10 mins

Do you really know the difference between mentoring, coaching, and sponsoring?

April 13 – June 22, 2021 Event series
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As engineering leaders, we often find ourselves in situations where we are developing our peers. This can either be formally – e.g. as a manager or through a mentorship program – or informally – e.g. working with someone we see tremendous potential in and wanting to take part in their journey. I say journey because the destination might be exciting, but with the right approach, the process of getting there can be even more enjoyable. 

To get the most out of developing your peers, you should be employing a variety of approaches to help them grow. You want them to reach the solutions and goals that you might not have been able to achieve yourself.

What are the development approaches?

Go to any book, course, or publication and you’ll see a wide variety of approaches explained, but you’ll likely see the same themes over and over. From mentoring, coaching, and sponsoring, to some approaches within mentoring like teaching and buddying. These are all often used interchangeably and within the same session, meaning it’s difficult to tell the difference between these approaches. So let’s talk about them briefly.

  • Mentoring: sharing your experience so an engineer can leverage it themselves.
  • Coaching: asking the right questions to help an engineer reach a solution that works for them.
  • Sponsoring: giving stretch projects or opportunities to help an engineer grow.

As a manager, I was pretty confident that I had been using a heavy helping of all three, but I was naïve and many others like me have been, too. Harvard Business Review posted a study about this two years ago and it showed how managers often think that they’re coaching, but in reality they’re ‘micromanaging-as-coaching’. This is the exact pitfall that I fell into. The first time I realized that I didn’t know the difference was during a workshop led by Lara Hogan on mentorship, coaching, and sponsorship. That workshop lit up a whole new area of my brain! Later, I sat down to write what I would say if I was mentoring vs. sponsoring vs. coaching in a table (see next section) and I began to fully realize the differences between them.

How do the approaches vary across scenarios?

When I started to understand the differences between mentoring, coaching, and sponsoring, I fooled myself into thinking there was only one ideal approach per scenario. 

Let me save you some time right now, since I can never get back the hours I lost before I realized this: you can use any approach for a scenario. In fact, choosing which approach to apply should not even depend on the scenario. it should depend on factors of the situation: the timing, the connection, the relationship, and the state of mind of the person you’re working with.

To prove it to you, I present you with the table that helped me see the difference between the three approaches. Here’s what you might say as a mentor, coach, or sponsor in a few common scenarios. 

Mentee wants to...

Mentoring might sound like...

Coaching might sound like...

Sponsoring might sound like...

Submit a talk

A talk submission is more than just the title and abstract; it has to fit in with the theme of the conference and offer a fresh perspective. 


Here’s what I did last time I applied. 

A talk submission is more than just the title and abstract; it has to fit in with the theme of the conference and offer a fresh perspective. 

 


What could you do to improve your chances?

Why don’t I connect you with a CFP reviewer to review your talk proposal with you?


or


This submission looks great! I’ve recommended you to the organizers of this conference.

Get help from someone that you know

I’ve seen this person be slow when responding to cold messages. 


Here’s what I’ve written in the past when I wanted help from someone like this.

I’ve seen this person be slow when responding to cold messages. 


What can you say in your message to make this a successful partnership? What’s the plan?

I’d like to open a group DM between the three of us so I can introduce you to each other. What do you think?


then


This is what I’m going to say about you; how does it sound?

Apply for a job

Sometimes applying on the website isn’t enough to get you through the door.


Here’s the resume I used and the people I talked to in order to land my interview for a role like this.

Sometimes applying on the website isn’t enough to get you through the door.


What can you do to supplement your application and improve your chances of getting an interview?

I know the hiring manager there. Shall I  send a message to them to pull your application up?


or


I know someone at that company in the role you’re applying to. Would you like me to connect the two of you?

Get promoted

The promotion process begins way before the submission; your manager (and theirs) need to be aware and tracking your performance. 


So, the best way to get promoted is to ____. Here’s how I approached it when I was in your situation.

The promotion process begins way before the submission; your manager (and theirs) need to be aware and tracking your performance. 


What conversation do you want to have with your manager to kick this off? What do you want to do to keep track of progress?

Why don’t you request a review from me so I can share what I’ve seen you do?


I’m also going to send a note to your manager/skip-level manager with you cc-ed about what I’ve observed and my recommendation. I’ll tell them that they have permission to use my pull quotes directly. Would that be okay with you?

Begin a new role

You’re going to do great!


Here are some things I did to make myself successful. I think a few of these apply to your situation also. Here are my favorite books on the matter.

You’re going to do great!


Going into the role, what are you optimizing for? What is your plan for the first 90 days? What are you going to do to start on the right foot with your manager?

I know some of the people you’ll be working with! I just put in a good word for you with your new coworkers. Would you like any intros?


or 


I loved this book when I started a role that’s similar to yours; I’ve just sent it to you. And keep your eyes peeled for a package, too!

Make sure they’re doing well in their role

It’s about mid-way through the quarter and a good time to check in with your manager. 


Here’s a cool framework I’ve used where my manager and I have checked in on my performance across my role’s career matrix expectations. 

It’s about mid-way through the quarter and a good time to check-in with your manager. 


What do you think you’re doing well in and what do you think needs improvement? What can you do to cross-check this against your manager’s observations?

I’ve just scheduled a friendly check-in with your manager to see how they’re feeling about your progress and prompt them to share their observations with you. I’ll share my own, too. What would you like me to make sure I ask about?


I’m sending you a framework to help you prep for the conversation when they reach out to you.

Get better visibility

Often, visibility comes with you sharing your work or thoughts around it and then sharing it with the right people.


Here’s how I went about that myself – I’m going to send you a technical post I wrote a few years ago. This is who I sent it to, to improve its visibility.

