As discussed in our last Management Moment column, external support and guidance from others can foster and accelerate professional and personal development to the benefit of both individuals and their organization.1 However, information geared toward public health professionals on activities such as coaching, mentoring, and sponsoring is relatively limited. In our prior column, we advocated for the creation of a “coaching culture” in public health agencies and therefore directed that column toward those in leadership positions with the opportunity to foster such a coaching culture. We emphasized that the process requires active engagement, not only from organization leaders but also from those who seek a coach, mentor, or sponsor. This column, as a companion to our prior column on this topic, is addressed directly to those younger public health professionals who are seeking a coach, mentor, or sponsor. In that context, we discuss here how each type of partnership can foster career development and how to best initiate, build, and sustain these relationships.
A coach typically offers technical support to help you build skills that will improve your job performance and promote your career advancement.1 Working with a coach usually involves a short- to intermediate-term relationship with clear goals for career/job-related learning.
Working with a coach while at graduate school can be particularly useful in building leadership skills for emerging leaders. In public health schools that provide access to career coaches, students should take advantage of these unique resources. For individuals in the workforce, coaches can be most useful for those professionals already established in their roles who are looking to improve their performance.2 Some institutions and companies offer in-house coaching services that you can request to access. If that is not available, you may consider hiring your own coach, accessing an external coaching program, or reaching out to someone with the skills you hope to build for their short-term support.
In connecting with a coach, we offer a few critical success factors:
- Reflect on your goals. You will get the most value and growth out of your coach's support if you have previously spent time reflecting on your goals and identifying the specific skills you want to improve.
- Maintain open communication. In addition, maintaining open communication will ensure that you both agree on expectations, time commitments, and the timeline for the relationship.
- Make the coaching process a priority for you. Finally, prioritizing your work with them, and upholding commitments to additional work outside of sessions, will maximize your learning and growth and foster mutual respect between you and your coach.
Mentorship can include anything that supports the mentee's development and growth.1 Mentorship relationships can be formal or informal. A formal mentorship relationship could be part of an institutional program where mentors volunteer to be matched with mentees. Meanwhile, many mentorship relationships begin and develop informally, often based on an initial shared experience.
Mentors can be particularly helpful when you are in school or entering a new field, as they can help you build new connections and provide guidance to support your development.2 Anyone who has supported you with a personal or private endeavor could become your mentor, depending on both parties' willingness, ability, and actions. For instance, your professor, an athletics coach, or a past or present supervisor could all mentor you at different stages of your life. You can also leverage your network and proactively connect with someone in order to begin a mentorship partnership—for instance, by reaching out to the leadership of the organization you volunteer for.
Key recommendations for being a successful mentee include the following3:
- Choose your mentor intentionally. Choose mentors whose experience and position will allow them to support you and with whom you feel a good “emotional fit.”1
- Reflect on and share your goals and needs. Reflecting on and writing out your goals for your career and your personal and professional growth, as well your strengths and weaknesses, will help prepare you to make the most out of the mentorship relationship. Sharing these with your mentor will enable them to provide targeted advice and support.
- Discuss agreements and expectations for the relationship. Mentees who establish agreements with their mentors are more likely to achieve their learning goals and are more satisfied with their mentoring partnership.4 Such agreements can include goals for the relationship, criteria for success, accountability measures, expectations for confidentiality, boundaries, and a workplan.4 Consider which agreements and formats would be most appropriate for your relationship and then raise the topic with your mentor. Options include using an available template (ie, in The Mentee's Guide),4 writing up a set of agreements together, or holding a conversation and sharing the notes afterwards.
- Approach this as a 2-way relationship. You may have insights or contacts that are valuable to your mentor, so keep communication open and operate as a proactive member of the relationship.
- Take initiative. Mentors are often very busy—it is your role as the mentee to maintain the relationship. Be proactive about setting up meetings and requesting help (while respecting your mentor's time).
- Follow through. Complete “homework” assignments your mentor recommends and meet deadlines for tasks you commit to. Not only does this show respect for your mentor's time and effort of your mentor but your commitment to the relationship will also foster greater growth and help maximize your and your mentor's time.
- Stay in touch. Many mentorship relationships become lifelong connections. Reaching out consistently, even after the mentorship partnership has ended, can be enriching for both parties. For instance, you can send your mentor periodic updates that do not require a response to keep them informed about developments in your career and life.
