What is the difference between coaching, mentoring and training?

The terms coaching, mentoring and training are used in sometimes confusing and overlapping ways. The terms differ in the corporate world from how they are used in other industries such as sport. In this post, I'll provide an explanation of these terms and a description of how they are used in a business context. Given the ways in which the use of each term can vary, I don't hold these up as definitive explanations. I only hope that they can provide some useful distinctions. I also outline why our solutions-focused approach to coaching is different than other approaches.


The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching as:

"... partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximise their personal and professional potential"

This is a broad definition and could include mentoring and training as described below.

In general, a coach uses a coaching framework to guide someone to find their own solutions rather than providing them with solutions. Coaching helps the client think in new ways, see their situation from a different angle and identify what existing resources, strengths and skills they can use to shift their situation in a direction they want to go. Coaching is a partnership, or even leading from behind, to assist the client to achieve their desired outcome.

Coaching differs from mentoring where a mentor has related experience and expertise to share. See more detail in the last section below.

How is Solutions-focused Coaching Different?

Solutions-focused (SF) coaching is a goal-directed collaborative approach to change that is conducted through a series of precisely constructed questions. SF Coaching doesn't use diagnosis or complex mental models to figure out what the problem is before it can be addressed. Instead, SF Coaching focuses on what the client wants to achieve and how to move towards it using their existing resources, strengths and skills. SF Coaching usually only requires a one or a few sessions, as many as the client feels is useful, rather than a fixed number of contracted sessions.

Different types of Coaches

An Executive Coach is specifically focused at senior management level where there is an expectation for the coach to feel as comfortable exploring business-related topics, as well as personal development topics, with the client in order to improve their personal performance.

An Organisational Coach focuses on supporting an employee, either as an individual, as part of a team and/or organisation to achieve improved business performance and operational effectiveness.

While the above forms of coaching are clearly defined, an Agile Coach is a lot more nebulous. An Agile Coach uses a combination of coaching, mentoring and training. The purpose of an Agile Coach varies from guiding an individual team to do Agile development well, to guiding an Agile Transformation for an entire organisation usually working in a team with other Agile Coaches. It's no wonder this term creates such confusion.

Broadly, and Agile Coach is someone who:

  • Appreciates the depth of Agile values, principles and practices

  • Supports a team to understand, appreciate and implement Agile values, principles and practices in a given context

  • Helps management, at all levels of the organisation, to understand the benefits of working in Agile ways

  • Helps managers and other organisational roles to adopt Agile values and principles

  • Brings ideas from professional facilitation, professional coaching, conflict management, mediation and other realms of expertise to help an Agile team become high performing.

An Agile Coach needs to understand the values, principles and process of Agile ways of working and be able to pass on this information with sometimes, one on one or team conversations, and sometimes more traditional training sessions.

The Agile Coach needs to work not only with a given team but also the wider organisational ecosystem to remove blockers that restrict the speed at which the team can adapt and respond as needed. This takes their skills into the field of Change Management.

The Agile Coach would ideally also have deep technical skills and be able to teach agile programming practices such as Test Driven Design, however it is rare to find someone who has this full range of skills so the context for a given Agile Coaching role needs to be clearly defined.

Training - the Development of Competency

Training is usually about teaching people specific knowledge, information and skills and helping them develop competency with these. The teaching part is usually a classroom type training for the initial education. Unfortunately, most organisation stop there.

The development of competency requires supervision and mentoring over time after the initial teaching event. Effective training is a process not an event. Is it really a realistic assumption that someone can attend a two-day training course and walk out of there immediately competent? No matter how good the trainer is, this would be a pretty special accomplishment.

The best that an isolated training event can do is lay the foundation for improved capability. It is managers and supervisors who must assist the learner in developing competency on the job after a training event. The competency development process includes four stages.


Mentoring is usually a semi-formal ongoing relationship. The Mentor has experience to guide and share with the Mentee provides support and encouragement. For example, a Mentor might help a recent graduate with advice about how to progress their career and provide access to their professional network. The Mentor is expected to have experience to pass on in a given field or a closely related field.


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