Building a Coaching Culture: The Roles of Coaches, Mentors, and Sponsors

by Edward L. Baker MD, MPH; Helena Hengelbrok, MPH; Susan A. Murphy MBA, PhD; and Roderick Gilkey, PhD


Growth and development as a leader can best be achieved by a disciplined approach involving formal development experiences, self-assessment, and a commitment to taking time for reflection and renewal. Although some of this work can be done alone, support from a coach, mentor, and a sponsor can enhance the process substantially. In this article, we provide an overview of the interrelated processes of coaching, mentoring, and sponsorship, which we consider to be essential elements in the development of all public health leaders throughout their careers (1). Our column is directed at those in leadership positions with the admonition that leaders should foster a “coaching culture” within their organizations as a core strategy to enhance organizational effectiveness (2). In a later column, we plan to direct our attention to those seeking a coach, mentor, or sponsor to accompany them on their leadership journey and provide practical suggestions on how to implement the process.

Coaching is technical support focused on developing techniques that effective team members must know and be able to do, while Mentoring includes the larger context and developmentally appropriate process for learning technique and the professional and personal skills and concepts needed for success. Sponsorship may serve as a complement to coaching and mentorship by assisting the process of identifying and exploring new opportunities for the developing leader.

Coaching often involves a short to intermediate timeframe. The coach focuses on job-related learning and development for the current or future job. Coaching is the support for technical, skills-related learning and growth which is provided by another person who uses observation, data collection, and descriptive, nonjudgmental reporting on specific requested behaviors and techniques. Coaches should use open-ended questions to help the other person more objectively see their own patterns of behavior and to prompt reflection, goal setting, planning, and action to increase the desired results. Coaching is focused on learning job-related skills.

Mentoring is the all-inclusive description of everything done to support protégé orientation and professional development. Mentoring describes a more long-term process — one that focuses on the protégé’s career growth and personal/professional growth and advancement. Mentors can provide support for all life structures — family, career, and current work role.

“Mentor” comes from Homer’s Odyssey. As Odysseus is leaving to fight the Trojan War, he has left his only heir, Telemachus, a teenager, to be “king” while he’s off fighting the war. Odysseus hires a trusted family friend named “Mentor” to be Telie’s tutor on “King-ship.” According to Webster, “mentor” means “a wise advisor, a teacher, or coach.”

Sponsoring consists of the identification of the core skills and aspirations of the person being sponsored, followed by an ongoing alertness for opportunities that might be a “good fit.” At times, this process may be an active one, depending on the urgency of the need. Alternatively, the process of sponsorship may proceed at a more leisurely pace. Sponsors may also be former (or current) coaches or mentors.

Coaching

Coaching is focused on improving job performance (2). To be successful, coaches should focus on the mindset, skillset, and toolset of the person being coached. Mindset impacts our assumptions and beliefs, those “mental models” that shape perspective and influence decision making. Skillsets manifest as concrete behaviors, such as listening to understand (3) and asking good questions (4). To practice these behaviors, leaders can develop a “leadership tool kit” consisting of approaches that work for them.

To enrich the mindset, skillset, and toolset of the person being coached (“the coachee”), the process of coaching should be based on certain guiding principles. The coach should encourage the person being coached to reaffirm his/her core strengths and values as a public health leader. As a result, the coachee can then build upon these strengths and identify a range of best practices that manifest these strengths. In addition to practicing certain behaviors, the coaching experience should provide an opportunity for the person being coached to take time to reflect on specific leadership practices.

Throughout the coaching experience, the flow of the coaching process should be driven not by the coach but rather based on the needs of the coachee. Along these lines, the coach should minimize providing advice but rather encourage development by offering questions for further reflection by the coachee. As areas of development or improvement are identified, the coach can assist by asking clarifying questions and offering encouragement and support.

As needs are identified, the process of coaching may concentrate on skill building related to a specific task or project, performance in the current job, or professional development more broadly (2). To begin to understand the work context within which the coachee applies what is being learned, the coach should clarify job roles, responsibilities, and behaviors by asking:

  • What are the 3-4 top priorities of your job?
  • To what extent do you and your manager agree on those priorities?
  • How well do you (and others) think you are doing?
  • If I were to observe your behavior when you are discharging a core job responsibility, what would I observe you doing?

Within the coaching session, the coach can help focus the conversation by asking questions:

  • What is on your mind today?
  • What is your greatest challenge?
  • What recent event makes you feel most proud?
  • What dilemma is “top of mind” for you today?

