Mentoring, coaching, and sponsoring

There are four different ways we can help our teammates grow.

  • Mentoring - giving advice and helping to solve others' problems based on our own experiences.
  • Coaching - asking open questions to help them reflect and introspect.
  • Sponsoring - finding opportunities for teammates to level up.
  • Delivering feedback when we observe their behaviour and share those observations with them.


Our personal experiences are often what we can talk about most confidently. For this reason, mentorship mode can feel really good and effective for the mentor. We focus on the problems and the possible solutions. And the focus is on the mentor rather than the mentee. Mentoring is different from teaching, which is a job. It is about imparting our knowledge, but mentoring is about investing the extra effort to connect on a much deeper level.

A good mentor is someone who is more experienced than their mentee. Someone who can communicate their experience well. Someone who respects, challenges, and pushes the mentee. Has more experience preferably in the same industry. Is supportive with their set goals and invested in their success. Is a good listener rather than just talking about themselves and their life.

A good mentor listens carefully and communicates clearly. Is a good guide to steer them in the right direction, instead of doing the job for them. What is the saying, "give a man a fish and you feed them for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime".

A good mentor sets expectations, defines the rules, and sets goals. They communicate them at the start and help them to develop the plan with them. A good mentor considers any question is a good question. No question is stupid, and they make the mentee feel comfortable asking those questions.

A good mentor calibrates their responses to the mentee's level and needs. They steer them in the right direction to answer the questions for themselves. And they are available and patient.

Lastly, to be a responsible mentor, when mentoring people from under-represented or marginalised groups, you need to be aware of how they are perceived, and any unconscious bias that might be at play.


Sponsoring is when we put their name in the ring for opportunities that will get them the experience and visibility necessary to grow in their role and the organisation. It is the most effective way to help someone to get to the next level. For example, giving public recognition, assigning stretch goals beyond their current skill set, giving opportunities to write blog posts, present at conferences, or contribute to open-source projects. Sponsoring is something that as a manager we should be actively doing.

Remember that members of under-represented groups are typically over mentored, but under sponsored.
Lara Hogan


Coaching is a process that aims to improve performance, and focuses on the present rather than the past or the future. It moves the focus from me, the mentor to them, the mentee. In a nutshell, it says, "say less and ask more".

Coaching for performance is about addressing and fixing a specific problem or challenge. Coaching for development is about turning the focus from the issue to the person, and dealing with the issue. This conversation is more rare and significantly more powerful.

To be a good coach, you should ask more open questions to help explore a topic deeper. Close questions, start with "do", "are", "is", "have", "can", and "would". Open questions start with "what", "how", "when", "who", "which", and "why". Questions that start with "why" tend to make the other person feel judged. And question that starts with "how" tend to go into problem solving mode, both of which we want to avoid. However, "what" questions can be authentically curious.

You should also reflect and hold a mirror for the other person, when you are chatting.

You should be actively listening to the other person. Listen carefully and then paraphrase what you have a heard. For example, "I heard you say...".

And lastly, identify what to concentrate on. "So I hear you saying a few things, which one should we start with?

Sample questions

Some sample questions that you can use when you coach:

  • What do you want?
  • What's most important to you about it?
  • What's holding you back?
  • What does success look like for you?
  • How can I help?
  • If you are saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?
  • What was most useful for you?
  • What are you optimising for?

You can guide the conversation using the SOON acronym. Or GROW. Let's use the SOON as an example. So with SOON:

  • S stands for success. What does success look like? This is the first step and it is critical to start with a well-defined goal.
  • O stands for obstacles. This is an opportunity to guide them through a self-assessment of where they are, and what is standing in their way. It is also useful to check for assumptions, "is that a fact or your interpretation?"
  • The other O stands for options. "What are the options that you have?" This is where you get to be creative. All the options to making progress should be discussed, and it can sometimes help them see beyond the obvious.
  • The final step is N for next steps. What are the next steps for you to take? Both of you agree on a path forward in order to make the goal a reality.

You can also see it called GROW, which stands for Goal, Reality, Options, and Way forward.

Focus on motivation

The motivation is a combination of how much this is important to me. I believe in this plan, I think it will work, and I think I can have an impact. So once you have a plan, you can follow up with scaling questions as an exercise. You can ask the following questions:

  • On a scale from one to 10, how excited are you about this plan and possible outcome?
  • On a scale from one to 10, how confident do you feel about the plan working?
  • On a scale from one to 10, how confident do you feel in your ability to make it happen? And what would increase your score by one point?

When coaching, we don't need to have all the answers or fully understand the problem. Coaching can generate way more growth for the other person than just giving them advice or sharing your perspective. Shall we try some coaching?

Would you like to know more?

Receive our monthly newsletter