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Coaching versus mentoring: What are the differences?

Have you ever wondered about the differences between employee coaching and mentoring? While both aim to maximise employee potential, their methods and outcomes differ, as do the skills required of each.

First up in this blog, YakTrak’s COO and co-founder, Brad Thomas, unpacks the differences between them, busts some myths and gives us the lowdown on some of the key trends in employee development. Then we’ll take a deeper dive into the unique characteristics of coaching and mentoring programs and when to implement them.

Understanding coaching and mentoring with Brad Thomas

At first glance, coaching and mentoring may seem interchangeable. Both serve the purpose of employee development and have a positive impact on both the individual and the organisation. However, there are key differences that set them apart.

Let’s get the lowdown from Brad.

Brad, what are the differences between employee coaching and mentoring in the workplace?

Brad: Employee coaching can be defined as when a leader and team member work together to improve an employee’s capability to perform in their role. A coaching relationship focuses on helping employees establish and achieve individual goals aligned with organisational objectives, allowing them to maximise their skills and capabilities.

It involves providing clarity around the current role and the behaviours required to perform in that role, and may also include observation of the team member in that role with the intent to provide feedback, goal setting for improvement and ongoing follow-up.

Mentoring, on the other hand, is a little bit different. Mentoring is more about career progression. It is working with perhaps anyone within an organisation who can guide you in growing in your current role and into future roles. A mentor is often selected based on having the qualities or experience a mentee requires.

What would you say are the pros and cons of each method?

Coaching gives immediate uplifts while mentoring is focused on longer term goals. Both can improve development but both, if done poorly, won’t lead to great results.

Coaching provides immediate feedback, can help people perform well in their current role and provides an opportunity for regular two-way communication.

However, it can often be hard to find time to coach. Focusing here on micro-behaviours and micro-coaching can help. Also, if coaching is done poorly, it can have a negative impact – it can often be focused on outputs rather than inputs. Focusing on the inputs – the behaviours you want to see change – is key.

Mentoring is great for career-minded people. It can assist in fast tracking a person’s progression through the business and is great for succession planning. Although it’s not suited to everyone. The mentoring relationship is critical and a lack of commitment from a mentee or lack of structure from a mentor can mean it won’t succeed.

Tell us about a success story where employee coaching had a big impact on an organisation. 

I remember working with a large energy retailer and I offered to demonstrate how effective coaching can be when done correctly and when focused on the right things that drive outcomes.

I took three teams and coached the team leaders over an eight-week period to grow and develop their teams’ capabilities. The results were immediate and continued to grow over eight weeks.

We set our sights clearly on the outcomes we were aiming for (average handle time or AHT, sales conversion and so on) and we determined as a team the behaviours we would work on to improve those outputs over eight weeks by working on one behaviour at a time.

We then arranged our leadership cadence, observations and rewards – such as how often we would observe and give feedback, what great goals look like and how we would track them, the focus of our team meetings and huddles. And then we executed our plans religiously every week.

Coaching the leaders to focus on the right things versus just anything was the main factor and then ensuring the leaders were, in turn, coaching their staff. My three teams were the top three teams in terms of results within the organisation by the end of eight weeks.

What are some common misconceptions about employee coaching and how can organisations overcome these misconceptions? 

People think it needs to take a long time. It doesn’t need to be a long-winded 45-minute process that steps through every element of a coaching methodology. It can be effective in five-minute bursts!

People also think that leaders don’t need coaching. If leaders have never had great coaching, they are less likely to provide great coaching. We automatically assume that new leaders should know how to coach, run meetings or be a leader, but they need coaching just like your frontline, including observing them coach and providing feedback.

Another misconception is that great coaching methodology works 100% of the time. The reality is, it doesn’t always work and sometimes you need to freestyle it by listening and being human. A coaching methodology simply sets some boundaries to the conversation. Sometimes you need to know when to walk away from a conversation. Coaching only works when a team member is willing to be coached.

What are the skills that leaders need to coach?

Ultimately a great coach needs to learn how to ask great questions and then shut up and listen. Every coaching model in the world focuses on this but if you don’t have that capability, the best coaching model won’t work.

Coaches also need to understand that the key to coaching is not to tell the coachee how to do things, but to help them figure it out for themselves. Coaching is not all about proving how smart the coach is.

They also need to understand how to set great behavioural goals and be able to make the link between working on the behaviour versus the desired outcome or results.

I’d also say that great coaches are often very organised and follow up and do what they say they are going to do. Every time a coach cancels a coaching session or doesn’t follow up, it’s like saying something else came up that is more important than the coachee.

What are some of the trends you’re currently seeing with employee development?

Organisations have less and less time to coach their people. A lot of money is getting spent on wellbeing programs, which is fantastic, but ultimately, unencumbering a leader to actually sit and spend quality time with team members goes a very long way to improving organisational wellness.

It’s estimated that by 2027, 60% of the global workforce will need to reskill. Organisations that are prepared and manage to get coaching and training happening on the job – not just in the training room – are going to win the day. Setting leaders up to be expert leaders and coaches is going to be a game-changer.

