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Mentorship, Coaching, and Sponsorship — How to Build Resilient Engineering Teams

This post lists the key insights from this article, from Lara Hogan
Engineering Leadership Coach and Consultant at Wherewithall
, author of the book Resilient Management.


Resilient Management is Hogan’s third book, and the first to focus entirely on the ever-shifting world of engineering management and people-leadership. One of the ideas in Hogan’s book is how an engineering leader can take on the different roles of mentor, coach, and sponsor.

Many managers—even those with training—often slip most comfortably into the mentorship role, because it’s so solutions-driven. Coaching and sponsorship, however, can lead to much more meaningful and longer-lasting growth, and they are much more frequently misunderstood even by long-time leaders.

In this excerpt from Resilient Management, Hogan explains each of these roles. She delves into the communication strategies that managers can use to better coach their teammates, as well as the contexts in which managers can become more effective sponsors for their reports within the wider organization—particularly for members of underrepresented groups.

1. Mentoring

When Hogan talks to managers, she finds that the vast majority have their mentor hats on ninety percent of the time when they’re working with their teammates.

In mentoring mode, you’re focused on both the problem and the solution. You’ll share what you as the mentor would do or have done in this situation. This means you’re more focused on yourself, and less on the person who is sitting in front of you.

Managers often default to mentoring mode because it feels like the fastest way to solve a problem, but it falls short in helping your teammate connect their own dots. For that, we’ll look to coaching.

2. Coaching

In coaching mode—an extremely powerful but often underutilized mode—you’re doing two primary things:

  1. Asking open questions to help the other person explore more of the shape of the topic, rather than staying at the surface level.
  2. Reflecting, which is like holding up a mirror for the other person and describing what you see or hear, or asking them to reflect for themselves.

These two tools will help you become your teammate’s fiercest champion.

Open Questions

Open questions often start with whowhatwhenwherewhy, and how. But the best open questions are about the problem, not the solution. Questions that start with why tend to make the other person feel judged, and questions that start with how tend to go into problem solving mode—both of which we want to avoid while in coaching mode.

However, what questions can be authentically curious! When someone comes to you with a challenge, try asking questions like:

  • What’s most important to you about it?
  • What’s holding you back?
  • What does success look like?

Let’s say your teammate comes to me and says they’re ready for a promotion. Rather than telling them what I think is necessary for them to be promoted, you could instead open up this conversation by asking them:

  • What would you be able to do in the new level that you can’t do in your current one?
  • What skills are required in the new level? What are some ways that you’ve honed those skills?
  • Who are the people already at that level that you want to emulate? What about them do you want to emulate?

Their answers would give me a place to start coaching. These questions might push my teammate to think more deeply about what this promotion mean.

However, if the way you ask your questions comes across as judgy or like you’ve already made some assumptions, then your questions aren’t truly open (and your teammate can smell this on you!). Practice your intonation to make sure your open questions are actually curious and open.

Reflections

Just like open questions, reflections help the other person feel seen and heard, and to explore the topic more deeply.

Help your teammates reflect by repeating back to them what you hear them say, as in:

  • “What I’m hearing you say is that you’re frustrated with how this project is going. Is that right?”
  • “What I know to be true about you is how deeply you care about your teammates’ feelings.”

In each of these examples, you are holding up a metaphorical mirror to your teammate, and helping them look into it. You can coach them to reflect, too:

  • “How does this new architecture project map to your goals?”
  • “Let’s reflect on where you were this time last year and how far you’ve come.”

Occasionally, you might get a reflection wrong; this gives the other person an opportunity to realize something new about their topic, like the words they’re choosing aren’t quite right, or there’s another underlying issue that should be explored. So don’t be worried about giving a bad reflection; reflecting back what you’re hearing will still help your teammate.

When you have your coaching hat on, you don’t need to have all the answers, or even fully understand the problem that your teammate is wrestling with. Frankly, it may not feel all that effective when you’re in coaching mode, but I promise, coaching can generate way more growth for that other person than just giving them advice or sharing your perspective.

Choose coaching when you’re looking to help someone (especially an emerging leader) hone their strategic thinking skills, grow their leadership aptitude, and craft their own path forward.

3. Sponsoring

While you wear the mentoring and coaching hats around your teammates, the sponsor hat is more often worn when they’re not around, like when you’re in a 1:1 with your manager, a sprint planning meeting, or another environment where someone’s work might be recognized.

Sponsorship is all about feeling on the hook for getting someone to the next level.

When you’re in sponsorship mode, think about the different opportunities you have to offer up someone’s name. This might look like:

  • giving visible/public recognition (company “shout outs,” having them present a project demo, thanking them in a launch email, giving someone’s manager feedback about their good work);
  • assigning stretch tasks and projects that are just beyond their current skill set, to help them grow and have supporting evidence for a future promotion; or
  • opening the door for them to write blog posts, give company or conference talks, or contribute open-source work.

Remember that members of underrepresented groups are typically over-mentored, but under-sponsored. These individuals get lots of advice (often unsolicited), coffee outings, and offers to teach them new skills. But it’s much rarer for them to see support that looks like sponsorship.

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