According to the Robert Walters 2013 Employee Insights Survey 83% of nearly 10,000 survey respondents said they would benefit from mentoring, but only 29% work for companies that offer any mentoring programs. Coaching fares somewhat better, with nearly half of all companies making use of coaching, although typically only for midlevel and senior staff. Only 38% of companies make coaching available to anyone. This begs the question of which one is more important – coaching or mentoring? An even more basic question that many have is what’s the difference between coaching and mentoring to begin with?

Coaching vs. Mentoring: Which One is More Important?Task-Oriented vs. Relationship-Oriented

Coaching tends to be focused on a particular skill or set of skills in which a person needs improvement, such as delegating work, making presentations, strategic thinking, and so on. In those cases, you would look for a coach who has content expertise in those areas. Mentoring, on the other hand, is more focused on the mentor-mentee relationship and the value that the ongoing relationship brings to the mentee’s career and life in a bigger-picture way.

Short-Term vs. Long-Term

When you need help developing a particular skill or set of skills through coaching, the relationship ends when you’ve achieved the level of master you were seeking. This could happen in just a few sessions over a relatively short period of time. With mentoring, the big-picture focus on broad directions and themes in career and life require the relationship to be long-term from the beginning, typically at least a year, but often lasting for many years.

Performance-Driven vs. Development-Driven

You engage in coaching because you need to specifically boost your performance by improving your mastery of one or more skills. A mentor helps you take a longer-range future orientation about where you’re headed in your career and the kinds of relationships you need to nurture in order to get there.

Specific Design vs. Organic Agenda

With coaching, you find a person who knows how to teach the skill(s) you want to enhance or learn, and it may even just come as part of the job or be assigned based on your manager’s assessment of your skills. The coach has developed a specific way to teach the skill(s) in an accelerated one-on-one format. Mentoring involves a much more organic agenda that emerges and probably changes over time. It’s more about developing self-knowledge and awareness of where things are going in the bigger picture. A mentor may be internal, but is more often from outside the organization, and your manager usually isn’t involved in it at all.

A mentoring relationship is usually going to be a pairing between two people where the mentor is a more senior, skilled and experienced person from the same field of work and the mentee is newer or just reaching a mid-level point in their career because the relationship is about long-term personal and career development. A coach doesn’t usually need any specific experience or knowledge of your field of work because it’s more about teaching you a specific skill that you need to learn or enhance.

It should now be clear that coaching and mentoring are very different. They each have a valuable role to play in organizations, which means trying to figure out which one is more important is asking the wrong question – you need both. And fear not, the return on investment justifies the cost of engaging in such programs. Sun Microsystems has developed very robust mentoring programs over the last 20 years, and estimates the ROI to be more than 1,000%. Meanwhile, a PriceWaterhouseCoopers study found a mean ROI from coaching of 7 times the initial investment, with many clients reporting ROIs of 10 to 49 times the cost.

When it comes to coaching vs. mentoring, it’s not an either/or choice between the two. Instead, organizations would do well to take a both/and approach, leveraging both coaching and mentoring for greater organizational success.