What is the difference between mentoring and coaching?

This is a question I am asked a lot.   And one which I had to write it about as part of my Masters.    I am not surprised clients are unsure as to which they need, and often as Mentors or Coaches we can also be a bit unsure as to what we are providing! 

So whilst there in no definitive answer here are my thoughts…..

At a very fundamental level the purpose of both mentoring and coaching is to help an individual to grow and develop.  Whilst in practice they may well overlap, in theory they have different strategic purposes.


The strategic purpose of mentoring according to one of the leading figures in the field, David Clutterbuck, is “When a more experienced individual passed down his knowledge of how the task was done and how to operate in a commercial world”.

Whilst this definition was written relatively recently, I would argue it is outdated and is too narrow a definition.  The problem is that it limits the number of potential successful matches, and one could argue limits mentoring as a profession.

Clients seek a mentor for many reasons and not always to learn from or draw on their industry specific knowledge.  One example of this is a client who I recently mentored – a very successful businesswomen who is much more commercially experienced than me and I knew nothing of her industry.  This did not matter as what she needed from her mentor was a sounding board, and someone to hold her to account for her actions towards her goal of seeking investor funding.

In fact, a mentor can wear many hats and I love this illustration by Ann Role:


This model really reflects the fluidity of the mentoring relationship, with no one ‘role’ dominating.   It also shows that a Mentor can and may perform the role of Coach when required.

In fact many Mentors will argue that a Mentor can be a good Coach but a Coach cannot necessarily be a good Mentor!


Coaching is much more focused in its purpose and is fundamentally about facilitating a change.   There will be a particular challenge, issue, goal identified and through coaching the client identifies the actions they need to take to achieve the goal or overcome the issue.   There is some form of development, and the approach is future focused.

There are many more definitions of coaching than there are mentoring,  but one which I prefer is by Whitmore “Unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their performance.  It is helping them learn rather than teaching them”.

This definition keeps it simple, is outcome focused and suggests non-directional but the key word for me is ‘unlocking’.   The word unlocking implies the answers and solutions are within the client already and the coach is using techniques to bring these to the surface.

So, which to choose?

Here is my summary of the key differences between mentoring and coaching.


The choice of which to use, and when,  is dependent on several factors.  I would argue a lot of the time the client is not fully aware of which they need and the label, in fact, is less important than finding the right mentor/coach to work with.

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Clutterbuck, D. (2004) Making the most of informal mentoring: A positive climate is key. Development and Learning in Organizations: An International Journal, 18(4), pp.16-17.

Rolfe, A.  (2021) Mentoring Mindset, Skills and Tools. 4th edition.  Mentoring Works

Whitmore, Sir J. (2017) Coaching for Performance.  5th edition. London: Nicholas Brearly Publishing