Defining the Distinctions Between Mentoring & Coaching
© 2001, Barry Sweeny

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How is coaching different from mentoring? Do we need both?

Coaching is the support for technical, skills-related learning and growth which is provided by another person who uses observation, data collection and descriptive, nonjudgmental reporting on specific requested behaviors and techniques. Coaches must use open-ended questions to help the other person more objectively see their own patterns of behavior and to prompt reflection, goal-setting, planning and action to increase the desired results. Although not always the case, often the coaching is focused on learning job-related skills and the coaching is provided by a professional colleague.

Mentoring is the all-inclusive relationship and process, and includes everything done to support protégé orientation and professional development. It is the whole set of strategies for support. Coaching is one of the sets of strategies which mentors must learn and effectively use to increase their protégés' skills and success. In other words, we need both mentoring and coaching to maximize learning and development.

Essentially then, coaching is technical support focused on development of the techniques effective employees must know and be able to do, while mentoring is the larger context and developmentally appropriate process for learning of technique and all of the other professional and personal skills and understandings needed for success.

For this reason, the author refers most often just to ́mentoringî, since by his own definition, mentoring includes coaching.

Is Mentoring a "Peer" Relationship or Not?

In most mentoring pairs, their purpose dictates that the mentor has much more expertise and experience than the protégé. The difference between the mentor and protégé is valued because it is the source of learning for the protégé. I call such a relationship ́expert mentoringî or ́expert-novice mentoringî.

In other cases, the differences are downplayed and the support is framed as ́peer mentoringî or ́peer coachingî. Though not always the case, often use of the "peer" label is because mentors are not adequately trained to work with other adults. As a result, they make mistakes, find themselves to be less than the effective mentors they hoped to be, and they see protégés that do not "take the mentor's advice". The flaw is entirely one of inadequate mentor training.

When not prepared, mentors soon begin to redefine their role as "PEERS, not supervisors". In other words, mentors' discomfort and ineffectiveness in sharing their experience leads them to either:

Adopt more an authoritative supervisory role in which they would press for the desired changes, (usually NOT preferred) or...

Downplay the differences between the mentor and their protégé to increase their comfort in this tricky relationship.

This one factor is the most common reason why mentoring is typically ineffective at increasing performance and results. As such, it becomes critical to our program's success that we understand and effectively deal with these distinctions.

In fact, if handled well, the diversity of experiences between mentors and their protégés should be seized and celebrated as a strength and a necessity for their learning from each other. That diversity, in any of its forms, must NOT be down played, as it is the biggest resource available to ensure protégé success and is the very reason that mentors are selected for their experience.

You have my permission to duplicate this information as long as you:

1. Keep the author and copyright info, graphic header, and source info on the page
2. Do not sell it or provide it as a part of paid professional services.

© 2004, by Barry Sweeny, Best Practice Resources, 26 W 413 Grand Ave. Wheaton, IL 60187

630-668-2605, Cell 630-842-2991, email and web site at <>.