Employee experience is also something businesses are continuing to look at. A simple way to do this is to humanise leader-employee relationships by going back to basics and building trust, creating a great environment and having regular check-ins.

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Differences between employee coaching and mentoring

Coaching involves providing structured guidance and support to individuals to help them reach their desired goals and improve specific areas. The coach offers guidance on how to achieve desired outcomes, focusing on achieving specific goals and identifying areas for improvement. A coaching program primarily concentrates on goal attainment and pinpointing areas that require enhancement.

In general, employee coaching is short term and goal oriented, whereas mentoring is focused on long-term development and growth. Coaching relationships tend to be more structured and led by the coach, while mentoring relationships are led by the mentor and built on mutual trust and respect.


Coaching is usually of a shorter duration and oriented towards achieving specific objectives, whereas mentoring is of a longer duration and focuses on overall growth.

Relationship dynamics

The relationship dynamics differ significantly.

The employee–coaching relationship is structured and organised. Coaches may not have direct experience in the subject matter, while mentors draw from their own experiences and knowledge to provide guidance. The mentoring relationship is focused on providing counsel, guidance and direction, often in a longer-term and comprehensive context.

Coaching relationships are typically focused on achieving particular behaviours, while mentoring focuses on providing ongoing support and guidance to achieve long-term goals.

Coaching and mentoring have different outcomes. Woman talking via to a woman on a computer monitor.
Coaching is great for developing specific skills and capacity building

Skills and experience

Coaches are skilled in guiding individuals to achieve their behavioural goals and improve their performance, and coaching skills can be learned!

Mentors leverage their own experiences and knowledge to provide guidance and support to their mentees. They serve as role models, sharing their insights and expertise to help their mentees grow and develop both personally and professionally.

Employee coaching programs can help employees develop specific skills, increase self-confidence and improve performance. By providing structured guidance and support, coaching programs can address performance challenges and help individuals achieve their personal and professional goals.

Moreover, coaching programs can be tailored to the individual’s needs and goals, allowing for a more personalised approach to development. This level of customisation ensures that employees receive the support and guidance they need to excel in their roles, ultimately contributing to the organisation’s success.

Both coaches and mentors must possess the following skills:

  • effective communication
  • active listening
  • empathy
  • curiosity
  • positivity
  • persistence
  • innovation
  • sincerity.

Coaches must be able to listen actively, ask insightful questions and provide constructive feedback. An effective coach is organised, takes a structured approach to the process and is able to maintain regular check-ins.

Mentors need to provide guidance without micromanaging and have a strong understanding of their mentee’s needs and goals, drawing on their own personal experience to provide support.

Good interpersonal skills are required for both coaching and mentoring, but the mentoring process is more about personal development, while employee coaching is about improving specific behaviours in the day to day of the workplace.

When to choose coaching or mentoring

The decision to opt for a mentoring or coaching program hinges on the specific needs of the individual and organisational context. Coaching focuses on attaining specific, quantifiable objectives in a limited timeframe, while mentoring focuses on sustained guidance and assistance to increase personal and professional potential.

Two people at a desk working on laptop computers
Coaching and mentoring focus on different outcomes

Choosing coaching

Coaching is ideal for developing specific skills, addressing performance issues and achieving short-term goals related to behaviours. For example, employees can focus on practising particular micro-behaviours supported in coaching sessions. It’s great for attaining development goals while on the job and filling knowledge gaps. It can be done with a line manager or other leader and can improve work performance quickly.

On-the-job coaching can fit in with existing programs and broader development strategies. It offers a number of benefits for organisations wanting to increase engagement and the employee experience, including:

  • enabling organisational learning
  • developing key skills across a workforce
  • improving job satisfaction
  • helping employees to achieve goals
  • facilitating relationship building.

Opting for mentoring

Unlike coaching, mentoring is focused on long-term career development, networking and preparing people for leadership roles. It offers extended guidance and support based on personal experience and expertise.

Mentoring is a good option for individuals and organisations looking to invest in long-term growth and development of leadership staff. As mentoring relationships are often focused on professional and personal development, mentoring is useful for succession planning and leadership capability building.

Ready to power up your employee coaching?

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Mentoring versus coaching summary

We’ve explored the key differences between coaching and mentoring and when to use them.

Ultimately, the choice between implementing coaching and mentoring depends on individual and organisational needs. By understanding the distinctions between these two employee development practices, you can make informed decisions about which approach best suits your organisational needs. And in fact, coaching and mentoring can sit side by side! It doesn’t have to be an either-or situation!

Key takeaways

  • Coaching and mentoring involve different approaches to employee development and career development, with coaching focused on improving performance, specific behaviours and achieving short-term goals, while mentoring is relationship-oriented and long term, with goals particularly around leadership capability.
  • Implementing a coaching program in an organisation can bring substantial advantages, including sustained growth, helping to close capability gaps and keeping a focus on development on the job.
  • Essential skills for both coaches and mentors include effective communication and active listening, but each program requires a different approach to personal and professional development.

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