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Executive Coach or Mentor – What is the Difference?

“Executive Coach” and “Mentor” are two words that are often interchanged, and while both are important in an individual’s professional growth and development, they are very different roles.

Executive Coaching is defined as “a helping relationship formed between a client who has managerial responsibility in an organization and a coach who uses a wide variety of behavioral techniques and methods to help the client achieve a mutually identified set of goals to improve their performance.”


Mentorship is defined as “a protected relationship in which a more knowledgeable or experienced person guides and nurtures the professional development or growth of another, outside the normal manager/subordinate line management.”

Executive Coaching

Executive coaching starts from the position of nondirective asking, as opposed to telling, using inquiry-based conversations with an intent to enhance self-awareness and co-create new pathways to resolve issues. It is not necessary for the coach to understand the nuances of a specific industry or business, nor the specific role of their client, as coaching focuses on individual supported self-learning. A coach is in service to their client by posing challenging and often uncomfortable questions, not to have all the answers.


In her book Executive Coaching With Backbone and Heart” (2007), Mary Beth O’Neill defines three key factors that are at play in a business context:


  1. business imperative that needs to be addressed / achieved. This could be financial (increase revenue / decrease expenses), time management, or productivity.
  2. The leader’s interpersonal behaviors within their team that impacts the business imperative.
  3. The team dynamics that may be detrimental to achieving the business imperative.


It is the coach’s responsibility at the outset of a coaching engagement to help the client identify these factors and their interdependencies so they can focus on appropriate goals and metrics to pursue. Through a coaching engagement, new thinking can emerge that transforms ineffective behavioural patterns to achieve the business goal. However, it is important to remember that an Executive Coach coaches the whole person and not simply the “employee”. Factors such as the coachee’s values, ethics, attitudes, personal relationships, and maturity all impact the coaching relationship.

(Don’t miss this post next on how to build powerful relationships in business and life) 


Mentoring, on the other hand, starts from a position of knowing. It is very directive and focuses on telling as opposed to asking, by offering guidance and advice based on years of experience in the industry and similar role. Mentors share experiences and offer should-do’s as opposed to asking questions. Often mentors and mentees are “matched” at the request of the mentee based on their industry experience or the type of qualification a mentee is seeking.  Many organizations adopt a formal mentorship program for employees under such categories as career development, high potential mentoring, or even diversity mentoring. It is important to remember that, in most cases, mentoring is an advisory and shared experience role.

Self-discovery Leads to Real Change

The main message I want to convey is that an Executive Coach is not constrained to coaching based on their background or experience as is expected in a mentoring relationship. As Executive Coaches, we state clearly at the outset of any engagement that our role is to enhance self-discovery so that clients can achieve transformations that are sustainable and long term. By helping our clients discover new ways of thinking for themselves, without the need for industry knowledge, real change can take place.

At X5 Management we have a team of skilled coaches ready to work with you and your leadership team.

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