Mentoring, Coaching, Sponsorship: Is There a Difference?

I’ve been fortunate to have several mentors and coaches who helped make me a better leader throughout my career. I never forgot those people who gave up their time to answer various questions or gave me sensible and positive career advice or who didn’t hesitate to inform me I was mistaken and offered a better way of handling situations.

When I was able, I returned the favor and passed on my hard-earned knowledge and experience to those seeking help in their careers. Something is gratifying in mentoring or coaching individuals with potential and seeing them develop their skills and careers.

As I look back on those who helped me advance my career, I pondered the definitions of mentoring versus coaching versus sponsorship. Many use mentoring and coaching interchangeably – yet they have two distinct uses, and support is even more unique.

Coaching versus Mentoring versus Sponsorship

  • Coaching deals with performance. It is functional and results-oriented. A coach guides your development, often focused on soft skills (e.g., dealing with conflict, influencing others) rather than technical skills (e.g., financial acumen). Who drives the relationship? Both parties are responsible for driving the relationship. Either can reach out to receive or offer help. Coaching can be as simple as how to handle a critical conversation with staff.
  • Mentoring is broader in scope and purpose than coaching, based on a deeper, more meaningful relationship. It is relational in nature and career-oriented. The quality of the mentoring relationship and the factors that determine quality – trust, mutual respect, and mutual learning – are critical to the mentoring process. Who drives the relationship? The mentee drives the relationship. The mentor is reactive and responsive to the needs of the mentee. In many cases, the mentee seeks out someone they know and respect and asks them to help them.
  • Sponsorship is typically a senior leader who uses strong influence to help you obtain high-visibility assignments, promotions, or jobs. Sponsors publicly endorse your qualifications and take risks on your behalf. It is mentoring at the highest level. Who drives the relationship? The sponsor goes into the relationship, advocating for you in many settings, including behind closed doors. In most cases, the sponsor is the one who seeks out someone to sponsor.

Mentoring is essential for career advancement. Mentoring covers more wide-ranging career issues than coaching because it deals with the mentees’ overall professional development and improvement, not simple performance goals. Although mentor and mentee might spend time improving performance, the relationship usually expands to more significant and longer-term personal and professional career issues. Mentors often employ coaching as one of their tools, along with confidence building, role modeling, counseling, and support.

What makes a good Mentor?

A good mentor has a desire to help others. They want others to succeed and succeed well. A great mentor knows mentoring is a solid retention tool that will benefit everyone.

The following primary tool for a mentor is the ability to communicate clearly and concisely. They need to share the lessons they’ve learned or the strategies or guidance they are offering in a way that makes sense and that the mentee can easily understand and learn.

The flip side of communication is listening. Listen actively and be careful to process everything the mentee is saying. Watch body language, maintain eye contact, and understand which topics are complex for the mentee to discuss. Be willing to listen with an open mind.

Provide feedback that accurately and objectively summarizes what you’ve heard and interprets things in a way that adds value for the mentee. Use feedback to show that you understand what the mentee’s thinking approach has been.

Finally, be honest. Don’t hesitate to have those critical conversations with your mentee. If you’re not genuine, a mentoring meeting will be a waste of time for everyone. Dispense with formalities and help facilitate an open, give and take dialogue. Be willing to debate and discuss discreetly. Provide honest, helpful guidance while ensuring that your mentee takes the reins and makes their own decisions about the next course of action.

Mentoring and coaching aren’t for everyone, but for those who desire to help others and impart knowledge, it can be gratifying and beneficial to everyone.

Berni Hollinger helps companies solve problems through Leadership Training, Interim Leadership consulting, and Restructuring. As a professional Training Instructor and CFO / Controller, she sees things differently. As a highly experienced CFO, Controller, Accountant, and Financial Consultant, Berni has led financial departments for Fortune 100 companies increasing bottom-line growth and compassionately coaching and training employees and restructuring processes to maximize profitability in the publishing, printing, subscriptions/fulfillment, manufacturing, and transportation sectors. She is a Professional Quilter and Quilting Instructor, creating lasting memories through exclusive designs of one-of-a-kind memory quilts.

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