Over the years we’ve received hundreds of enquiries about the differences between mentoring and coaching (as well as therapy, consultation and supervision). Having engaged in all five roles (actually six, if I include the role of client, partner, consultee or supervisee), I can attest to the value of clarification. Role clarity decreases boundary problems, sharpens focus, and pinpoints expectations. Such clarity also leads to a deeper sense of purpose and commitment. But highlighting differences can lead to missing the similarities. All five areas, for example, represent ways to help people learn, change, and manage adversity. All five require a relationship of trust, understanding, and authenticity. And all five base their success on the ability to listen.
In 1999 I prepared a chart that lists differences between coaching, mentoring, and therapy based on ten criteria, and I held the naive view that this would be the definitive list. Other experts believe the differences are simpler as in the distinction that Margo Murray, a leading expert in mentoring, stated by saying that “mentoring is a process and coaching is a verb.” Some contributors to the Peer Resources’ Twitter feed support this view: “Coaching is a skill good mentors use and mentoring is a process,” according to one contributor.
Probably the most popular distinction made by our Twitter contributors is the voluntary nature of mentoring as compared to the paid or fee-based aspect of coaching and therapy. One would- be poet chimed: “When it’s free, I can be me; when I pay, show me the way.”
Other contributors recognized the importance of relationship in both coaching and mentoring, but distinguished the two by saying that mentoring was more personal and coaching was more impersonal. While most agreed that a mentor is seldom responsible for the resulting actions of the partner, there was less agreement about the degree to which the coach is responsible for the client’s success. The mentor may point a person in a certain direction and provide support, but takes no responsibility for the outcome.
Coaching is seen as a more professional relationship where the coach may believe he or she has some responsibility to help the client make the necessary changes. For example, one contributor wrote: “A coach helps somebody do what they already know is the right thing to do. A mentor helps a person to determine the right thing to do.” Another web visitor said: “Mentoring gives a personal touch. It’s like the advice of a best friend, but coaching is just for the sake of the job.” And finally, a web visitor quipped: “A coach can keep you from getting into trouble, whereas a mentor may lead you to the trouble.”
Not everyone is worried about these distinctions, and many practitioners are content to leave such details to academics. A website contributor summarized this viewpoint by saying, “In the future, making distinctions between terms such as these two (coaching and mentoring) will prove futile and unproductive. Fewer people will be interested in definitions and roles and more people will be interested in results and practicalities.”
A recent enquiry about the differences between mentoring and coaching, as well as a question presented to a LinkedIn discussion group on this same topic, led us to conduct a search on Google. To our surprise and amazement the search produced more than three million hits. But really, three million different takes? (If anyone wants to take on a study summarizing a random selection of these viewpoints, we’d be glad to publish your results.)
Without repeating in entirety what we have been emphasizing over the years about the differences, the gist of our response is that there are far more similarities between the two ways of helping others than there are differences. We’ve also said that the search for the definitive answer to the question is unproductive and may even lead to considerable misinformation based on stereotypes and lack of experience.
Blurring the Boundaries of Mentoring
Recently the imaginary line that separates mentoring and coaching has become less precise as coaches, for example, more frequently offer what they call “mentor coach” services, and business entrepreneurs in a variety of niche areas offer mentoring for a fee, thus eliminating what used to be one of main distinctions between the two areas: one is paid (coach) and the other is a volunteer (mentor). The International Coach Federation (ICF) recently provided an “approved definition of ICF mentor coaching” stating that mentor coaching is “coaching on coaching-competency development of the applicant-coach as opposed to coaching for personal development or coaching for business development, although those aspects may happen very incidentally in the coaching for competency development” (Marum, 2011). In most coaching communities and organizations in Europe this role would be considered supervision, not mentoring. Not coincidentally the way a person qualifies to be an ICF-approved mentor coach typically involves paying a fee for such a service.
