Coaching vs. Mentoring; the metaphor of the ropes

The distinction between coaching and mentoring has meaning for every generation, including the so called Generation Flux (see my recent blogs on Gen Flux). Recent interest in the distinction between the two practices may be linked to an increase use of mentoring both in the Government and the Private sector as a tool for on boarding and/or as part of the succession planning process. In addition, there is an economic incentive to use mentoring whenever possible because usually there is no direct impact on the budget; nevertheless, time is money and the time spent by senior executives mentoring younger staff will impact the budgetary process indirectly, at least. Not withstanding the economics of this issue, there is a need to make the distinction between coaching and mentoring as clear as possible so that everyone involved in these practices knows what to expect. In my own coaching practice I use a simple metaphor to explain the difference, mentoring is showing someone the ropes whereas coaching is offering them a rope. Let me explain.

Most people are familiar with the metaphor of showing someone the ropes; this usually means advising on how an organization works and what has worked for the mentor in the past. It may involve sharing one’s experience in administration, knowledge of technical skills or office and organization politics. This is what mentors do. Two things are worth noting: first, mentoring is backward looking in that knowledge shared is about past performance, i.e., this is how I did it when I was in your position. Second, while it is experience gaining it is not necessarily skill building in that past experiences may be of little relevance in today’s rapidly changing organizations that confront uncertainty both internally and externally on a daily basis. Enter the rope.

Coaching can be compared to throwing someone a rope to use is climbing a mountain (not, I hope, a life raft off the side of a ship). The mountain is the challenge facing the client and the coach guides the client up the path of self knowledge and skill building providing incentives and accountability along the way. Both the coach and the client hold firmly to the rope which is a metaphor for the coaching relationship. Successful coaching engagements usually end when the client has reached the top of the mountain. Remember, however there are many mountains in professional and personal life; choose a good rope.

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It’s funny I just had a conversation with someone about the difference. It’s still a little unclear to me – can you give me a couple examples.

Perhaps it’s the way that my mentoring happens but I often have a coaching element (people bring in issues facing and we talk about them)

Mark Sullivan

I’m still digesting the metaphor as well. Something that I’ve observed in effective ‘mentor’ relationships has been an element of sponsorship – essentially the willingness of the mentor to advocate for the mentee in getting more challenging and high profile assignments. Most of us who have progressed in our careers have had individual’s who championed our candidacy for these assignments which demonstrated our aptitude for higher level roles. I think this goes beyond the backward-looking role captured in the metaphor, but is generally not within the scope of influence for an (external) professional coach.

Allison Primack

This is how GovLoopers on Facebook perceived the difference between coaching and mentoring:

Michael Sanders A coach is involved in one specific area, a mentor helps guide your entire plan.

Mike Melloy A couch tells you what to do, a mentor guides you so you can discover for yourself what to do. A coach tells, a mentor questions.