Often, visibility comes with you sharing your work or thoughts around it and then sharing it with the right people.


Given your past few projects, what did you learn that could help someone like you six months ago? What do you think you should do with those insights to help others and get it in the right hands?

That was a great demo! I just recommended you to the All Hands committee to show this demo and talk about the work you’ve been doing. I’ve also sent a link to the demo directly to the VP and CTO! I’m going to make sure they credit you for it in an open channel.


Here’s some people I think you should send the link to yourself. Which names are you comfortable sending that link to?

 

Now that you can see the difference for yourself, the challenge is to figure out which approaches you’re most and least comfortable with and then get used to choosing approaches based on the situation. 

Sorting hat: What’s your natural approach?

Is it immediately obvious to you what development approach you’re most comfortable with and least comfortable with? If it’s not, here’s a quiz for you. 

Think about the last time someone asked you for advice. (If that’s too broad, think about the last time someone specifically talked to you about addressing conflict with another person.) 

If your answer sounded something like:

  • I encouraged them / I told them to / I shared… You might be most comfortable as a mentor.
  • I first asked them… You might be most comfortable as a coach.
  • I helped the situation behind the scenes… You might be most comfortable as a sponsor.

It’s very likely that you’ve used a blend of approaches to develop your peers and what’s important here is to get a feel for the ones you gravitate toward the most and the ones you gravitate toward the least. For me, personally, I used to gravitate toward mentoring the most and coaching the least. Now, after lots of conscious effort to coach, I’ve evened out overall, but I tend to choose the same approach for specific situations. I’m working on improving this. 

For astrology fans, I might say I’m a mentorship sun (the approach I default to), sponsorship moon (what motivates my approach), and coaching rising (how I put my approach into practice). What about you? (Tweet at me @nerdneha because I’m genuinely curious!)

Which approach should you choose?

Now that you have a better sense of what the different approaches are and where your natural tendencies are, it’s time to exercise and challenge yourself by changing up your approach and trying a blend of them within a session. Before you start, here are some tips I’ve gotten from others or have discovered myself. 

Give people a heads-up if you’re trying something new. When I tried to weave more coaching into my 1:1s, the first few people I met with immediately wanted to know why I was asking questions and whether they had done something wrong. It was suspicious to them. I had to quickly minimize the damage by explaining that I was trying to grow as a manager and trying a new development approach; crisis averted. I then took a more delicate approach and wove in only one or two questions until we both got more comfortable with it. My favorite was a simple, ‘What do you think?’ Announcing my intentions and going slowly worked. As you might expect, for new reports who hadn’t met me before, they were much quicker to accept the blend in my approach, because I had chosen it before starting.

You can always sponsor. Because mentorship and coaching are more real-time approaches, it means that there’s always an opportunity to sponsor someone when you have the connections, influence, and time. More recently, this means that at the end of a meeting or 1:1, I ask myself, ‘What can I do to support them now that the meeting is over?’ and ensure I reserve time afterward to assess how I can exercise my sponsorship approach. In my opinion, this is the biggest missed opportunity in leadership.

Adapt as you go. I often find that as I’m getting into a big conversation with someone I’m mentoring, I’m monitoring three things: the time remaining, the connection between us in the moment, and their energy and familiarity with the situation. In cases where these are favorable, and there is trust between us, I almost always start with coaching. If any of them drop or if I’m mostly communicating async, I might err toward a mentorship approach or change the conditions to enable more coaching, like asking for more time. I do this because I have seen that through coaching, the person often reveals a solution that is better than anything I’ve ever come up with. It’s also the moments where they are the most engaged, too. It’s the coaching moments where I’ve learned the most about a person, from a person, and reached a better solution.

Coaching questions make for great homework. I got this one from Lara Hogan. I am notorious for ending talks and 1:1s with homework for the other person, but Lara Hogan was the first person that clued me into the power of asking coaching questions at the end of a meeting! I’m quite fond of receiving thought-provoking questions, so I try to leave one at the end of a good 1:1 as homework. I let the person know that the question is more for them than me, but that I’d still love to hear their answer async or in the next meeting. I always hope they follow up with their response. To be honest, I think I’ve fallen out of practice on this one, so writing this is a great reminder for me to bring this back! 

Mentees: Guiding your mentor

Almost every mentor is also a mentee, so let’s flip the table for a minute. In the last meeting you had with your mentor, what was the approach that you received, and what was the approach you preferred? Now that you know the difference and have plenty of examples to talk through, you can tell your mentor what you might want more or less of. 

I’ve personally found that asking for what I want has traditionally been very difficult for me and I make the most progress advocating for my needs by pointing to a ‘third party’ framework or set of information to facilitate the conversation. If you relate to this sentiment, you’re more than welcome to use this table! My recommendation is to append to the table with a few past scenarios with your mentor, write down the pull quotes from the approach you received, and proceed to fill out the rest of the table. That way it’s very easy to point out what you’ve received versus what you’re looking for with a combination of generic and tailored examples.

My challenge for you

Following my own advice, this post wouldn’t be complete without a coaching question and challenge for you. 

Question: What can you do to increase the frequency of using your least-comfortable approach in your 1:1s by 10%?

Challenge: Practice your least-comfortable approach with a friend you trust and then sprinkle it into one of your meetings next week (giving them a heads up, first). Record what changed and share, if you’re willing!

If you’re like me, then you’ll find that this challenge is not easy at all, but it is at least a little fun. That’s because this gets you out of your comfort zone in exchange for personal growth. The potential to help someone grow increases as you invest in yourself and push yourself to grow.  You’ll be surprised at how much you can get out of a mentoring relationship by switching it up and being conscientious in your approach with mentees. I hope you take this challenge to enrich your relationships and enjoy the journey even more. Good luck!