In addition, I recently attended a mentoring conference where a well-known expert gave a keynote that was advertised as being about mentoring, during which one of the international mentoring experts at my table turned to me and said, “Isn’t the speaker referring to coaching and not mentoring?”
An increasing number of individuals are calling themselves mentors and offering their services to “mentor” others for a fee. This could be a reasonable commercial or entrepreneurial venture but it could also be an exploitation of individuals who are desperate to find a mentor because of the highly publicized outcomes associated with having a mentor. The irony here is that traditionally only the person who experiences someone else as a mentor can assign that term to the other person. Typically in informal mentoring a considerable period of time can transpire before the person receiving mentoring may realize that the person who had an influence on them could actually be called a mentor.
Some of the published documents purporting to distinguish between mentoring, coaching and therapy often use models of each that seem outdated, stereotyped, uninformed or exaggerated just to strengthen their own perspective. To make matters more confusing a few well-known coaching sources have chimed in on the answer to this question, and, surprisingly, have in many cases actually reversed the characteristics associated with each.
Mentor and Miracle Are Not the Same
The coaching industry is not the only area forging new ground or transcending the boundaries associated with traditional mentoring. Michael Garringer (2011), advisor to the National Mentoring Center (NMC), noted that the effectiveness of formal mentoring with some youth populations has led to the application of mentoring with “higher-risk youth” such as children of incarcerated parents, gang-involved youth, homeless youth, youth who have suffered abuse and trauma, teenagers in juvenile detention, children and adolescents with disabilities, and most recently, youth who have been victims of sex trafficking. In some cases the expectation is that mentors would be able to bring about behavioural changes usually associated with the intervention of therapists, supervisors, probation officers, case workers, teachers, and child care workers.
Similar high expectations have been expressed by adult visitors to our website who complete our Find a Mentor form. Many of the requests for mentors are accompanied by goals that typically include a desire for immediate results. In many cases we refer the Find a Mentor applicants to coaching services such as The Coach Connection or individual coaches who are members of the Peer Resources Network in order to help them sort out their goals, increase their own creativity in their search for results, make the changes they want to make, and achieve the results they desire.
The Four Pillars of Informal Mentoring
Many of the confusions associated with the distinctions between mentoring and coaching have arisen because more and more mentor leaders adopt and transfer the principals associated with informal mentoring. Informal mentoring has had such a powerful and memorable way of being with another person that it seems like a “slam dunk” to apply these principles to formal mentoring schemes. This transfer from informal to formal has been made to appear easier as experts have attempted to distill the elements associated with successful informal mentoring and adapted, adjusted or just plain “plunked them down” on formal mentoring program requirements.
In many cases this transfer has been highly successful, yet there are certain elements that contribute to the effectiveness of informal mentoring that are yet to be fully captured by formal mentoring schemes. They can occur, and leaders of formal mentoring programs may do their best to facilitate them, but they are often more subject to factors beyond the control of the program design.
The details of the Four Pillars that follow and examples (available as a PDF download) from my own experience about particular outcomes that I believe are primarily associated with mentoring, are not exclusive to mentoring; and I’m sure that many, if not all, my coaching colleagues would hope that their work as coaches would result in similar outcomes.
As an introduction to the real life examples (available to Mentor News subscribers), I thought I’d identify the four elements that I believe distinguish mentoring from coaching. These four characteristics are derived primarily from my personal and professional experience as a mentor and as a recipient of mentoring, and they reflect an evolution of my learning since I proposed the original list of 10 distinctions back in 1999.
Mentoring is About Lessons for Life
Simply put, I believe that mentoring has to do with learning something that you might not have learned on your own or possibly might have taken you much longer to learn on your own. While some mentoring connections are initiated today to achieve short-term performance or behaviour changes (or there is an expectation that such changes will be the primary outcome), the historical and predominant element associated with mentoring is the influence it has on spiritual growth and development. I’m not referring to religion here, but instead to higher consciousness, character values, and a way of being in the world.
