How mentoring differs from other professional relationships

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In the business and work world, the distinction between mentoring, coaching, training, role modelling and other human resource driven activities sometimes gets blurred or glossed over. There are important distinctions between mentoring and other professional development-type activities. In this section we explore the key differences.

Mentoring compared to coaching

Coaching is aimed at helping a person (the coachee) develop or refine a specific job-related skill. The purpose of coaching is normally to improve job performance or for individual skill development. The coaching is driven by the coach and the organization stands to benefit as much from coaching as the coachee. Mentoring, on the other hand, is typically driven by the mentee and it focuses on career development, leadership development, and the transfer of knowledge.

Colleagues listening to someone talkCoaching involves an expert teaching the coachee, or working one-on-one with them. The coach directs the learning and the amount of time the coaching will continue is usually pre-determined. Once the coachee learns the skill or achieves the level of competence desired (or moves on from that position), the coaching ends. Put another way, coaching is more transactional. Mentoring usually lasts longer than coaching.

In the workplace, a coachee’s supervisor (or manager) is generally directly involved. The supervisor often is involved in identifying the need for coaching and typically provides feedback to the coach on the coachee’s progress. In some workplaces, supervisors actually provide the coaching. In contrast, because a mentoring relationship is based on trust and openness, a manager should not act as a mentor for someone who reports to them. At most, a mentee’s manager may be told about a mentee’s goals and objectives regarding mentoring, but the mentor should not provide details to the mentee’s manager about the mentee’s progress.

Mentoring compared to training

Training focuses on teaching work-related skills or processes. Though training can be one-on-one, usually it is a group activity, with all participants learning the same thing.

Mentoring is intended to foster professional and personal growth of an individual (the mentee) that goes beyond learning a particular job or work-related task or skill.

Mentoring compared to role modelling

While mentors are role models, role modelling need not involve any direct contact or actual relationship. Missing from a simple role model-observer relationship is the interpersonal aspect that is central to the mentor/mentee relationship.

Mentoring compared to buddy system

A buddy system is basically teaming an experienced employee with a less experienced employee (typically a new employee or someone new to a particular function or group) to show the new person how things are done within the organization or group. A buddy relationship is short-term and is focused on familiarizing the new person with the organization’s processes and hierarchy – there’s no expectation of emotional engagement between the two. The only requirement for being a buddy is knowledge of how the organization runs. Mentoring is a longer term relationship with the goal of helping the mentee achieve personal and career development.

Mentoring compared to sponsorship

Sponsors are people who use their influence to advocate for, or promote, the person they’re sponsoring. (We’ll refer to the person being sponsored as the protégé.) For example, a sponsor may nominate their protégé for promotion, for a position, for an award, or even for a project they think the protégé will excel at. In other words, a sponsor may open doors for the protégé, but they are not focused on nurturing and advising the protégé.