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  • Toby Sinclair

When to Coach and When to Mentor

Updated: Jan 27, 2021

Until recently I hadn’t thought much about the differences between Coaching and Mentoring. I’ve come to learn there are big differences and most recently started thinking about: When to Coach and When to Mentor?

What is Coaching?

The definition I've been using most recently is from Timothy Gallway:

“Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.”

What is Mentoring?

In my research for a sound definition i came across a good collection of definitions on the Coaching Network

One that stood out to me was:

“Mentoring involves primarily listening with empathy, sharing experience (usually mutually), professional friendship, developing insight through reflection, being a sounding board, encouraging” – David Clutterbuck

So what are the differences?

This is not an uncommon question. Look through Google and you’ll find many people who have asked the same question. One of the top results I came across is from Brefi Group


  • Ongoing relationship that can last for a long period of time

  • Can be more informal and meetings can take place as and when the mentee needs some advice, guidance or support

  • Mentor is usually more experienced and qualified than the ‘mentee’. Often a senior person in the organisation who can pass on knowledge, experience and open doors to otherwise out-of-reach opportunities

  • Agenda is set by the mentee, with the mentor providing support and guidance to prepare them for future roles

  • Focus is on career and personal development

  • The agenda is focused on achieving specific, immediate goals

  • Mentoring resolves more around developing the mentee professionally

  • More long-term and takes a broader view of the person


  • Relationship generally has a set duration

  • Generally more structured in nature and meetings are scheduled on a regular basis

  • Short-term (sometimes time-bounded) and focused on specific development areas/issues

  • Coaching is generally not performed on the basis that the coach needs to have direct experience of their client’s formal occupational role, unless the coaching is specific and skills-focused

  • Focus is generally on development/issues at work

  • Coaching revolves more around specific development areas/issues

There are a number of things that stand out for me here. In particular:

  1. Mentoring is generally long term whilst Coaching usually has a set duration focused around a specific goal

  2. Mentoring involves the mentor offering advice, usually from a more experienced standpoint. Coaching is the opposite, the Coach will avoid offering advice and enable the Coachee to reach their own understanding through powerful questions.

The Agile Coach as Mentor and Coach

Part of the Agile Coach role is to Mentoring and Coaching.

I recently attended an Adventures with Agile meet up where Lyssa Adkins and Michael Spayd spoke about the Agile Coaching Competency Framework:


You can see Mentoring and Coaching are two elements of the framework. As an Agile coach this creates an interesting challenge: When to Coach and When to Mentor? 

When to Coach and When to Mentor?

My initial thoughts are that everyone can probably benefit from both. However at various times maybe the person might need more of one than the other.

Recently I’ve been coaching many people across my organisation. As part of any coaching engagement, I’ll start by establishing what the individual knows about Coaching.

Often it will become apparent that they are explaining a Mentoring relationship (Long term, advice-based, sharing experience). That’s a good opportunity to explain the differences. In this situation, it’s good to talk through the differences and assess the needs of the individual.

In most cases, there is room for both coaching and mentoring.

This creates another dilemma for the Agile Coach; can you coach and mentor the same individual? My view is that the coach should help the individual find a suitable mentor outside the coaching relationship. This enables clearer boundaries for the coaching sessions. A good example would be finding an experienced developer to pair with someone more junior.

I’d love to hear if anyone else has encountered this question of When to Coach and When to Mentor.


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