I’m also not referring to specific life skills or tasks to accomplish as soon as possible, but instead I’m referring to spiritual input that enables a person to discover, practice, and master his or her own way of integrating the mentor’s lesson into action (Zukav, 2010). And there may be times when such action might take place years after the contact with the mentor has been completed or ended. It’s almost as if the life lesson lay dormant in consciousness until a particular circumstance or opportunity appears.
This delayed response is why so many people can vividly recall certain individuals from their past and recite almost word for word a particularly influential dialogue. A common thread associated with this delayed response is that most people did not recognize or call the person a ‘mentor’ at the time of the actual interaction. Yet, years may have gone by before they realize they were, at the time, in the presence of a mentor that had an influence on their spiritual being.
Mentoring is About Relationships
The essence of any mentoring relationship is the relationship itself. It is the relationship that determines whether anything of value is transferred between the mentor and the partner. Whether the mentor acts as a teacher, guide, catalyst, role model or any of the other dozen roles that have been enumerated, the key factor as to whether there is a transmission of knowledge or wisdom depends on the quality of the relationship.
And while the quality of the relationship may need time to develop, there are innumerable examples where such a relationship develops instantly. In addition, there are many times when the mentoring relationship can occur without ever having physically met or had a conversation with the other person. This is why so many people can have a mentoring impact, that is, provide lessons for others that last a lifetime, without actually knowing each other.
Certainly, factors such as trust, rapport, and caring (and a sense of humour) are important in any helping relationship, particularly to ensure effectiveness in today’s formal mentoring programs, but such factors are not relevant in many informal mentoring relationships because the quality of the mentoring connection is based on a spiritual relationship. I’m not referring to a cognitive or intellectual connection, but instead to something beyond cognition, often something that is beyond memory, and resides more in a higher level of consciousness—a spiritual memory.
Mentoring is About Paying It Forward
Almost every person who has been involved in an effective mentoring relationship perceives mentoring as a gift, and they often demonstrate their appreciation and gratitude by passing on some aspect of their mentoring experience to others. Whether it is the life lesson, a particular piece of wisdom, a way of being, or the desire to act as a mentor to others, the gift is more often than not passed on to others.
This experience of paying it forward, and particularly the willingness to act as a mentor to others, is one of the most powerful reasons that mentoring has continued to grow exponentially throughout society. William Gray, founder and president of Corporate Mentoring Solutions, a British Columbia-based mentoring consulting firm, was among the first to recognize that the “The proteges of today are the mentors of tomorrow.”
While the following anecdote about the gift of mentoring and paying it forward may be unusual, it demonstrates the unexpected outcomes and influence of mentoring.
A high school math teacher in Seattle, Washington was gathering his materials at the end of the school day as he prepared to leave for home. Appearing at his classroom door was a former student who had since become one of the most highly successful dot-com entrepreneurs in the computer software industry. They both recognized each other immediately, and embraced while expressing great appreciation for seeing each other again.
The dot-com entrepreneur stated that he recalled during his days in that high school math class that his mentor had talked about how much he wanted to have a real sports car, but couldn’t really afford one on his teacher’s salary.
The former student handed his mentor a set of keys and said, “Look out the window.”
There, sitting in the parking lot, was a brand new Porche sports car with a ribbon on top. “Your encouragement and unwillingness to give up on me had such a powerful impact on my life that I wanted to find a way to make your dreams come true as well. I hope you like it,” said the entrepreneur to his mentor.
The mentor was stunned. The generosity and thoughtfulness of the gift was extraordinary, but he also was stunned to learn that the impact of his mentoring, which seemed so much a part of his way of being, had played such a significant role in the life of his former student.
Then, he remembered that back in the days when the entrepreneur was a student in his class the math teacher had also talked about how he and his wife wanted to have a baby. He looked at his former student and said, “Should I be calling my wife and finding out what you’ve left at my house?”
