Mentoring v Coaching — is there a difference?

Big Red Car here.

A lot of folks read my blog post yesterday on Mentoring — Head Fake or Worthy Endeavor.

I received a few questions — Hey, Big Red Car, what is the difference between coaching and mentoring?

So here goes.


Coaching focuses on improving specific discrete skills under the umbrella of a traditional management-employee relationship.  Bosses coach their subordinates.  It is a necessary part of the line manager’s skill set and it happens within the boundaries of a work relationship.  Good managers coach all of their subordinates.

Inexperienced managers are often at a loss to understand how to coach their subordinates but as they grow into their new jobs, they learn this skill themselves.  Maybe they get a bit of coaching from their boss?

It is skill specific and is intended to improve the performance of of an employee on some specific skill.

Imagine a football coach on the field with his quarterback explaining the difference between throwing a slant v a wheel route.  The slant is thrown directly to the receiver — well, to where he will be when the ball arrives.

While on the wheel route, the quarterback simply throws down field and lets the receiver run under it and make the play.  On the wheel route, the coach says to the quarterback:  “Just air it out.  Throw it down field and let the receiver make the play.  You can do it.”

The coach is coaxing a superior performance — or at least an improved performance — from his employee by working on a specific skill one on one.

The coach initiates the coaching effort and the effort is focused on the employee’s current job responsibilities.

When coaching, the coach is often able to get real world feedback from the next iteration of the application of that skill.


Mentoring attempts to develop talent beyond the short-term constraints of a specific job description.  The mentor is typically not the manager of the mentee — hate those words, so jargonish, ugh!

The canvas upon which the mentoring relationship is drawn is much larger than a specific skill or task, it all about developing the person — the mentee — both inside the workplace and outside.

While coaching focuses on a task, mentoring entails the building of a relationship.  Look at the blog post noted above and see that this mentoring relationship lasted for 7-8 years and the results supported the length of that relationship.  The transformation was dramatic.

In a very selfish manner, the mentoring program is intended to produce an employee who is ready for greater responsibilities and high command.  I have previously spoken of my admiration for President Dwight David Eisenhower and many know of his having served under both General MacArthur and General Marshall.  Great preparation for high future command indeed.

What is not known as widely is his service under Major General Fox Conner in Panama.   General Conner is often referred to as “the man who made Eisenhower”.  General Conner was known as one of the brightest minds in the Army of his day.  He had served as General Pershing’s Chief of Staff during World War I.

Mentoring is focused on the mentee’s career while coaching is focused on specific skills.

Wisdom of the Campfire

I have often heard the Boss use the term “Wisdom of the Campfire” to discuss the manner in which organizations — the Army, companies, Boards — pass along lessons learned from the history of that organization.  In some ways, coaching and mentoring are like having a seat at a similar type of campfire.

Imagine a wise group of leaders and managers gathered on a bitter cold night around the campfire rubbing their hands for warmth and spinning their tales.

Be at that campfire and learn.  Learn.  Teach.

Advice to the employee

So perhaps you are reading this and saying to yourself — “OK, Big Red Car, great for managers and CEOs but what the Hell can I do about this as an employee?”

Well, dear employee, those managers and CEOs used to be employees once upon a time.

Reach out and request coaching and mentoring.  The folks to whom you reach out will be flattered and you will handpick your coach and mentor.

Here are some resources available to assist you in finding the right coaches and mentors.

Remember, you are responsible for managing your own career.

But, hey, what the Hell do I know?  I’m just a Big Red Car.

Be kind to yourselves.  You deserve it.




10 thoughts on “Mentoring v Coaching — is there a difference?

    • .
      First like any “blind date” someone has to advance the proposition.

      The big secret in life is that the “pretty girls” often scare off guys. Nobody is out of your league. Nobody. Hell, it’s YOUR league. Make it the BIG leagues.

      Second, it is good business for everyone involved. Good business.

      The CEO who fails to develop those special talents in his organization is spending money and not getting anything in return. It is almost a duty to develop talent through mentoring.

      Third, it is fun. There is nothing so gratifying as seeing a plan come together and passing along what you know to someone else. The story I told in the prior post made me feel good, made me feel like I had done the right thing and was, in fact, the right thing to do.

      Pay it forward.

      • JLM, I have a coach, and I am about to be mentored in my upcoming accelerator program. I have some mentors being chosen for me and I will also chose some. I have some ultra top of industry choices – one I’ve met and might do it, and another I have no idea, he is a national figure.

        I agree with @donnawhite:disqus on a bit of shaking in the boots, and I agree with you on making it your dream team. I will have some help to get my mentors, but I’d ask you how you would approach a really top of industry/field person as an upstart like myself. Any pointers?

        PS Above link to past post not working….

    • Hey Donna, I’ve often asked myself this. And I realized that the best way to find out is to ask those who make the effort. (and not everybody WANTS to be a mentor..).

      The answers tend to surprise me.. 🙂

    • .
      As a young and whip smart businessman, you should reach out to folks you admire — in much the same way that your leadership series reaches out to entrepreneurial leaders — and develop a relationship that provides the infrastructure to deliver mentoring.

      As to coaching, it is really much less difficult like asking a fishing guide to help you learn to tie a specific knot.

      Make a list of things you want to learn and then make it happen.

      I actually think I am speaking to the choir as I see Rohan, Inc already doing exactly this.

      Happy New Year, Rohan, Inc.

    • Just wanted to tack on that first hand, live mentoring or coaching is essential to the process. There’s something that async/internet/remote connectivity can’t quite convey. The body language, the mood, the responsibility to see it through all happen in face to face interactions. Find a local business leader you admire and reach out. Worst case, you try again. It can’t be harder than learning to play the guitar!

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