Imagine that someone you’ve been mentoring for the past few years walks into your office one day and says, “Thank you so much for being a great mentor to me. I was thinking about applying for a leadership position that just opened up. What do you think?”

You remember that you went through a similar situation earlier in your career. During that time, your mentor was very helpful to you in navigating the decision, and you would like to be of similar assistance. How might you go about being helpful?

At the University of Utah, Dr. Harriet Hopf and I lead a community of faculty advancing the practice of coaching and mentoring. We defined four roles that are essential to developing someone’s career: mentor, coach, advisor, and sponsor. These roles serve distinct functions, and a person can take on one or more roles in their relationships. We distinguish these four roles using the dimensions of questions vs. answers and internally vs. externally driven.

Questions vs. Answers

Let’s return to the earlier example. Your mentee asks, “I was thinking about applying for a leadership position that just opened up. What do you think?” What would be your response?

A: I don’t think you should do it until you get to a later stage in your career. (giving an answer)

B: How might this role advance or hinder your career goals? (asking a question)

In this case, the more generally appropriate response would be to ask a question, thus taking on the role of coach or mentor. To give an answer without understanding the fuller context would be presumptuous.

However, if the mentee asked instead, “I was thinking about applying for a leadership position that just opened up. Since you’ve had a similar leadership position, could you tell me some of the skills such a position may require?”

In this case, acting as an advisor and giving an answer may be entirely appropriate. The idea is to be aware of when asking a question versus giving an answer may be helpful.

Internally vs. Externally Driven

Let’s say your mentee asks, “Since you know many of the people in that department, would you be willing to introduce me to a few of them? That might help my candidacy for the leadership position.”

In this case, the onus of the action is not on the mentee, but on you if you choose to accept the request. If you were to act, you would be acting in the role of a sponsor. Let’s label this type of help “externally driven.”

But let’s pretend the mentee says, “I’m not sure I’m qualified for the position. I think there are many other people who have more experience.”

In this case, you notice that the mentee’s confidence is low, and you want to help by boosting their confidence. Because the onus of action is ultimately still on the mentee, these approaches would be considered “internally driven.” You may ask the mentee about times where he or she successfully exhibited leadership skills in the past (an example of coaching), or talk about the mentee’s favorable qualifications relative to the demands of the role (an example of advising). Both coaching and advising would have the effect of boosting the mentee’s confidence.

Putting It Together: The Four Roles

In a given situation, there are different ways that you could be helpful. You can ask questions, or you can give answers. You can focus on externally driven actions and perspectives or on internally driven clarity and knowledge. The four roles of mentor, coach, advisor, and sponsor inform each other.

One perspective I would offer is to start with the coaching role and ask more questions initially. From there, if you were to pivot to the other three roles, the strong connection and context that coaching builds strengthens the effectiveness of the other roles.

We hope that this article has shown that there are different approaches you can take in being helpful in your developmental relationships. Your ability to choose the right approach will result in a more satisfactory relationship with those you are seeking to help.

If you would like a deeper description of these roles, visit U-CAN Developmental Relationships Quadrants

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