ATD Blog

Mentoring vs Coaching

Friday, March 26, 2021

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Sometimes people use the words “mentoring” and “coaching” interchangeably, but they do not describe the same type of working relationship. Both share specific goals including employee learning and career development that leads to peak performance, and the realization of full potential. However, the definition, focus, role, approach, and tools of each are different.

Definition and Focus

  • Mentoring: An informal association focused on building a two-way, mutually beneficial relationship for long-term career movement.
  • Coaching: The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching as "a partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity and leadership."


  • Mentoring: Talking with a person who has identified their needs prior to entering into a mentoring relationship. The emphasis is on active listening, providing information, making suggestions, and establishing connections.
  • Coaching: Listening to a person, identifying what they need, and helping them develop an action plan. The emphasis is on the person or client finding the solution, not instructing or leading them.


  • Mentoring: This is a self-directed modus operandi whereby participants have choices. This approach can begin with a self-matching process and continue throughout the relationship using a committed timeline to determine how often and where individuals will meet, identify goals, and so forth.
  • Coaching: A structured modus operandi is more frequently used whereby participants are working within a narrower perspective; their agenda is more specific, for a short period of time, and oriented toward certain results. Usually a coach is assigned to an employee within an organization.


  • Mentoring: The most important tool is the Mentoring Agreement—developed, completed, and signed by both participants. This document formalizes commitment to the mentoring relationship. Items include individual goals, learning content, a meeting schedule, and communication methods.
  • Coaching: A coaching agreement is used to set the ground rules for the partnership. Within organizations 360 assessments sometimes precede the coaching sessions. Skills assessments are sometimes used depending on the nature of the coaching program.

Although differences exist between mentoring and coaching, they do share some comparable characteristics as well:

  • Defined roles allow individuals to envision the achievement of desired goals.
  • Working relationships require trust, respect, open communication, and flexibility.
  • Stakeholders include new hires, new managers, and staff promoted to senior-level positions.
  • Training, education, and orientation are necessary.
  • Success is best achieved when senior leaders understand the return on investment, and expectations regarding engagement, performance, and retention are being achieved.
  • The mission is to meet both individual and organization goals.

An organization is not required to choose between mentoring and coaching relationship. Each one enhances an individual’s ability to contribute to the organization’s goals. Consider how these two activities can fulfill the expectations of individuals, managers, and senior-level executives, while simultaneously accomplishing the organization’s employee development and succession planning goals. Additionally, consideration for the level of the value that these programs bring to the table and the benefits people feel will be gained.

Learn more about mentoring partnerships from Creating a Mentoring Program, available now.

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This blog was originally published in August 2014 and has since been updated with new information and resources.

About the Author

Annabelle Reitman has more than 40 years of experience in career coaching and counseling, specializing in résumé development that targets clients’ individualized professional stories. She also does short-term coaching for people in work transitions, enabling them to successfully continue their career journey. Reitman is an established writer and author in the career and talent management arenas. She is a co-author of ATD's Career Moves (2013) and contributed the Take charge of Your Career: Breaking Into & Advancing in the T&D Profession Chapter to the  ASTD Handbook, 2nd edition (2014). Reitman holds doctorate and master’s degrees in higher education administration from Teachers College, Columbia University.

About the Author

Sylvia Ramirez Benatti brings more than 20 years of experience in the nonprofit sector as a trainer and consultant and university professor in nonprofit management.

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