Coaching and Mentoring: 5 Similarities and 2 Critical Differences

Recently I saw the following question posted on LinkedIn: what’s the difference between coaching and mentoring? While this may seem a minor issue of semantics, for anyone identifying as a leader, having an understanding of the similarities and subtle, though important, differences can boost effectiveness.

Similarities Between Coaching and Mentoring

First, a brief look at the similarities:

  1. Both stances intend to increase capacity, typically in a 1:1 interaction.
  2. Leaders, particularly experienced ones, can reasonably expect to encounter such professional relationships.
  3. Both mentoring and coaching are mutually agreed to, that is both parties want to do the work that will be called for.
  4. Mentoring and coaching are change responses; as humans we do not engage in them to maintain the status quo; we do so to move to a desired state beyond where we currently are.
  5. Neither coaching nor mentoring are about fixing people, they are both about profoundly moving us closer to who and what we wish to be.

When I ask for coaching or a mentor, it is to accelerate my own development; it is often difficult inner work expressed externally through novel behavioral shifts. Because this growth process is frequently challenging and uncomfortable, it becomes critical that I have chosen it of my own free will rather than through coercion or expectation of another. As a coach, if I am asked to, for example “coach this team” or told “he needs some coaching” by a manager, that is a warning sign indicating a deeper conversation is needed around desired outcomes.

Differences Between Coaching and Mentoring

Along with these many similarities, there are also critical differences. A couple of them are the underlying conversational dynamic, and as a result conversational focus.

What Is The Underlying Conversational Dynamic?

By underlying conversational dynamic I mean the ideas of push and pull. Mentoring, in my experience, relies more on authoritative pushing information to someone. That authority might be content/domain expertise, or some other *transferable* experience. Professional coaching relies much more on pulling information through powerful inquiry, and at times, seeing the seeker as more than they are capable of currently seeing him/herself. Are these absolutes? Of course not; in a coaching conversation I reflect back what I hear, make requests, and even offer suggested approaches if we agree that’s helpful. As a mentor, I’m much more directive, though that doesn’t imply that I wouldn’t ever utilize inquiry. It’s a fluid shift between accommodative/pull and assertive/push styles based on real time feedback.

Is The Conversational Focus?

By conversational focus I mean whether I seek to build another’s capacity through focusing on the issue at hand together, or on that person who is exploring the issue. The following images represent an issue, a seeker or mentee, and a coach or mentor. The arrows indicate direction of focus.


I see mentoring as content-focused; a mentee will ask for help around a specific issue and the mentor will look at that issue and engage shoulder to shoulder, looking together at it.


In coaching on the other hand, a seeker brings an issue forward and the coach keeps focus on the person, who is then focused on the issue

Finally, while these terms have been defined in specific contexts, such as in ICF accreditation, a professional ICF Master Certified Coach is likely going to approach coaching differently than a professional sports coach. In other words, what we believe them to convey is conversational and context-sensitive; it reveals as much about how we perceive the world and “how it works” as it does about any externally-definable truth. Having clear definitions in your context is probably of high importance! All of this matters because change is already profoundly difficult and full of ambiguity and uncertainty. When as leaders, we do not have clarity of intent as we choose our stances contributes to that ambiguity and further impedes, rather than supports, progress toward meaningful outcomes.

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3 Comments on “Coaching and Mentoring: 5 Similarities and 2 Critical Differences”

  • Kevin Callahan


    Thanks, Jon. Apologies as your comment got hung up in approval; thanks for your thoughts and glad you enjoyed it!

  • Margaret Jameson


    Great explanation of mentoring/coaching differences. Drawings very helpful, also.

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