Administration and Leadership, EMS Insider

Mentoring vs. Coaching: The Differences & the Impacts on EMS leadership

For at least the last 30 years, EMS professionals across the country have discussed a changing workforce, and with a changing workforce comes a change in leadership. Both changes, however, pose areas of concern for EMS systems.

Starting in 1988, with a JEMS cover that read, “Vanishing Volunteers, Going … going … gone?,” to recent academic discussions that identify a generationally diverse workforce, EMS as a whole isn’t prepared for a transition to new leadership.

With younger EMS professionals seeking to advance their careers by entering in to leadership positions, current leaders must prepare them to take the reins. The question is, do we “coach” these prospective leaders or “mentor” them? What is the difference between coaching and mentoring, anyway?

Understanding the Workforce

The current workforce is generationally diverse, with four active generational groups in the United States workforce: Traditionalist, Baby Boomer, Generation X, and Millennials.1 Although some discussion welcomes the fifth generation of iGen (aka “Generation Z”.) The Traditionalist and iGen groups make up a very small percentage of the working population.

EMS agency leaders, much like other corporations, are seeing an exodus of those older generations, or what can be described as “the founders of EMS.” With this exodus of experienced leaders, many of whom learned their role through on-the-job training and trial and error, there’s a departure in knowledge as well. Thus, EMS agency leaders must prepare their replacements for future advancement into these key leadership roles.

Each of the generations have differing core values. To prepare the future leaders within the system, one must also understand how these employees of varying generational groups fit into a development model. The traditionalist generation for example tends to be hard working with a respect for authority and structure and have limited technology dependencies. Whereas, the Generation X group values diversity, technology literacy, and informality in structure. These various values impact how they connect with other generations and must be considered when deciding on coaching or mentoring.

Coaching vs. Mentoring

Throughout various literature reviews, there are clear differences and similarities between coaching and mentoring, but which one is the right process for developing a leader?

First, it’s important to know what these differences and similarities area, although some note that both processes utilize the same or similar skills and approaches but for different periods of time.2

First, let’s explore coaching. In a coaching relationship, there’s typically the establishment of a timeline or duration. During the coaching process there’s a structure of meetings and tasks that focus on specific development areas. This agenda is established by the coach, and creates benchmarks and goals for the subject to achieve.

Yet, for the purposes of coaching, the coach doesn’t need to have direct experience in the occupation unless it ties to a specific skill vs. a theoretical concept.

This might seem confusing at first, but consider sports like baseball and hockey; there’s a head coach and then subject-specific coaches. This could be as simple as a pitching coach, or a goalie coach to focus on very specific skills, while the main coach looks at bettering the team at the highest level of operation. Throughout the coaching process the goal and agenda align with achieving specific and immediate goals.

Contrast that with mentoring, which doesn’t involve a timeline for completion. In a mentoring relationship, the person being mentored (i.e., the mentee) establishes the agenda to align with their professional development. Yet, this doesn’t mean a formal meeting structure. In this type of relationship, the mentee can seek advice, guidance and support whenever they need it. The mentor, unlike a coach, has experience and is more qualified than the mentee.

The simplest thing to remember the difference by is that a coach has some great questions that must be answered, while a mentor has great answers to questions. Thus, the question must be asked, does the agency need to coach or mentor?

When to Use Coaching or Mentoring

The determination of which course of action to use is up to the agency and its goals for the future.

  • Coaching should be used to develop specific competencies, improve work outcomes, or introducing a new skill or system.
  • Mentoring should be used to develop succession planning, remove barriers that hinder success, or to retain internal expertise that may be lost with the previous generations retirement.

Parting Thoughts

With a dynamic and diverse workforce, and an everchanging EMS culture, it’s important to develop future leaders for EMS systems. Although the concept of coaching may apply to certain skills development, mentoring is designed to create a leader for succession planning.

Within your agency, however, both techniques may be necessary. Regardless of whether you use only one or a combination of both techniques, you must allow for personal and professional growth to ensure success.


1. Al-Asfour A, Lettau L. Strategies for leadership styles for multi-generational workforce. Journal of Leadership, Accountability & Ethics. 2014;11(2):58-69.

2. Brefi Group. (n.d.) Coaching and mentoring – The difference. Retrieved July 17, 2018, from