What is the difference between coaching and mentoring?

There is a lot of vested interest by people, who promote particular services, to claim the moral high ground for whatever they do. So it is easy to find exactly the opposite distinctions being claimed with equal forcefulness. The reality is a lot more complex. Just as there is more than one model of mentoring, so there are at least two very different models of coaching. The oldest and most widespread, sometimes called traditional coaching is, like sponsorship mentoring, relatively directive – the coach is in charge and is typically either the person, who sets targets and standards, or their representative. Much sports coaching fits this model, for example. In traditional coaching, the coach tells the coachee what to do, observes them and gives feedback on how they perform. Effective traditional coaches also help people experiment, reflect and develop the skills of self-feedback.

More recent is developmental coaching, which works on the learner’s own agenda and – at its most powerful – helps the learner have the conversation they need to have with themselves. One of the many sources, on which developmental coaching draws, is developmental mentoring.

So what are the similarities and differences between developmental coaching and developmental mentoring? As shown below, the differences are more of degree and nuance than absolutes. As a mentor, you may from time to time find yourself being drawn into what you may think of as developmental coaching. The mind frame and approach of developmental coaching and developmental mentoring are so similar that you may not even notice the transition. A move from developmental mentoring to sponsorship mentoring or to traditional coaching may be more problematic, as it may cut across organizational policy and may reduce the mentee’s level of openness and honesty in your conversations. (People tend to be less forthright about their weaknesses, to people, who have influence over their careers.)


  • Focus on the quality of the learner’s thinking
  • Coach/mentor uses their experience to craft powerful questions
  • Advice-giving is permissible, but not as a first resort and only in specific circumstances. (A common complaint about ineffective coaches is their over-rigid adherence to never giving advice.)
  • Much of the learning occurs in the reflections of the coachee/mentee between or long after sessions
  • Coach and mentor both have a duty of care towards the coachee/ mentee


  • Mentors more likely to make introductions, help develop networks
  • Mentors more likely to help explain politics of an organization or profession
  • Coaches (in the workplace context of line manager to direct report) more likely to give feedback
  • Coaching tends to be a short- or medium-term assignment or activity focused on performance in a defined field
  • Mentoring tends to be a medium- to long-term relationship focused on career or more holistic, less well-defined issues
  • Coaching more often a paid arrangement

© David Clutterbuck, 2014

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