Eureka! Mentoring, Coaching and Counseling explained

‘Ralph decided to get some coaching to help him deal with Anger Management issues around bathtime’

I’m often asked about the differences between mentoring, life coaching, executive coaching, and counseling. Without doubt, there’s quite a bit of confusion around these terms. So, here goes…

Portugal Trip: On a recent visit to Portugal, I travelled a couple of days in advance of the other lads to finalize a report for a client. But, there’s only so much time you can spend on the laptop. The sun was shining, I was feeling the ‘call of the wild’ and decided to notch up my golf game.

Golf Professional: The professional watched me take a couple of practice shots then changed how I held the club. When my buddies arrived and we played on the first day, I was caught between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ style, hopelessly confused. But, I decided to stick at it and eventually (over 3 days) began to hit some great shots, definitely a first. When you get a lesson from a professional – someone who has the baseline skills – that’s teaching. So one definition is that Mentoring, Life Coaching, Executive Coaching, and Counseling are not forms of teaching. They are meant to be forums for guidance, not a ‘do this, then do that’ exact sequence of steps.

What’s Mentoring? In the workplace, it can be useful to have someone senior as a career advisor and internal advocate (a Mentor is typically not the direct manager). Mentors are often respected managers — real people people — who enjoy spending time providing counsel to others. They meet on a programmed basis with their mentee (usually quarterly, but there’s no exact timeframe). It can be a great sounding board for ideas – provided –they don’t step over the line and begin to tell you ‘exactly’ what to do (i.e. slide backwards into teaching).
Life Coaching: Life coaching is the popular name given to people who help other people improve how they live. It’s been disparagingly described as ‘therapy without the qualifications’ and there’s some reason to be cautious. A couple of months ago, I ended up sitting beside a Life Coach conducting a live session in the lobby of the Maldron Hotel in Tallaght! (I kid you not). I’d arrived early for a meeting and could not help ‘listening in’ on the entire session (the research I do for this blog is phenomenal). In jig time this particular Coach had instructed his female client to change her job, become more positive about herself and to log onto an Internet dating site which he seemed quite familiar with. Not bad for 21 minutes!

Now, I’m sure there are many Life Coaches out there who are excellent at what they do. But you would hardly draw comfort from a pilot who had never formally learned to fly or a doctor who didn’t study medicine. Overall, it’s hard to damage someone by listening to them – but when it crosses the line and moves into giving specific advice in 7-minute time chunks, then you should be cautious. That particular Life Coaching session was about as useful as going to see Gypsy Rose Lee and having your fortune read. About the same level of bullshit, minus the excitement of the caravan and the crystal ball.

What is Executive Coaching? One cynic recently said that the difference between life coaching and executive coaching is €200 per hour! But there’s a bit more to it than that. It tends to be a timebound exercise – run over a couple of months (some executives keep the link in place for longer, but decrease the frequency). Executives often need someone to confide in. Someone who can offer a sounding board on difficult work challenges, a ‘safe space’ to rant about the organization or think about the future. In recent times, executive coaching has really taken off. There are always waves of ‘new things’ in consulting (Lean Manufacturing, Employee Engagement etc.) and executive coaching is quite current. At one point no one would admit to using a coach; now it’s a sort of status symbol, a ‘because I’m worth it’ statement. It’s expensive (circa €10K per executive), so a tool to be used sparingly. In my experience, the push for this often comes from the executives themselves as much as from the organization. Abraham Lincoln told us that: “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle”. Have a look at the video on our website ( which explains the coaching process and outlines the typical sequence of questions which we run through.

The rise and rise of executive coaching has occurred for 2 reasons. Firstly, traditional methods of management development, one-off educational events, often didn’t convert into longer-term behavioral change. Executives build up habits over time and need time to enhance or deconstruct these. Secondly, executive coaching follows a principle which psychologists call pinpointing. Many executives have studied at third level; some have more degrees than a thermometer. They don’t need a recap of In Search of Excellence principles (8), Porters Competitive Forces (5), or the central elements in Marketing (4). They need micro skilling – around how to manage a difficult Chairman or fire the Finance Director. For executives who’ve never received comprehensive feedback, coaching can help them understand their strengths and development needs (sometimes, it’s the first real feedback an executive has ever received).

Psychometric Testing: The core idea here is hardly new. Socrates suggested ‘know thyself’ and executive coaches employ a range of ‘tools’ to help with this. Two types predominate. The first are competency instruments. Many organizations develop a ‘picture’ of how successful executives operate in their domain, often grouped into themes e.g. Strategy Creation, Personal Leadership, Financial Literacy etc. Specific behaviours are outlined underneath each key heading. Example: It’s fairly easy to get a ‘read’ on how an executive stacks up against other successful managers in Microsoft because they use a competency model which was custom designed for that company. The second type of instrument is personality profiling. These provide an insight into your ‘style’ (whether you are predominantly directive versus democratic etc). In the hands of a skilled practitioner, these instruments can provide a very accurate diagnosis, a Polaroid snapshot of how you manage. But don’t get awed by the tools. Just because someone has a saw, doesn’t make him or her a carpenter. You need to select a coach with a strong track record (speak with former clients and companies they’ve worked with).

What is Counseling? My wife Linda is a psychotherapist. The first principle they follow is not to cause any damage (it doesn’t seem to work at home!). People in the counseling sphere tend to be much more circumspect with ‘advice’ and allow clients to figure out the issues themselves. The process is much less directive than coaching, but also much slower. Psychotherapy is based on the fundamental belief that ‘things that happen today’ can be traced back to ‘things that happened yesterday’. Understanding and changing patterns in thoughts, feelings and behaviours is the route to positive mental health. Psychotherapy and counseling are more often offered on a remedial basis, used by people who are struggling with some particular aspect of their lives e.g. eating disorders.

That’s my personal take on the distinctions between Mentoring, Life Coaching, Executive Coaching and Counseling. Chosen correctly and delivered in an authentic and professional manner, these approaches demonstrate that you care about employees’ mental health and professional progression. Q: If your organization was on trial for ‘caring’ about staff, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

Paul Mooney

PS Quote of the Week 1: “Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Quote of the Week 2: “Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens’.
Carl Gustav Jung

Quote of the Week 3: “If you lend someone €50 and never see that person again, it was probably worth it”    Anon

Know someone who’d benefit from reading this blog? Forward it on or ask them to contact and we will add them to the mailing list. If you’d like to have a discussion about management or organization development, give me a call on 087 2439019.


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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