Each coaching session should end with encouragement that the coachee take care of himself or herself. Ending the session on a positive note lays the groundwork for the next conversation. The session should include action steps to be undertaken before the next conversation.

Mentoring

Mentoring is about building a trusting relationship. Mentors can serve as a sounding board in situations where the mentee is facing a challenge or a difficult decision. Examples include the challenges of assessing whether a job is a “good fit,” how to deal with a difficult boss, or managing work-life balance. In these settings, there are no “right answers.” Thus, the role of the mentor is to accompany the mentee along a path of discovery. In doing so, the mentor may also benefit by observing the growth and development of the colleague.

Mentoring is less about giving advice or problem solving and more about giving the mentee support, encouragement, and an opportunity to reflect (5). In that regard, mentors must do much more listening than speaking (eg, if the mentor is talking more than 25% of the time, that is too much). Nevertheless, a mentor can and should challenge questionable assumptions and unwise impulses as they arise.

Mentors should avoid giving advice by making statements that imply “this is what you should do.” Further, “advice in disguise,” such as “this is what I did in a similar situation,” should be only provided with great caution since it tends to override the process by which the mentee asks his/her own questions and reflects accordingly.

The mentor should provide the mentee with questions for the mentee to consider. For example, in mentoring someone considering a job transition (discussed in more detail in a prior Management Moment column (6)), a mentor could provide open ended questions such as:

  • In a new job situation, what might success look like to you?
  • What sources of support might be most important to you?
  • What are your core values and beliefs that might impact the job “fit”?

Above all, the mentor should be a source of encouragement, particularly in the very challenging days of the COVID pandemic in which “COVID fatigue” presents an ongoing challenge sapping the energy and motivation of frontline public health workers. Mentors should consistently reinforce the core strengths of the mentee which the mentor may see with greater clarity than the mentee does.

All three methods of developing others involve identifying strengths. Peter Drucker once observed, “the hardest thing for executives to do is fully appreciate their own strengths” (2). Part of that is due to the fact that apart from 360-degree assessments, organizations rarely do a good job of providing timely constructive feedback on people’s strengths, developmental needs (areas they can improve), and weaknesses (areas where they need to supplement their efforts by drawing on the strengths of others). Within public health, most organizations have cultures that impede the flow of feedback because they lack effective norms that support candor and speaking truth to power. In addition, few organizations provide training in giving constructive positive and negative feedback, so people lack the skillsets required to perform this vital leadership task.

Sponsorship

Sponsoring is about the future. Sponsors serve their colleague by identifying future job opportunities that may be worth considering. Typically, sponsors can identify and open doors that the colleague may not know about or lack access to. Further, the sponsor who knows the colleague’s strengths may serve as an advocate in ways that the colleague can’t do for himself or herself.

The process of sponsorship should be proactive on the part of the sponsor and the person being sponsored. To facilitate this process, the sponsor (who may also be a current or former coach or a mentor) should become familiar with the aspirations and skills of the colleague. The sponsor should maintain contact on a regular basis based on the needs of their colleague.

There is a strong element of advocacy involved in being a sponsor which consists of leveraging one’s own influence and reputation in both the formal and the informal organization (the latter can be the most crucial as promotions and opportunities often come from informal back channels). Sponsors are absolutely critical to an organization’s efforts to promote diversity and inclusion. The commitment of a sponsor is often one of the most important resources that is associated with the ability of underrepresented groups to advance. A key responsibility for a sponsor is helping leaders from underrepresented groups gain visibility and respect in the informal organization, as it can be easier to enter the formal organization than the informal one where key leaders are not accessible to women and people of color.

Women are less likely than men to have sponsors; further, women with sponsors are more likely than women with mentors to be promoted (7). As a result, sponsorship can be especially impactful for women and people of color, both groups who are underrepresented in leadership positions (7). Having a sponsor can help members of these underrepresented groups overcome barriers to advancement in order to gain access to opportunities and promotion (8).