The pay it forward pillar is also one of the primary reasons that more formal mentoring programs have been initiated in so many communities around the world. Initially fueled by successful adults recalling an individual from the past that had a significant positive impact on their life direction and choices, these formal programs have been initiated to re-create or provide similar experiences for children, teens and young adults. Whether these formal programs will act as a catalyst for participants who will be just as eager to pay it forward is not clear at this time.
Mentoring is About Mutuality
Most effective mentoring relationships grow and develop in a way that maximizes the exchange of value between both parties. Typically, the relationship begins with the mentor taking the lead and the partner responding to the mentor’s questions or comments. As the relationship develops it is characterized by a relatively equal exchange of questions and comments; and, as it grows further, an effective mentoring relationship evolves with the partner taking the lead and acting as a mentor to his or her mentor. Eventually, an observer would be unable to determine which person was the partner and which person was the mentor.
This mutual exchange is neither unique to or exclusive to mentoring. Such exchanges are often at the core of other forms of helping such as Re-evaluation Counseling, Peer Mentoring Groups, mutual aid or self-help groups, Mutual Aid Counselling (developed by one of my mentors R. Vance Peavy) and various training activities where practitioners take turns acting in the practitioner and client roles. This pillar of mutuality is also commonly found to exist in many kinds of relationships and has been called The Law of Reciprocity which has been described by many authors including my favourite, Robert Cialdini (1993). It is also known as the Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
Emphasizing the Four Pillars as a way to highlight the features of mentoring is not meant to imply that mentoring and coaching can be easily distinguished. In reality mentoring, whether formal or informal, often involves considerable coaching. However, whether coaching involves mentoring requires that the person receiving the coaching perceives the coach as a mentor. Such a perception may only occur some time later in the course of the relationship. The value of the Four Pillars is primarily for persons who are seeking mentors or seeking to be mentors. Understanding how mentoring stands out from other ways of assisting people will help to clarify expectations, deepen skills, and enhance growth and development.
Carr, R.A. (1991). Dancing with roles: Differences between a coach, a mentor and a therapist. Compass: A Magazine for Peer Assistance Mentorship and Coaching, 15, 1, 5-7. (Available as PDF download for Peer Resources Network members at: http://www.peer.ca/Projects/compassprn1.html)
Carr, R.A. (2004). Pinpointing the differences between mentoring and coaching. Peer Bulletin 123 (Retrieved February 22, 2012 from the Peer Resources’ members only area.)
Carr, R.A. (2004). Mentor as coach. (Retrieved February 22, 2012 from the Peer Resources’ members only area.)
Cialdini, R. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion. New York: Harper Business.
Garringer, M. (2011). “It may be the missing piece” – Exploring the mentoring of youth in systems of care. Reflections from the 2011 Summer Institute on Youth Mentoring. Portland, Oregon: Portland State University. (Retrieved February 18, 2012 from http://pdx.edu/youth- mentoring/publications)
Gray, W.A. (2011). Mentoring relationships that work. (E-book published by and available through Smashwords)
Kaplan, J. (2007). Coaching versus therapy. Available directly from the author, who is a member of the Peer Resources Network by sending an email to Jeff Kaplan.
Marum, P. (April 2011). Board approves improved definition of ICF Mentor Coaching. Coaching World. (Retrieved February 22, 2012 from the ICF website here.)
Murray, M. (2001). Beyond the myths and magic of mentoring: How to facilitate an effective mentoring process. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Pelan, V. (February 17, 2012). The difference between mentoring and coaching. Talent Management.
Spinelli, E. (December 2007). Coaching and therapy: Similarities and divergences. Paper presented at the 3rd Annual BPS SGCP National Counselling Psychology Conference, December 18, 2007. (Retrieved February 22, 2012 from the Peer Resources’ members only area.)
Zukav, G. (2010). Spiritual partnership: The journey to authentic power. New York: HarperOne.