Coaching or Mentoring for School Leaders? What’s the Difference?

Denise Barrows
June, 2024

Mentoring is generally well-established in schools, particularly for the benefit of new teachers and new headteachers. They are often paired with a more experienced colleague who can provide support, advice and guidance based on their own experience in the profession. But you may be less familiar with coaching, and unsure how this differs from a mentoring relationship. So, what are the added dimensions you can expect when working with a professional coach?

The International Coaching Federation defines coaching as ‘partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximise their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity and leadership.’1

It is this process of unlocking new thinking and potential, shifting mindsets and building leadership capability that a skilled professional leadership coach will enable. The process can often feel transformational, both personally and professionally, with the impact extending beyond the supportive and advisory role of a mentor.

Some other common differences between coaching and mentoring relationships:

  1. Goal-driven vs. experience-based guidance: Leadership coaching is typically driven by the goals you set for the process.Your coach, through expert questioning, helps you gain new insights, overcome obstacles, and build the new skills you need. In contrast, mentoring leans more on shared experiences, with your mentor offering advice drawn from their own personal experience.
  2. Structured vs. informal: Coaching sessions are often more structured, with defined outcomes and a set timeline, whereas mentoring relationships may evolve more organically over time, shaped by mutual interests and the mentee’s evolving needs.
  3. Skill development vs. wisdom sharing: Coaches will work with you to develop specific leadership skills – given your particular context and priorities – sharing leadership tools and strategies to widen your ‘leadership toolkit’. Whereas mentors will share wisdom and provide a sounding board, based on their own experiences and successes.

The nature of a successful coaching relationship is well captured in the words of a school leader we recently coached:

“My coach really listened, heard, reflected back, allowed silence, probed, and supported me effectively, such that I connected with some deeper underlying issues. She also affirmed, challenged, and made suggestions in such balanced and effective ways that I felt motivated to go on, take some of her suggestions, and make changes in my life”.

So, while mentoring certainly has its place, if you are looking to accelerate your growth as a leader or resolve a particularly tricky leadership challenge, we’d argue that working with a skilled professional leadership coach is the way to go.


Denise Barrows

Denise is the Director of BTS Spark UK, a not-for-profit initiative enabling school leaders to access world-class leadership coaching.