Mentors and coaches – so what’s the difference?

Coach Chris Preping the Team

This article first appeared in the October/November issue of Government News.

They might seem interchangeable terms, but there’s plenty of learning in the differences, observes Dr Marianne Broadbent.

“The term ‘coaching’ …has too often been debased by those without a good enough level of experience to really be able to prod and cajole executives.”

Coaching and Mentoring are now mainstream development opportunities for many professionals and managers. The terms often get confused or are used interchangeably. However it is best to think of them as two different ways to draw on the expertise of others to stimulate your professional and personal development.

Coaching is about focusing on specific, role and work-related outcomes you want to achieve. An executive coach should understand the context of your job and organisation, and, work with you on improving specific capability areas and your performance.  Coaching should be well- targeted and often has an agreed timeframe. The coach is a trained and experienced professional with whom you or your organisation has a business arrangement; that is, the coach is paid for his or her services.

Mentoring, on the other hand, is about being engaged with others from whom we can learn or who might take a longer term interest in our careers and progress. Sometimes we only realise after the event that a person has been a mentor to us.

A mentor is usually a higher level professional or executive who has had experiences relevant to the role of the team member being mentored.  This can happen both formally and informally. The mentor might be a member of your organisation but often in a different part of the organisation, not your direct supervisor, or they might be external to your organisation. They might have had some similarities in background to you but be at a different stage of development. They are not paid for their services, but do this as part of their professional commitment and desire to see others grow and progress.

Coaching in Practice
When discussing potential development needs of some senior executives with a CEO last week, I was asked ‘do you do coaching?’ My response was somewhat ambivalent – ‘well depends what you mean by coaching’’. I wasn’t being evasive, just wary, as too often we come across people who profess to be ‘coaches’ and are ‘coaching’ executives;  but their experience and understanding of their context could at best be described a very, very limited.

My reluctance in using the term ‘coaching’ for some of the work that we do is that it has too often been debased by those without a good enough level of experience to really be able to prod and cajole executives; to get them to reflect, understand their own behaviour and values, and work through with them through difficult and daily challenges.

My preferred term today is ‘Executive Advisor’ for those situations where have worked through a leadership capability and development needs process with an individual and they, or their organisation, want to continue with a level of individual professional and executive support.

In looking for a good coach, personal and professional maturity is critical. The ability to really understand a senior manager’s or executive’s context is pivotal. A coach does not have to have been in the role for which they are a coach;  but, it is usually important that they have been in roles of similar complexity and demands. They need to have had the breadth and depth to have insights into the reality of their client’s experience, and it is hard to do that if you don’t have some good work and life experience.

Mentoring – Formal and Informal
The day after the ‘Do you do coaching?’ question, a colleague and I were interviewing a candidate for a senior role and asked him who had been his mentors throughout his career. He named his most recent coach and the conversation became a bit circuitous. We clarified that we were referring to people who had taken a real interest in his career and shared their career experiences with him; those who had helped him in his career out of their own professional commitment, either formally or informally.

We then had a fruitful conversation about the influencers on his progress.

If we take the time to reflect, we can each think of people who have mentored us in our careers. In my case it goes a long way back and there are some great people I have thanked along the way – and some I thanked belatedly! The first of my five or so careers was a high school teacher. Early into my career I found myself with too many commitments (something of a lifelong characteristic…). I intended to resign so that I could complete the Masters’ degree I had started while also caring for our firstborn. But I had real trouble filling out the resignation form, as I just could not bring myself to resign.

I went to see the Deputy Principal to confide in her as I probably sensed someone who was open, direct, with a lot of good experience and who cared enough to listen. She asked me what I really wanted to do the most: study, spend more time with our son, or keep working full time. The answer was I just did not know yet. She suggested I keep doing all three till I figured it out, and then continued to regularly ask me how things were going. It was some of the best advice I have ever had ‑ and she continued to ask me how things were going from time to time. (And yes three or four years later, the Masters was completed, we had had a second child, and I was still working fulltime).

There were others early in my career who took an interest and took the time to invite me to professional meetings, encourage me to take on committee positions, take secondments to other roles, write reviews, lead a workshop or a presentation at conferences and so on.  None of these are things I necessarily thought of doing at the time, but more senior professionals gave me encouragement and opportunities. I would like to think that I have returned the favour to others.

Mentoring Others is a Development Opportunity
When working through the development needs of professionals and managers, we often ask people ‘who have you mentored?’ or ‘how have you mentored others’? We get some interesting responses. Some people think that it is something they will ‘do later’. Others have been part of formal mentoring programs with more or less success.  We see it as an important part of professional and personal development to be actively available as a mentor to others.

Today, we not infrequently see more junior professionals, or ‘digital natives’ who act as mentors to senior executives, or the ‘digital immigrants’. This can provide different types of insights into the professional drivers and motivations of early career workforce members. This ‘reverse mentoring’ can also provide some great insights for the senior executive into the changing priorities, needs and issues of their citizen or consumer base, as well as their more junior workforce members.

Amongst the most important interactions though, is the mentoring that happens organically – being open and available to others, and embracing the queries, dilemmas of younger professionals as the Deputy Principal did for me.  Sometimes it’s starting a conversation about ‘how are things going?’, or seeking input through some open ended questions, such as ‘what are some of the developments that have surprised, delighted or dismayed you about this place?’.

Think about it. Who would describe you as their mentor? It’s never too early or too late to start. You would be surprised at the impact you can have.

Dr Marianne Broadbent is Managing Partner, with the Leadership Consultancy at NGS Global (EWK International has rebranded as NGS Global). c/-,


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