Mentoring or coaching - which provides the best support for professional development?

Mentoring and coaching are terms often used interchangeably. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but they are different. Working with a mentor or coach can support professional learning - which will provide the best support will be context dependent

Even high level performers require support

Developing new understandings, skills and insights can be both challenging and rewarding. The same can be said of demonstrating skills at higher standards of performance.

People often require support to ensure learning and development experiences are positive and productive. Even the highest-level performers require mentoring and/or coaching to promote performance development, or to deliver peak performance.

Different support for different stages of learning

The kind of support most appropriate to promote performance development is context specific. A person developing new understandings, skills and/or insights may require support from a more experienced person who provides instruction and guidance (mentoring). A person further developing understandings, skills and/or insights may require support from a person who can promote self-reflection, solutions focused thinking and aspirational goal setting through guided questioning (coaching).

In simple terms, a mentor will identify what needs to be done, why it needs to be done, when it needs to be done and how it needs to be done. A coach will frame questions that promote self-determination around what needs to be done, why it needs to be done, when it will be done and how it will be done.

Both mentoring and coaching provide support for people to grow and develop their understandings, skills and insights. Whether mentoring or coaching is the most appropriate form of support will be dependent upon a range of variables in context, including: the expectations of the learner; his/her relative skills and experience; the complexity or difficulty of the task; and the benefit/risk of success/failure.

Personal preference

Although mentoring is directional and coaching is non-directional, they are not binary or mutually exclusive.  Mentoring and/or coaching can be used interchangeably – dependent upon the context. In either case, the type of support provided should be negotiated.

It may be worth identifying; however, that a lot of people will subconsciously preference mentoring over coaching – whether (or not) it is the most appropriate option.

As a person providing support, it may be difficult to resist the urge to tell someone what they should be doing; instead of facilitating self-reflection that promotes self-direction and self-regulation. Recognising and resisting this (perhaps subconscious) urge requires self-awareness and self-discipline.

As a person being supported, it can be easy to look for quick (but not necessarily effective) answers from others in situations that may be better addressed through guided, self-reflective practice. Once again, it takes self-awareness and self-discipline to avoid taking the most comfortable, or easy option.

Both mentoring and coaching are most effective when: both participants adopt a growth mindset; they are demonstrated in a professional relationship built upon trust and mutual respect; and they are refined through reflective practice over time.

Being a mentor and/or coach requires commitment to supporting another person’s growth and development. The choice of which approach is most appropriate gets down to the context in which is to be delivered. Either way, knowing the difference between mentoring and coaching is the first step towards effectively supporting professional growth and development.