Intended for healthcare professionals


Mentoring and coaching: what’s the difference?

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: (Published 14 July 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c3518
  1. David Macafee, specialist registrar in general surgery1,
  2. Bob Garvey, professor2
  1. 1Northern Deanery
  2. 2Centre for Individual and Organisational Development, Sheffield Hallam University
  1. Correspondence to: D Macafee dmacafee{at}


David Macafee and Bob Garvey look at the similarities and differences between mentoring and coaching

Mentoring and coaching are being used increasingly across a variety of sectors and countries, but there is still much debate over what the terms mean.

The concept of mentoring began with the writings of Homer’s Odysseus (written about 1200 BC), when “the mentor” (Athene in disguise) accompanied Telemachus in his search for news of his father. The text highlights a number of similarities between coaching and mentoring:

  • The mentor/coach assesses and helps develop the individual’s potential

  • The relationship has a clear sense of purpose and direction

  • Trust is present at all times

  • Challenge and support is provided

  • The mentor/coach enables the individual to make his or her own decisions by fostering and encouraging independence.


Connor and colleagues suggest that mentors provide a safe place for reflection; listen and support; explore strengths and blind spots; enable self challenge; generate insight; and focus on goals.1 Essentially, mentoring focuses on the individual as a whole. The mentor is a facilitator without an agenda, and although improvement in performance may be one outcome, the focus is more holistic and includes personal growth and learning. The mentor is traditionally older and more experienced; therefore, within medicine he or she would usually be a consultant or senior trainee.

Ideally the mentor should be independent from the mentee’s assessment and routine work, although successful mentoring relationships have been achieved by a mentees’ immediate seniors. Some definitions suggest that the mentor offers advice, but modern mentoring models emphasise the importance of the mentor as a facilitator, supporting the mentee through change and discussing options that the mentee has identified. So a mentee decides, with their mentor’s help, what his or her options are, makes a decision right for them, and goes through the period of change with ongoing support from the mentor.


Coaching, with its origins in sport, frequently has a performance focus and a specific agenda and is, therefore, often task oriented within the workplace. It is also linked increasingly to leadership development, transition, and change, and focuses on the future. Some definitions suggest that the coach need not be a specialist in the field but should be skilled in questioning and listening to enable the individual to find answers themselves. The blockages that restrict people from fulfilling their potential are often caused by long held assumptions or beliefs which may appear at different stages of their lives. Without tackling these issues, the desired outcome or an individual’s full potential may not be realised. Performance improvement, therefore, is not just about superficial or short term outcomes; it may involve exciting and challenging changes in process, beliefs, and attitudes of the mentee.

What’s the difference?

The differences between mentoring and coaching are more apparent because of commercial pressure rather than underlying beliefs and concepts. Modern “coaching” is a huge business (£72m in 2006), with few modes and many brands (box 1).2 Mentoring has many modes but currently only one brand (box 2).2 Megginson and Clutterbuck also suggest differences in terms of focus3: who provides the support; who sets the agenda; the duration of the “relationship”; and the deeper issues of reflection, intuition, and behaviour (see table).

Box 1: Coaching—what’s on offer

  • Sports coaching

  • Team coaching

  • Evidence based coaching

  • Expert coaching

  • Life coaching

  • Executive coaching

  • Team coaching

  • Brief/solution focused coaching

  • Coactive coaching

  • Leadership coaching

  • Existential coaching

  • Ontological coaching

  • Cognitive behaviour coaching

  • Neurolinguistic programming coaching

  • Transpersonal coaching

  • Intercultural coaching

  • Integral coaching

Box 2: Mentoring—what’s on offer

  • Diversity mentoring

  • Traditional dyadic mentoring

  • Peer mentoring

  • Co-mentoring

  • E-mentoring

  • Mentoring in education

  • Voluntary sector mentoring

  • Executive mentoring


In terms of personal development, both coaching and mentoring are “helping activities,” but they have different origins, outcomes, and ideals. Coaching is an important growth area, particularly in business, and it seems to be becoming increasingly commercialised and branded. Mentoring exists in many public sectors but has yet to become commercialised. Within medicine, mentoring is now recommended as part of the foundation training programme in addition to educational supervision, but it is not widely adopted.

Coaching and mentoring require trust, empathy, and encouragement. Both offer support and endeavour to remove the fear of failure, encourage a sense of inner personal strength, and draw positives from negative experiences. The mentor or coach also endeavours to be an inspirational role model.4 So despite their different focuses, timescales, and brandings, both coaching and mentoring can be of great support to individuals throughout their career.


  • Competing interests: BG has given talks on coaching and mentoring where he has been reimbursed for time and travel.