ATD Blog

Do Your Employees Need Coaching or Mentoring?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

You want to develop your employees and help them reach their full potential. So, should you offer them coaching or mentoring? Before you can answer that question, you need to understand the difference between the two.

Mentoring, defined

In a true mentoring relationship, a mentee and mentor work with one another over the course of nine to 12 months. The mentor's focus is on the overall development of his or her mentee. In this scenario, mentoring is transformational—for both the mentor and especially the mentee—because it is a long-term relationship that involves both the professional and the personal. In many ways, mentoring is like counseling.  

Coaching, defined

Coaching, on the other hand, involves a content expert working closely with an individual so that this individual learns a particular skill or piece of knowledge. In other words, coaching is about skills and knowledge acquisition. Although coaching may involve the personal, the primary focus is professional. In many ways, coaching is akin to teaching.

More differentiators


Those are the main definitions, but here are some other differentiators worth noting (and this isn't an exhaustive list).

  • Coaching is task-oriented. Mentoring is relationship-oriented.
  • Coaching is short-term. Mentoring is always long-term.
  • Coaching is performance-driven. Mentoring is development-driven.
  • Coaching does not require design. Mentoring requires a design phase.
  • The coachee’s immediate manager is a critical partner in coaching. In mentoring, the immediate manager is indirectly involved.
  • With coaching, it's easier to evaluate the return on investment (ROI). With mentoring, it's more difficult to quantify.
  • The coach provides feedback to the coachee’s manager. Mentoring prohibits this direct feedback loop to the mentee’s immediate manager.
  • Coaches primarily focus on business issues. Mentors balance both the business and the personal.
  • Coaching can be done for remedial purposes. Mentoring is never remedial.
  • In coaching, the focus is on the individual to develop greater expertise in his r job. In mentoring, the interaction between the mentor and mentee leads to mutual change and, thus, more directly affects the corporate culture.
  • A coach can also be the manager of the coachee. A mentor is always outside of the mentee’s own direct supervisory line, and a mentor never formally mentors one of his or her own employees.
  • Coaching is one-directional. Mentoring is bi-directional.
  • Coaching is concerned about behavioral transformation. Mentoring is concerned about personal transformation.

Choosing mentoring or coaching

Here's an important point that many organizations miss: it doesn't necessarily need be an either/or scenario. Your employees could likely benefit from a long-term mentoring relationship and short-term skill building in specific areas.


But if you feel you need to decide between one or the other (for budgetary reasons, for example), here are guidelines to help you make the best decision.

Consider coaching when:

  • you are seeking to develop your employees in specific competencies using performance management tools and involving the immediate manager
  • you have a number of talented employees who are not meeting expectations
  • you're introducing a new system or program and employees need to become proficient
  • you have a small group of individuals (five to eight) in need of increased competency in specific areas
  • you have a leader or executive within your organization who needs assistance in acquiring a new skill as an additional responsibility.

Consider mentoring when:

  • you are seeking to develop your leaders or talent pool as part of succession planning
  • you need to develop your diverse employees and remove barriers that might hinder their success
  • you want to more completely develop your employees in ways that go above and beyond the acquisition of specific skills/competencies
  • you hope to retain the internal expertise and experience residing in your company's Baby Boomer employees and nurture Gen X and Gen Y employees in the process
  • you want to create a workforce that balances the professional and the personal.

Remember, coaching and mentoring are both effective approaches to talent development within an organization. A company’s specific needs should provide guidance on which option to choose. Making the right decision for the right reasons will help lead to more positive outcomes.

About the Author

Rene D. Petrin is the founder and president of Management Mentors, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2014. Management Mentors’ philosophy is simple: Show companies how structured mentoring programs are the most powerful and effective strategy for professional development within an organization. Visit to learn more.

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