Training, coaching or mentoring; what’s the difference?

Don’t get me wrong – I am not an arbiter of language campaigning for lexical purity. Let’s get that out of the way right from the start. It is only to be expected that the words we use to convey meaning will evolve and change over time.

But, I do get ever so slightly annoyed when words are used to merely create the illusion of agreement; when differences of opinion are swept aside as “just semantics”; or when the misuse of words becomes abuse.

So, when people keep telling me that the difference between coaching and mentoring is merely a matter of semantics… well… I am afraid I beg to differ. Whilst coaching and mentoring are two words that have almost become synonymous with one another, they mean very different things.

Gold man scratching headWhy should this vex me so? Let me explain.

Optima Training provides management services to Pera, and in so doing has been involved in delivering certain aspects of the GrowthAccelerator coaching for growth programme. It is intended to offer both coaching and training to small and medium enterprises (SMEs). However, managers signed up to the programme often want “specialists with direct industry expertise” that is relevant to the business that receives the coaching. This makes the task of sourcing a suitable coach more difficult, but it is also unnecessary as what they actually want is a mentor.

A mentor is an advisor. They have sufficient relevant experience so that they can be accepted as a trusted source of “expert” counsel. The main characteristic of a mentor is that they spend a lot of time talking; sharing knowledge to pass on what they have learnt.

A coach is an enabler. They use established techniques to unlock the potential of others by enabling people to find their own solutions. The main characteristic of a coach is that they spend a lot of time asking both open and reflective questions; eliciting knowledge from the responder to enable them to reach conclusions and solutions more quickly.

Whilst these two approaches can be combined, it is important to remember that innovation coaching can derive greater value from the coach not sharing the same industry background as the recipient. Rather than being blinkered by “accepted practices”, the coach is free to challenge patterns of behaviour and established assumptions to help stimulate creative thinking.

Coaching uses processes (such as GROW) to guide the recipient to a goal, and is most effective when delivered to individuals or a small team. But to say that coaching is more focused than training is wrong, unless we are talking about bad training of course.

Optima delivers focused training tailored to the specific needs of the client organisation, which is sufficiently flexible to change in relation to the needs of the participants. It is very much aimed at the interactive end of the training spectrum, which makes each course unique.

Good training is goal oriented and customised. Of course, any good training solution will be capable of being redelivered to other groups, as long as it is modified to participant needs, but there is a diminishing value return when used with the same group. This is because training is intended to instil, develop or improve a particular skill set. In this regard, coaching is a longer term value proposition as the process can be assigned to the same recipient in response to evolving challenges and new goals. That said, a coaching engagement needs to bring to the recipient to their goal relatively quickly in order for them to feel that they have received sufficient value from the involvement of the coach. Only then will they feel comfortable continuing the journey to the next goal.

A successful coaching engagement will often end with the statement “I knew that already but you helped give me the focus that I needed”. This is not the same as the consultant that borrows your watch to tell you the time; the coach has created value by guiding the recipient to their goal more effectively.

As we have mentioned them. Consultants are not just people that are grateful to bankers for becoming the butt of many modern business jokes. A consultant is an expert that provides advice and guidance professionally.

Gold man with thumb raisedI see a clear distinction in that a coach engages with the recipient whereas the consultant intervenes; an activity that involves a more “hands-on” and “doing for” approach. The role of the consultant can include mentoring and training, as well as coaching duties, but it is important to be clear when switching between these activities.

Having attended some coaching sessions last year that actually turned out to be low level consulting, I was rather disillusioned. To make matters worse, the consultant did not really seem to understand my business, and I quickly lost interest. I was left with the nagging feeling that I had wasted my investment of time.

That is why the distinctions between consulting, training, coaching and mentoring are important to me – Optima Training deliver all four and we want you to know what we mean by each.

So if I am guilty of “just getting bogged down in semantics”, then let language be our weapons in a fruitful conflict. I love a good argument.

Key terms

Mentoring – providing advice and sharing experience and with others
Consulting –providing expert advice and guidance professionally
Training – developing or improving skills and knowledge
Coaching – utilising questioning techniques to guide others to their own conclusions.