improving executive presence — something that might be holding him or her back from personal growth and success. Similarly, by improving that individual’s executive presence, the organization’s goals of having strong, capable employees who can hold the attention of key executives will be furthered as well.

The alignment between the individual and organizational goals will ensure that this is an engagement that will be a win for all involved. Talent practitioners play an important role in preparing the executive coach with the background and context to work with both groups to ensure the alignment of goals are met.

Consider letting the mentee choose a mentor. Many organizations make the decision to delegate the pairing of mentees and mentors to someone in an administrative or human resources role. While this allows for certain benefits — including the ability to control how many mentees any one mentor will get as well as the ability to play a critical role in the matching process — it ignores the fact that formal mentoring relationships tend to work best when they replicate as much as possible organic relationships that develop outside formal systems.

In these informal relationships, recent research indicates that people are attracted to specific mentors because they feel a sense of kinship. Certain experiences such as a shared history or background trigger a sense of connectedness and affinity among mentor and the person being mentored.

When it exists, a true sense of kinship can serve both mentor and mentee extremely well in the context of a mentoring program. But it would be virtually impossible for an administrator — and a skilled or experienced one at that — to correctly determine which mentees will respond to which mentors in a trusting and connected manner. Only mentees can determine with whom they might feel such a kinship.

Organizations that choose to go this route might consider collecting a short list of preferred mentors from each mentee. Then, inform the mentors of the proposed pairings before they are officially announced so mentors can be given the opportunity to opt out of a particular relationship if they don’t feel it is an appropriate match. While the sense of kinship is particularly important for the mentee, research indicates that the mentoring relationship is more likely to be successful in cases where the mentor demonstrates a genuine interest in his or her mentee from the outset.

Leverage Socrates and Mentor in tandem. Executive coaching is an inquiry-based developmental process. Mentoring is an advice-based one. Therefore, the natural question to consider is that of their concurrent use. Can an employee be effectively mentored and coached at the same time?

The answer is yes. Both techniques can be used together, provided that talent practitioners keep a few important principles in mind.

First, the learner can most effectively be coached and mentored at the same time when he or she understands both his or her own goals and the goals of the organization — both of which must be clearly established from the outset. In situations where either of these goals is unclear, or in which they are not aligned or equally advanced by the mentoring or coaching, significant problems are likely to arise.

Next, navigating the distinctions among these two practices by making it clear when one is being coached vs. mentored will ensure that each practice is being used properly. And finally, learning and talent practitioners can optimize these developmental engagements among the learner, coach and mentor by being explicit about the respective intervention processes and desired outcomes.

For instance, it is critically important for mentees or those being coached to understand why they are being mentored or coached and why the organization has chosen these methods of intervention to further its goals for them.

Mentoring and executive coaching are powerful tools that learning practitioners can draw upon to nurture and develop top talent. Often organizations rely more on one or the other rather than seeking to understand the nuances between the two and leveraging them in tandem.

For many practitioners, implementing professional development or leadership training that draws from the best elements of each — perhaps addressing specific questions and working through precise goals within a designated time frame with executive coaching, and then supplementing that with a long-term relationship with a well-established mentor with whom the employee feels a sense of kinship — may be the perfect recipe for preparing high potentials for future success.

For practitioners and learners alike, Socrates and Mentor can both have a seat at the table that develops an organization’s most valuable asset — its human capital.

David J. DeFilippo is the chief learning officer at financial services firm Bank of New York Mellon Corp. Milana Hogan is the director of legal recruiting and professional development at law firm Sullivan & Cromwell. They can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.