What are the differences between a coaching culture and a mentoring one?

by | Mar 21, 2023

Darcy Luoma is one of America’s most highly credentialed coaches. She’s worked in 48 industries, with more than 500 organizations, and has impacted tens of thousands of leaders and employees.


Lots of companies assign new employees a mentor as part of their internal onboarding program. While mentoring is great, it’s not the same as coaching. Both are valuable, but for different reasons.

We find that all too often, coaching and mentoring are mistakenly used interchangeably in the workplace. So, here’s how to know whether your organization has a mentoring culture or a coaching one.

Who’s the expert?

In a pure mentoring program, the mentor is the expert. The conversations they have with the employee are all about the mentor sharing their experience – and giving advice. By contrast, a coach sees the employee as the expert in their life – even when they’re new to a situation – and focuses on asking questions.

So let’s imagine that Martin wants to convey to his new colleague Jessica that she should come to team meetings ready for vigorous debate. Here’s how he could approach that conversation:

  • Mentor approach: Spend 30 minutes telling Jessica all the lessons he learned the hard way  about preparing for meetings. Then give her advice on how she should do it.
  • Coach approach: Share what Jessica can expect from the meeting. Then get curious by asking what works best for her to prepare and exploring how she wants to move forward.

What’s the focus of the conversation?

Mentoring is an opportunity for the mentor to share their expertise, explain what they did in past situations, and tell the employee what they could do in similar situations. The conversation focuses on telling them what actions should be taken based on their knowledge and expertise.

By contrast, coaching looks to help the employee increase their awareness so they can choose what action is best for them. The coach creates the environment where it’s safe to discuss what they’re struggling with – without judgement and without jumping in to immediately fix it.

Here’s what those two different conversations about team meetings could look like:

  • Mentor approach: Martin tells Jessica how he struggled with the team meetings in the past and gives her advice on how to interact with the colleagues that’ll be there in order to avoid those same challenges.
  • Coach approach: Martin asks Jesscia about her experience so far in the team meetings. He provides her with the opportunity to process what’s not going well and explore ways to address those challenges.

What’s the long-term impact?

Mentoring can have positive short-term effects, but often doesn’t have the same lasting deeper benefits as coaching. And it seems that employees agree: research has consistently found that younger employees are looking for coaching from their organization, more so than mentoring.

Here’s what Jessica’s employer could expect after five years of each approach:

  • Mentor approach: Jessica checks in with Martin ahead of most team meetings. She trusts Martin more than she does her own judgment and thus goes to him regularly for advice. The conversations are transactional and Jessica comes to depend on Martin’s support. And Martin enjoys providing value and feeling needed!
  • Coach approach: Through coaching conversations with Martin, Jessica defines her own leadership style and recognizes where she thrives, as well as where she tends to fall into old habits. Jessica is able to self reflect thoughtfully ahead of team meetings. Conversations with Martin become less frequent and more transformational, as a place to explore new perspectives. And Martin enjoys helping Jessica increase her self awareness and confidence!

Developing a coaching culture

Do you want to create a coaching culture at your organization? It can be empowering for new employees to feel comfortable asking for what they need and feeling like they have more ownership over their work.

Here at Darcy Luoma Coaching & Consulting, we’ve designed numerous training programs for managers and leaders to explore how to build a more Thougthfully Fit culture by using coaching skills with their team. When you make an intentional choice to have more thoughtful conversations by taking a coach approach, you can have a huge impact on employee engagement, productivity and results. Who wouldn’t want that?!

If you’d like to find out more, schedule a call with us today!


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