Jacob Kaplan-Moss

Mentorship, coaching, sponsorship: three different — and equally important — tools for developing talent

One of the main responsibilities of a leader/manager is helping their staff develop. Mentorship, coaching, and sponsorship are import tools in the staff development toolbox. Good leaders should be adept in all three, and know when (and when not) to use each. In my work with new managers, I sometimes see confusion about these three different tools, and I see people using them in the wrong circumstances.

So here’s a glossary, a high-level explanation of what these three things are, how they differ, and where to use them. Here’s the very short version, and the slightly-longer version follows:

GoalKnowledge transferHelp the coachee achieve their goalsCareer advancement
FocusCareer progression, skill developmentGoal attainment, skill applicationUnlocking organizational opportunities
ModalityHands-on guidance, sharing experienceInquisitive, supportive questioning and suggestionsAdvocating for a sponsee - managing up or sideways
What it sounds like“I think you should…”“What’s your next step?”“Jasmine would be great at this”
RelationshipLong-term, often outside of management chainShort- or long-term, inside or outside management chain or organizationUsually within command chain
ExpertiseMentor is usually more experiencedCoach may not be more skilledSponsor has organizational influence


Mentorship is essentially passing on experience: a mentor has experience relevant to what their mentee is working on, and is helping the mentee by passing on that knowledge. Mentors are almost always more senior than the mentee, at least in the specific domain involving mentorship.

Mentorship sounds like: “I’ve done this sort of thing before, and what I did was … I think you should …”.

The modality of mentorship is usually hands-on guidance: “do it like this”. Like all good teaching there of course needs to be a balance of explicit direction and letting students work through problems, but mentorship tends to more often shift towards the explicitly didactic.

Mentorship is usually fairly broad, focused on career progression or development of a large swath of skills. So I might mentor someone trying to switch careers from finance to software development, or a new manager looking to develop and eventually move up to Director, etc. Mentoring relationships are usually long-term, broad, and ongoing.

Mentorship tends to work best outside of the chain of command: peer mentorship, mentors from other teams, other companies, etc. The manager/report relationship is quite different from a mentorship relationship, to the point that it’s usually ineffective for managers to mentor their reports. (Not always, I’ve seen it work – particularly in cases where the mentorship topic involves management – but it is unusual.)


Coaching is a process of helping someone achieve their goals. It can seem similar to mentorship (and they sometimes overlap), but the intent is quite different. Mentorship is about knowledge transfer, but coaching is about achieving goals. Coaching may involve skill development sometimes, but often coaching is more about helping someone figure out the best way to apply the skills they already have.

Coaching sounds like: “What are you trying to accomplish? What’s standing in your way? Have you tried …? How’d it go? What do you think you’ll try differently next time? What are your next steps? Where do you want to be by next week?”

The modality of coaching is inquisitive, asking lots of questions. Coaches don’t typically provide answers; the best coaches help their clients come up with the answers themselves. Coaches do make suggestions, and some coaches are more proscriptive than others, but fundamentally coaching is supportive, not directive.

Coaches also help by providing external accountability. I work with a running coach, and there are days when the only thing that gets me out of the door is knowing that if I don’t I’ll have to tell Joe I skipped a workout. It’s not like there are tangible consequences — coaches aren’t bosses — but for me, and for many people, the light pressure of feeling accountable to your coach can help overcome inertia. And, because ultimately a coach is helping you active your goals, the knowledge that some activity is directly tied to that goal adds an additional bit of pressure to do the thing.

Coaches are sometimes experts in the domain they’re coaching, but not always. They do need to have some knowledge, enough to observe and provide credible feedback, but it’s not uncommon for a coach to be less skilled than the person they’re coaching. Coaches for sports teams are an obvious example of this. Steve Kerr even in his prime wasn’t as good a basketball player as Steph Curry, but he’s a terrifically effective coach1.

Coaching works both within and outside the chain of command, and coaches can be internal or external to your company. I’ve frequently reached for coaches outside my company when I need support in some area that nobody at my organization can provide. Coaching methods differ a bit when you’re coaching someone within your chain of command – for one, the power differential makes is harder to give suggestions that are truly heard as suggestions and not orders – but these are subtle differences and beyond the scope of this overview.


Unlike mentorship and coaching, sponsorship isn’t about helping someone learn or level up. The person already has the skills, and you are advocating for their career advancement. Sponsorship is a tool you reach for when someone is capable of more, but is somehow blocked organizationally.

Sponsorship sounds like: “this is something Jasmine would be great at, why don’t we ask them to lead this project?”

The modality of sponsorship is managing up (or sideways): using your position and organizational power to advocate for someone else. Other than getting the sponsee’s permission, sponsorship doesn’t really involve them directly very much: it’s about advocating for them, usually in spaces they don’t have access to. That said, you might also mentor or coach someone you’re sponsoring, or arrange for someone else to mentor/coach them, as a way of helping them be successful.

Typically, a sponsee is someone in your chain of command. It doesn’t have to be that way, but you need to be wary of the feelings on your team if you’re sponsoring people outside of it. It can feel to them like you don’t care as much about your own team, so be cautious.

You need to approach sponsorship carefully. If you push someone into a highly-visible failure, it can mess up their career, potentially permanently. You need to have have a high degree of confidence that you’re putting them into a situation where they’ll be successful. Or if not, you should be extremely clear that it’s a high-risk situation, and let them decide if they want to risk it or not.

  1. Seriously, you could teach a coaching and class management entirely through clips of Kerr coaching Curry. I love this clip of Kerr encouraging Curry during a game: Curry is have a terrible shooting night, and is down about it, so Kerr shows him stats proving that he’s having a positive effect on the game despite shooting poorly. It’s such a good example of helping someone reframe their work to focus on the team instead of the individual. ↩︎