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The difference between Mentoring, Coaching and Counselling: Mentoring [2/6]

Posted on 15 October 2021

Where does a boundary need to begin between them for Practitioners? [Blog two of six]

Authored by Mark West

What is Mentoring?

A literature review

The modern world has accelerated the pace and compression of interactions and information sharing between people around the world (Cohen and Kennedy, 2000), making a universal definition within a proposed theoretical vacuum difficult. Ideas, concepts and methods quickly transfer and ‘bend’ between cultural boundaries; perhaps this is most prevalent between the UK and USA – English being their first language. Megginson points out that, ‘the experience of the mentoring process [is different] in different countries/cultures’ (2000: 258).

Megginson (2000) focuses his concept of mentoring on the differences between five western countries, however, they must all have things in common in order to be compared. There will undoubtedly be influences beyond the USA and UK on the concept of mentoring, although this literature review comes predominately from these two countries.

Poulsen (2006) compares the views on mentoring of the USA with the UK:

US mentoring and research into mentoring is still very much focused on the mentor seen as a career sponsor, advisor and door opener – the expert. In the UK there is a clearer focus on the mentor’s role as a guide, counsellor and coach.(p.253)

Poulsen (2006) alludes to a description of the mentor from the UK’s viewpoint on ‘role,’ using the terms ‘guide, counsellor and coach.’ This is quite apt for this blog series, which seeks to identify the boundary between these very terms.

Poulsen (2006) goes on to breakdown mentoring into different approaches, amalgamating the cultural perceptions of the UK and USA, identifying a three-part continuum: ‘Sage on the Stage,’ ‘Guide on Side’ and ‘Learning Alliance’ in respective order. A very simplified summary can be found in the table below:

Different approaches to mentoring (Poulsen, 2006):

Poulsen (2006) focuses on the purpose and content of mentoring without specifically defining how this is done ‘in the moment’, or what effective mentoring might look like. This description sits at a more purpose-based level, however Poulsen (2006) does provide useful building blocks by alluding to how central the mentor is in directing the mentee at each stage.

Within Sage on the Stage there is an expert who uses a high level of instruction and direction. This level of direction and instruction moves away from the ‘mentor knows best’ in the Guide on the Side approach, where the emphasis is on the mentor ‘supporting the mentee’. At the Learning Alliance stage, it is interesting that Poulsen (2006) introduces the words ‘coach’ and ‘counsellor’. It appears there is a hybrid of mentoring, coaching and counselling emerging at this level. It is at this level that there is an appreciation of the skill of ‘questioning’. However, the need for an ‘expert’ exists throughout Poulsen’s (2006) models of mentoring.

Rather than attempting to arrive at a single definition, a spectrum is suggested by Poulson (2006). Based on Poulson’s (2006) work, this concept of a spectrum is explored hereafter and is summarised in a table below.

Table 1: Starting spectrum for mentoring:

The emerging, coherent components within the spectrum of mentoring appear to rest around the amount of direction that is given by an expert. The theme of ‘expert’ appears to run throughout mentoring literature but is described in different in ways. For example, Johnson et al (1999) and Kram (1985) use the terms ‘senior colleagues’ mentoring ‘junior colleagues’ whereas Scandura (1996) uses the term ‘protégé’. The term ‘expert’ could be considered to mean ‘more experience’ in the field, sector or industry within which the mentee is working or learning. This idea of an expert within mentoring is repeated by authors such as Gay (1994) and Levinson et al (1978).

It would seem there is an underpinning theory bound up within the term mentoring. To get the best results, someone who knows best should instruct and give the ‘known direction’. This would suggest an epistemological assumption that the acquisition of ‘expert knowledge’ is acquired through experience, making that expert best placed to ‘transmit’ this to the ‘novice’. This idea also has an implicit, subtle connotation that a recipient lacks experience, some sort of skill, or has a ‘gap’ that needs ‘filling’ by an expert. Whilst researchers have looked at how best this transmission might take place, it is proposed that these different instructional approaches all sit within the spectrum of mentoring, due to the theoretical and philosophical back drop.

The following table outlines the above key points. This table introduces an emerging model of mentoring and coaching, which is expanded and developed throughout later blogs.

Table 2: Emerging model of mentoring

The line between the key points has been deliberately removed to highlight that they are part of a spectrum. The next blog explores how coaching might fit into this table…


Cohen, R. and Kennedy, P. (2000) Global Sociology. London: MacMillan Press Ltd.

Gay, B. (1994) What Is Mentoring?  Education and Training,Vol. 36, Issue 5, pp. 4 – 7.

Johnson, K., Geroy, G. and Griego, O. (1999) The mentoring model theory: dimensions in mentoring protocols. Career Development International, Vol. 4, Issue 7, pp. 384 – 391.

Kram, K.E. (1985), Mentoring at Work. Developmental Relationships in Organizational Life, Scott, Foresman and Company, London

Levinson, D.J., Darrow, C., Klein, E., Levinson, M. and McKee, B., The Seasons of a Man’s Life, Ballantine, 1978. 2. Murray, M. and Owen, M.A., Beyond the Myths and Magic of Mentoring, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA, 1991.

Megginson, D. (2000) Current issues in mentoring. Career Development International. Vol. 5, Issue 4, pp. 256 – 260.

Poulsen, K. (2006) Implementing successful mentoring programs: career definition vs mentoring approach. Industrial and Commercial Training, Vol. 38, Issue 5, pp. 251 – 258.

Scandura, T., Tejeda, M., Werther, W. and Lankau, M. (1996) Perspectives on mentoring. Leadership & Organization Development Journal. Vol. 17, Issue 3, pp. 50 – 56.