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  • Jane Porter

Organisational Coaching v Mentoring

November 2018

The debate in the industry is ongoing, are the two really different? If so how and does it really matter? Here are my thoughts, I'd love to know yours ...

What GOOGLE says

A quick Google search on ‘What is organisational mentoring?’ produces a common thread of agreement that mentoring is about receiving trusted advice, at a skills and knowledge level, from someone who has the experience and wisdom in the field that you have not yet attained.

A similar search on the question ‘What is organisational coaching?’ reveals that the results all seem to be saying slightly different things. Claims are being made, from enabling you to reach your full potential, through to promising complete culture transformation of your very large organisation. As a passionate practicing organisational coach since 2006, I truly believe in the impact of coaching, I also continue to struggle to buy in to such extensive claims.

What industry says

This continued lively debate, is partly a result of coaching being an unregulated industry. The current question that seem to be creating most interest is whether mentoring and coaching are even different? And if so, should we be doing more to bring the two worlds together? David Clutterbuck argues that the mentor and the coach use many of the same skills, and that the roles are closer than we think. He was the co-founder of the European Mentoring Centre in 1992, which interestingly 10 years later was re-branded as the European Mentoring and Coaching Centre.

At the other end of the spectrum, Thomas Leonard started the International Coach Federation (ICF) in 1995, which takes a purist view and defines coaching as follows:

‘…partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential’.

A deeper dive into ICF’s credential guidelines, shows that in their view, coaches do not give advice, and do not share their worldly wisdom. Instead, they listen deeply and ask questions that bring awareness to thoughts, behaviours and patterns. This sits in service of so you can become more of who you are today, and how you may want to develop to achieve desired objectives. The focus is developmental, the key distinction is that if a coach can help you create something for yourself, you will have full ownership of your growth. If a coach gives you advice, then it is the coach that has ownership, and the chances of you taking sustainable action are much slimmer.

ICF’s 2016 Global Coach Study claims that there are 53,300 professional coaches worldwide who generate US$2.356 billion in revenue. For such a huge industry still in rapid expansion, it’s curious that so much confusion still exists.

What does neuroscience say?

As neuroscience is a growing industry trend, I thought I’d turn in that direction for some illumination. The first thing that is clear is that there are a LOT of people out there trying to prove the links between neuroscience and coaching, no-one seems to have embarked on this same journey with regards to mentoring.

Neuroscientist Dr Sarah McKay ( gives us some useful pointers as a basis for exploring this question further.

Point 1: Memories are imperfect (excerpt from Dr McKay’s website)

Our memories are not a perfect account of what happened. Memories can be reconstructed at the time when we recall them depending on how we retrieve the memory. For example, a question, photograph or a particular scent can interact with a memory resulting in it being modified as it is recalled. With increasing life experience, we weave narratives into our memories. Autobiographical memories that tell the story of our lives are always undergoing revision precisely because our sense of self is too. Consciously or not, we use imagination to reinvent our past, and with it, our present and future.’

This is very interesting if you subscribe to the idea that coaches accompany you as you explore your current narrative (and how this is helping you, or standing in the way of moving towards what you are wanting to achieve). Experienced coaches are able to ask questions which enable you to bring language to subconscious thinking. In other words, bring narratives to life, so that you can determine whether these are supporting your desired future objectives. If your current narratives are not moving you forward, then the coach is skilled in methodologies and theoretical approaches to enable you to develop other ways to move forward.

Carol Dweck’s work on Growth and Fixed mindset is an example of this.

Point 2: Imagining and doing are the same (to the brain) (excerpt from Dr McKay’s website)

‘Perception is the process of acquiring, interpreting, and organising actual sensory information such as vision, smell, taste, and touch. Imagining activates the same neural pathways as the real experience. Envisioning a different life may as successfully invoke change as the actual experience.’

A focus on future possibilities is a characteristic of coaching; enabling the person being coached to firstly perceive a different future, one of the keys to developing motivation to take “action towards” their goal.

I’ve had both valuable mentoring and coaching experiences in my career, and I expect I will continue to have more of both as I continue. For me, the distinction between the two is clear. When I want advice, I go to a mentor and draw on their experience. I expect to receive information that I will more than likely act upon in the short-term, and yes, I will grow from this experience. I expect the mentor to be doing most of the knowledge work. I’ll ask most of the questions and they will share their knowledge and experience accordingly.

When I engage a coach, I expect a much deeper developmental experience, which will sustain well beyond the relationship with the coach. I will leave that experience having worked hard on myself, guided by the coach through this process. It will have challenged me in ways that I didn’t imagine, there will be times when I will wish it would stop, yet I stay. I will achieve the organisational outcomes I took into coaching, and I will also have developed in ways I could not conceptualise at the start of the process. The coach will be asking most of the questions, I will be doing the thinking work. And I will ultimately be developing, in some small or great way. 


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