Coaching and mentoring for executives: The similarities and differences

The terms coaching and mentoring are often used interchangeably. They share many similarities but also some important differences. This article will examine the roots of the two approaches and how they are best applied for executives.

The origins and purpose of coaching

Coaching emerged as a defined business discipline in the late 1970s, driven in part by experienced coaches from sport identifying novel performance improvement techniques and relating them to a business context. In their study of the evolution of the language of coaching and mentoring, Koopman et al (2001) identified 1978 and 1978 as a turning point with the publication of several books that “placed coaching and mentoring into the field of development of people in a business setting”.  Timothy Gallwey (1974), a sports coach who later translated his techniques into the business world describes these novel techniques as being focused on “the inner game”, asserting the power of a natural human propensity for learning that can be nurtured and optimised to improve individual performance.

As coaching became more established in business, definitions specifically relating to its use in a workplace setting become more prevalent. Grant (2002) describes workplace coaching as a “solution-focused, result-orientated systematic process in which the coach facilitates the enhancement of work performance and the self-directed learning and personal growth of the coachee.” This definition places a clear emphasis on the role of coaching to address the performance of an individual in the context of organisational demands, identifying coaching as a tool to deliver organisational, as well as individual, performance improvements.

The origins and purpose of mentoring

The term mentor is derived from Greek mythology (Clutterbuck, 2017), arising from a story in which a student’s education is entrusted to a man called Mentor with the instruction “Tell him all you know”. Mentoring language is more practical and procedural in tone, Clutterbuck (2004) describes mentoring as having “it’s origins in the concept of apprenticeship, when an older more experienced individual passed down his knowledge of how the task was done and how to operate in the commercial world”.

Mentoring is when an older more experienced individual passes down his knowledge of how a task is done and how to operate in the commercial world.
Reinforcing this practical and skills transfer focus, Wallace, Gravells and Wallace (2007) describe the responsibilities of a mentor in a further education environment as including “to model good classroom practice” and “to support the student teacher’s grasp of subject knowledge”. Applying these in a broader business context, there is a clear implication that there is an expectation of a mentor to set an example for a learner to follow.

Coaching and mentoring in practice

Whilst these definitions give us a sense of the intent of coaching and mentoring and the opportunities they present, they might still leave the uninitiated or more practically-minded somewhat unsure as to their nature. Practical definitions of coaching and mentoring can often be found to refer to both approaches, suggesting similarities as to how they are conducted. The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (2021) describe coaching and mentoring as “development approaches based on the use of one-to-one conversations to enhance an individual’s skills, knowledge or work performance”.

Parsloe, Newell and Leedham (2016) go further in describing the nature of these conversations as “very focused, confidential and ideally voluntary conversations that are quite structured and follow a process that helps learning to occur”. The core behaviours of an effective coach or mentor are also shared, with the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (2015) competencies making no distinction between the competencies required of a coach or mentor.

Is coaching or mentoring right for you?

In conclusion, coaching and mentoring are similar in nature in that they both consist of developmentally-focused confidential conversations and require the same competencies in practitioners. The strategic purpose of coaching is to encourage self-directed growth and development, albeit within the context of also achieving organisational goals. Coaching encourages self-reflection to deal with “the opponent within one’s own head”, objective analysis of the current context and autonomy to choose a way forward, which would seem to allow or indeed encourage the development of new approaches.

Coaching senior or executive leaders can therefore be used to help leaders make rational, evidence-based decisions based on their own decision-making criteria, talk through challenges and develop a self-defined, authentic leadership style.  The purpose of mentoring is more focused on the transfer of skills and experiences from “an older, more experienced individual” and role-modelling acceptable behaviours. Mentoring senior or executive leaders might therefore be used to ensure the continuity and refinement of existing practice.


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