A further note on communication. Many mentorship relationships begin informally, which may make mentees feel uncertain about discussing concrete expectations and agreements such as those mentioned earlier. Mentees may even feel uncomfortable merely requesting explicitly that someone serve as their mentor—even if the mentee privately refers to them as such. Yet, experts consistently recommend establishing agreements for the relationship that include expectations, boundaries, goals, and more, even if the mentorship is informal.4 Furthermore, mentors report a preference toward knowing if they are perceived as such. Discussing your expectations and goals for the relationship will improve transparency and communication and, ultimately, will better equip your mentor to support your development.
Sponsors help their protégé identify and access opportunities, typically within their institution.1 A sponsor will typically be a senior leader in your organization who can advocate for you when key decisions are being made, for instance regarding staffing, performance reviews, and promotions.
A sponsor will help you advance in your organization and in your career. A sponsor can benefit entry and mid-level employees by helping them rise in the ranks of their organization and can also be relevant for higher-ranking professionals seeking opportunities, for instance, to serve on a board or to present at professional conferences.5 Connecting with a sponsor can be particularly impactful for women and members of underrepresented groups to help overcome additional barriers faced in accessing opportunities for career advancement.6
Recommendations on how to initiate and build a relationship with a sponsor include the following4:
- Prove your abilities and your potential. Sponsors will often use their own personal capital and connections to advocate for you, so they are more likely to sponsor someone they believe in and are excited to vouch for.
- Be intentional when identifying potential sponsors. Search for and identify leaders in your organization whose career paths align with your goals or who are in positions relevant to your ambitions.
- Proactively build connections with senior leaders. Increase your visibility in your organization and connect with potential sponsors by reaching out to leaders. A 15-minute virtual video call can help you connect with a future sponsor; even if it does not, you can learn from their experience and expand your network.
- Be honest and authentic. Authenticity will help build a relationship with your sponsor and make them more comfortable championing you. Openly sharing your ambitions and desire for a sponsor can increase transparency and foster trust.
- Approach the relationship as a 2-way street. Sponsorship can be mutually beneficial. As a protégé, you can help solve problems and add value to your sponsor, for instance, by supporting and driving your sponsor's vision.
- Communicate your career ambition and goals. Clearly sharing your goals will allow a potential sponsor to identify relevant opportunities and to help you access them.
- Prioritize and maintain relationships. Proactively reaching out to a potential sponsor, for instance, for advice on a specific career decision, can help build the relationship. Stay in touch—like mentors, sponsors can develop into lifelong connections who can support your career even after one of you leave your organization.
The intentional process of building a relationship with a coach, mentor, and/or a sponsor consists of first connecting, and then often reconnecting, over months and years of growth and development. Research has shown that a coach, mentor, or sponsor will each support your personal and professional development in distinct ways, and your approach to each relationship should reflect its specific goals and expectations. Certain practices, however, will help you make the most out of any kind of external guidance.
First, engaging in self-reflection will deepen your understanding of your goals and abilities, and communicating these clearly will allow others to provide you with more tailored support. Second, intentionally choosing your coaches, mentors, and sponsors will ensure a good fit and that the relationships are as productive as possible for both parties. Third, good communication and transparency, especially on the expectations and agreements for the relationship, will help build trust and ensure a positive experience. Finally, prioritizing the relationship, and following through with commitments, is key to gaining the respect of your partner and to maximizing the impact of the relationship on your growth and development.
1. Baker EL, Hengelbrok H, Murphy SA, Gilkey R. Building a coaching culture—the roles of coaches, mentors, and sponsors. J Public Health Manag Pract. 2021;27(3):325–328.
2. Baker EL. The evolution of a leader. J Public Health Manag Pract. 2011;17(5):475–477.
3. Nassour I, Balentine C, Boland GM, et al. Successful mentor-mentee relationship. J Surg Res. 2020;247:332–334.
4. Zachary LJ, Fischler LA. The Mentee's Guide: Making Mentoring Work for You. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass; 2013. http://rbdigital.oneclickdigital.com
. Accessed February 18, 2021.
5. Giang V. 7 successful women explain how they got the sponsor that changed their careers. Fast Company Web site. https://www.fastcompany.com/90307513/7-successful-women-explain-how-they-got-the-sponsor-that-changed-their-careers
. Published February 26, 2019. Accessed February 23, 2021.
6. McKinsey, LeanIn.Org. Women in the workplace 2020. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/women-in-the-workplace
. Published 2020. Accessed April 14, 2021.