What is coaching and mentoring?


Coaching and mentoring are development techniques based on the use of one-to-one discussions to enhance an individual’s skills, knowledge or work performance. It is possible to draw distinctions between coaching and mentoring although in practice the two terms are often used interchangeably.

What is coaching?

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) defines coaching as the targeting of high performance and improvement at work and usually focuses on specific skills and goals, although it may also have an impact on an individual’s personal attributes such as social interaction or confidence. The process typically lasts for a relatively short defined period of time, or forms the basis of an on-going management style. They say that although there’s a lack of agreement among coaching professionals about precise definitions, there are some generally agreed characteristics of coaching in organisations:
  • it is essentially a non-directive form of development, though this isn’t a hard and fast rule
  • it focuses on improving performance and developing individuals’ skills
  • personal issues may be discussed but the emphasis is on performance at work
  • coaching activities have both organisational and individual goals
  • it provides people with feedback on both their strengths and their weaknesses
  • it is a skilled activity, which should be delivered by people who are trained to do so. This can be line managers and others trained in basic coaching skills.

Wikipedia describe coaching in a business setting as follows:
“Business coaching is a type of human resource development for business leaders. It provides positive support, feedback and advice on an individual or group basis to improve personal effectiveness in the business setting. Business coaching is also called executive coaching, corporate coaching or leadership coaching. Coaches help their clients advance towards specific professional goals. These include career transition, interpersonal and professional communication, performance management, organizational effectiveness, managing career and personal changes, developing executive presence, enhancing strategic thinking, dealing effectively with conflict, and building an effective team within an organization. An industrial organizational psychologist is one example of executive coach. Business coaching is not restricted to external experts or providers. Many organizations expect their senior leaders and middle managers to coach their team members to reach higher levels of performance, increased job satisfaction, personal growth, and career development. Research studies suggest that executive coaching has a positive impact on workplace performance. In some countries, there is no certification or licensing required to be a business or executive coach, and membership of a coaching organization is optional. Further, standards and methods of training coaches can vary widely between coaching organizations. Many business coaches refer to themselves as consultants, a broader business relationship than one which exclusively involves coaching.  (source)”

What is mentoring?

The CIPD define the process of Mentoring as one that involves the use of the same models and skills of questioning, listening, clarifying and reframing associated with coaching.

Traditionally, however, mentoring in the workplace has tended to describe a relationship in which a more experienced colleague uses his or her greater knowledge and understanding of the work or workplace to support the development of a more junior or inexperienced member of staff. They say that one key distinction is that mentoring relationships tend to be longer term than coaching arrangements. In a succession planning scenario, for example, a regional finance director might be mentored by a group level counterpart over a lengthy period to develop a sound understanding of dealing with the boardroom, presenting to analysts and challenging departmental budgets, all in a supportive environment.

Mentoring relationships work best when they move beyond the directive approach of a senior colleague ‘telling it how it is’, to one where both learn from each other. An effective mentoring relationship is a learning opportunity for both parties. This is particularly productive when used to encourage inclusive working practices and equal opportunities, for example where a senior female or ethnic minority leader mentors a more junior colleague from a similar background. Reverse mentoring (where a more junior colleague mentors a senior leader) can also be effective in encouraging sharing and learning across generations and/or between role levels.

The distinction with counselling

The NHS defines counselling as a type of talking therapy that allows a person to talk about their problems and feelings in a confidential and dependable environment. A counsellor is trained to listen with empathy (by putting themselves in your shoes). They can help you deal with any negative thoughts and feelings you have. Sometimes the term “counselling” is used to refer to talking therapies in general, but counselling is also a type of therapy in its own right.

It can be difficult to draw a clear distinction between the concepts of coaching or mentoring and that of counselling, not least because many of the theoretical underpinnings of coaching are drawn from models associated with counselling.

Next steps


Blog written with CMI Southern Mentoring Champion, Daniel Carey.

Daniel Carey has a career of training and developing business owners and managers in various aspects of business administration and in management knowledge transfer and best practice. He is a member of the Chartered Management Institute’s Southern Regional Board and has the responsibility for championing mentoring.