When to Coach and When to Mentor


Until recently i hadn’t thought much about the differences between Coaching and Mentoring. I’ve come to learn there are big differences and most recently started thinking about: When to Coach and When to Mentor?

What is Coaching?

The definition i’ve been using most recently is from Timothy Gallway:

“Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.”

What is Mentoring?

In my research for a sound definition i came across a good collection of definitions on the Coaching Network

One that stood out to me was:

“Mentoring involves primarily listening with empathy, sharing experience (usually mutually), professional friendship, developing insight through reflection, being a sounding board, encouraging” – David Clutterbuck

So what are the differences?

This is not an uncommon question. Look through google and you’ll find many people who have asked the same question. One of the top results i came across is from Brefi Group

Mentoring Coaching
Ongoing relationship that can last for a long period of time Relationship generally has a set duration
Can be more informal and meetings can take place as and when the mentee needs some advice, guidance or support Generally more structured in nature and meetings are scheduled on a regular basis
More long-term and takes a broader view of the person Short-term (sometimes time-bounded) and focused on specific development areas/issues
Mentor is usually more experienced and qualified than the ‘mentee’. Often a senior person in the organisation who can pass on knowledge, experience and open doors to otherwise out-of-reach opportunities Coaching is generally not performed on the basis that the coach needs to have direct experience of their client’s formal occupational role, unless the coaching is specific and skills-focused
Focus is on career and personal development Focus is generally on development/issues at work
Agenda is set by the mentee, with the mentor providing support and guidance to prepare them for future roles The agenda is focused on achieving specific, immediate goals
Mentoring resolves more around developing the mentee professional Coaching revolves more around specific development areas/issues

There are a number of things that stand out for me here. In particular:

  • Mentoring is generally long term whilst Coaching usually has a set duration focused around a specific goal
  • Mentoring involves  the mentor offering advice, usually from a more experienced stand point. Coaching is the opposite, the Coach will avoid offering advice and enable the Coachee to reach their own understanding through powerful questions.

The Agile Coach as Mentor and Coach

Part of the Agile Coach role is to Mentoring and Coaching. I recently attended an Adventures with Agile meet up where Lyssa Adkins and Michael Spayd spoke about the Agile Coaching Competency Framework:


You can see Mentoring and Coaching are two elements of the framework. As an Agile coach this creates an interesting challenge: When to Coach and When to Mentor? 

When to Coach and When to Mentor?

My initial thoughts are that everyone can probably benefit from both. However at various times maybe the person might need more of one than the other.

Recently i’ve been coaching many people across my organisation. As part of any coaching engagement i’ll start by establishing what the individual knows about Coaching. Often it will become apparent that they are explaining a Mentoring relationship (Long term, advice based, sharing experience). That’s a good opportunity to explain the differences. In this situation it’s good to talk through the differences and assess the needs of the individual. In most cases there is room for both coaching and mentoring.

This creates another dilemma for the Agile Coach; can you coach and mentor the same individual? My view is that the coach should help the individual find a suitable mentor outside the coaching relationship. This enables clearer boundaries for the coaching sessions. A good example would be finding an experienced developer to pair with someone more junior.

I’d love to hear if anyone else has encountered this question of When to Coach and When to Mentor.

8 thoughts on “When to Coach and When to Mentor

  1. Ola Sundin

    Great advice to keep a separation between a mentoring relationship and a coaching relationship to keep the boundaries clear.


  2. Great post and very interesting take. Though they are not related directly to you question, I would like to add a thought. When reading your table, I instantly thought that the coaching column pretty much covers what I would label as teaching. I would be interested in knowing where you distinguish between coaching and teaching? To maybe give you some background where my question originates:
    I had a discussion about levels of delegation recently. The levels (ranging from no delegation to full delegation) were commanding, teaching, supporting and delegation. I am not really happy with that classification though, as I think that boundaries are somewhat fuzzy.

    Anyway, thanks for the thought provoking post!


  3. Hi Toby
    There definitely is a difference and you’ve summed it up quite well. As with everything it’s rarely clear cut and I know with a number of my coaching clients that there will be certain times when it is appropriate to provide a bit of mentoring and times when I will fight my urge to offer advice (and their desire to get some).

    Also that’s not to say that their shouldn’t be a clear split between coach and mentor. There are definite benefits to that at times too.

    My experience is that most people who approach me for coaching are looking for advice and the conversation usually starts with establishing a shared understanding of what coaching is and its purpose. It’s not to say that coaching is purely asking powerful questions; it’s a much more complex nuanced process and relationship than that but it’s where the focus is and what the goal is of that relationship.

    Thanks for the post



  4. I’ve abandoned using ACI’s model almost entirely. I use a model Esther Derby and Don Gray use for what a coach does with a few tweaks. One thing I abhor is describing what a coach does as coaching. We fill a multitude of roles: counselor, observer, teacher, facilitator, partner, expert, advisor, modeller, and mentor.


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