What is the difference between Coaching, Mentoring and Sponsorship?

As well as coaching lots of leaders, I also run workshops to help people learn these valuable leadership skills. It often really surprises me how much confusion and misunderstanding there is about what these terms really mean and when to use them. As a leader you will often perform all three of these roles and knowing which one to use when is really important. 


So lets start with a simple definition, I particularly like Tim Gallwey's definition he has written many books about coaching including "The Inner game of golf" as well as business coaching. 

"Coaching is unlocking a person's potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them learn rather then teaching them".

For a lot of leaders and managers the idea that they no longer have to "tell" their people what to do is hard to grasp, it is so bound up in their own sense of self or ego. Yet if we encourage our people to recognise that often they have the right answer and with some reflection, can work out what the next steps are, we are building their confidence. They will then know they have the capability to navigate around what ever obstacles are in their way. We are training them to become self sufficient and empowering them.  It all depends on the coach or manager's ability to see the potential in someone rather then to look at their current performance. If we have a poor view of someone and then only give them what we believe they are capable of doing, we just reinforce  that somewhat limited belief system and this will be felt by the team member, so it becomes a self perpetuating situation. The individual will become demotivated and underperform and probably leave. 

However if we look beyond current performance to what might be possible and hold a more positive belief in the individual, and coach them through their obstacles to help them learn, then the managers investment in time in the individual will be paid back many times. As a coach  the sense of fulfilment I get when I witness people doing things they never felt they could is incredible. It is what keeps me motivated as a professional coach knowing that I am making a difference in peoples lives. 


“A mentor is generally defined as an individual with advanced experience and knowledge who is committed to giving support and career advice to a less experienced person.” This shows the difference where advice is given, this is not generally done in coaching. The mentor generally has experience of the mentee's industry or desired career path, which it is not necessary for a coach to have. The skill sets of deep listening, great questioning and constructive feedback apply to both roles. This is often an informal relationship which may last for many years. 


A sponsor is similar to a mentor but they are much more proactive on behalf of their sponsee, they will advocate for them in meetings and career discussions. Introduce them to their networks and find them positions to advance their career. As a leader we often sponsor someone more junior than ourselves that may remind us of our younger self. However what is needed in the workplace now, is leaders who sponsor someone who is diverse from themselves, otherwise we just perpetuate the old boys network. Formal sponsorship programmes where leaders are paired with someone who is different from themselves, not only helps the sponsee in their career but also helps the senior leader understand what it is like to be a minority in their organisation.  Therefore making the organisation more inclusive and accepting of difference. 

When I look back, I was very lucky in my career to have someone who believed in me more than I could at that time, he sponsored me, to help me achieve promotion to Senior Executive. I have also had many mentors over the years.

I would encourage you to think back in your career and acknowledge those individuals who have acted as a coach, mentor or sponsor. They will have helped you get to where you are today. And now think forward to what you want to achieve in the next 5 years, what sort of help and support do you need to get there? 

I have just signed up to be one of a million mentors. Follow this link for more information.


If you would like more information about how coaching could help you realise your potential, then I offer a free 30 minute consultation,  email to book a consultation.