A sponsorship relationship can benefit both parties. The sponsor may actively seek out and facilitate access to professional opportunities, while the protégé commits to adding value to the organization and supporting the sponsor’s vision (7). Sponsorship can play out along a spectrum of different types of support which range from a private mentoring relationship to a more public advocacy role. These forms of support (7) may include:

  • Strategizer: Sharing “insider information” about advancement
  • Connector: Making introductions to influential people and promoting the colleague
  • Opportunity Giver: Providing a high-visibility growth opportunity

Getting Started

In an organization which embraces a “coaching culture,” organizational leaders can and should encourage those at all levels to proactively to engage with a coach, a mentor and a sponsor. Having said that, many emerging and early leaders ask how best to identify another person to fulfill these roles. Although we plan to cover these questions in greater depth in a later column, organizational leaders can offer a few suggestions to those seeking a coach, mentor or sponsor:

  • First, determine what questions you have and what your needs are.
  • Seek out someone who understands your work context.
  • If you are looking for a coach, seek someone who has been trained as a coach. Mentors should also understand the best practices of mentorship before becoming a mentor.
  • Reach out to a potential coach or mentor by simply asking them a question that you find challenging. Assess the emotional “fit” before exploring a more formal arrangement.
  • Once a “fit” seems to be present, establish ground rules and goals and gain clarity on roles and responsibilities.
  • As the relationship evolves, incorporate ways to evaluate the process along the way.
  • Develop ways to give constructive feedback on the impact of behaviors and the perceptions they generate and then to promote use of feedback to modify behaviors.
  • Build in concrete steps to maintain the relationship over time, including updates on ways in which the relationship has successfully fostered growth and development.

Summary

Fostering growth and development of leaders is central to the ability of organizations to perform optimally. In this context, getting, giving and using feedback is a core driver of the personal and professional growth of leaders. Thus, coaching, mentoring and sponsorship can play a key role in career success and advancement and in organizational effectiveness (2). Unfortunately, the public health system lags far behind the private sector in institutionalizing these practices. In our view, every emerging public health leader should seek out a coach and/or a mentor to partner with them in their public health journey and be supported by a sponsor along the way.

Development of public health leaders is too important to be left to chance. To address this need, a systematic approach to leader development in public health is required and will yield major benefits. For the future, coaching, mentoring and sponsoring should become an essential component of the development of public health’s most critical resource: an inspired, inspiring, and diverse talent pool of public health leaders.

References

1. Baker EL. The Evolution of a leader. J Public Health Management and Practice. 2011. 17(5), 475-477.

2. Murphy SA. Maximizing Performance Management- Leading your Team to Success.2nd Edition. Medical Group Management Association. Englewood CO. 2016.

3. Baker EL, Dunne-Moses A, Calarco AJ, Gilkey R. Listening to Understand: A Core Leadership Skill. J Public Health Management and Practice. 25 (5); 508-510, 2019.

4. Baker EL, Gilkey R. Asking Better Questions- A core Leadership Skill. J Public Health Management and Practice. 2020. 26 (6). 632-633.

5. Center for Creative Leadership. Mentoring. Accessed on Feb. 7, 2021 at https://www.ccl.org/category/coaching-mentoring/.

6. Baker EL, Murphy SA. A Systematic Approach to Job Transitions- Finding Your Way and Landing in Your Best Place. J Public Health Management and Practice. 2021. 27 (1). 88-91.

7. Ibarra H. A Lack of Sponsorship is Keeping Women from Advancing into Leadership. Harvard Business Review. 2019.

8. McKinsey and Company. Women in healthcare: Moving from the Front Lines to the Top Rung. Accessed on Feb 11, 2021 at https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/healthcare-systems-and-services/our-insights/women-in-healthcare-moving-from-the-front-lines-to-the-top-rung

ACKNOWLEDGMENT

The authors also wish to acknowledge Bob Irwin whose thoughtful comments and encouragement have greatly strengthened this article.

MANAGEMENT MOMENTS:

Author Profile

Dr. Ed Baker
Dr. Edward L. Baker, a former Assistant Surgeon General in the US Public Health Service and former Director of CDC’s Public Health Practice Program Office, currently serves as an Adjunct Professor at UNC, Harvard, and Indiana University schools of public health. At UNC and Harvard, he teaches courses on the theory and practice of leadership.

While at UNC, he directed the North Carolina Institute for Public Health, the service and outreach arm of the UNC School of Public Health, which was home to the national Public Health Leadership Institute, the Management Academy for Public Health and the North Carolina Local Health Agency Accreditation program. His current professional activities are focused on informatics training and management and leadership development. While serving as Director of CDC’s Public Health Practice Program Office, he lead creation of Public Health Leadership Institutes, the Information Network for Public Health Officials, the Public Health Training Network, and the Health Alert Network.

Dr. Baker is board certified in internal medicine and occupational medicine and was trained in epidemiology in CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) and at Harvard School of Public Health. He also served as NIOSH Deputy Director, leading a range of initiatives designed to prevent occupational disease and injury. He and his wife, Pam, have 3 wonderful children and a 9-year-old grandson, who are the lights of their lives.

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