Group of nurses and doctors in medical staff meeting
HealthMay 18, 2021

3 roles that help nurse leaders grow inside a coaching culture

By: Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN
Leaders in nursing typically develop over a period of years, relying on their own commitment, self-assessment, and formal developmental experiences for the background they need. Some of this work is performed on an individual basis, but a significant part of this kind of growth and development requires the support of coaches, mentors, and sponsors.

These essential individuals enhance a nurse leader’s growth process substantially. But each person’s role differs in the degree of support and type of services offered to growing nurse leaders to help them achieve their goals. A recent article in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice describes these roles in detail so that current leaders can better foster a coaching culture within their own workplaces.


Different from mentoring and sponsorship, coaching focuses on improving a nurse leader’s job performance. Coaches must focus on the mindset, skill set, and toolset of the person being coached for them to truly be successful.

  • Mindset describes a person’s assumptions and beliefs, shaping perspective and decision-making.
  • Skill set is a series of developed behaviors already practiced by the individual.
  • Toolset is a combination of mindsets and skill sets that work best for leaders. Toolsets are needed to practice essential leadership behaviors.

Enhancing mindset, skill set, and toolset begins with the identification of guiding principles a coach can use to develop a future leader’s core strengths and values. These, in turn, are then built upon to help identify a range of best practices that embody these strengths and values.

The needs of the future nurse leader should dictate the flow of the coaching process. Coaches should avoid simply providing advice and instead encourage personal development. As needs are identified, coaching may turn to skill building related to specific job duties, or more general professional development. Each coaching session should end positively and include action steps to be taken before the next session.


Mentors build trusting relationships with mentees and may serve as a sounding board in challenging or difficult situations encountered during growth and development. Mentors may help mentees decide whether a certain job is a good fit, learn how to deal with difficult coworkers, or learn how to better manage their work-life balance.

Instead of providing advice or engaging in problem solving, mentorship is more about providing the support and encouragement a future nurse leader needs. Additionally, mentors should provide mentees with opportunities to reflect on their experiences to help them identify areas for improvement.


Unlike coaches or mentors, sponsors help to identify future job opportunities a future nurse leader might consider. In many cases, sponsors can help open doors a future leader may not even know about. Similarly, sponsors may also act as advocates for nurse leaders.

Sponsorship should be proactive, with sponsors quickly becoming familiar with the skill sets and goals of the nurse leader. In addition to helping identify possible jobs, this also helps sponsors advocate effectively for their colleagues. Sponsors are also essential for helping nurse leaders from underrepresented groups, such as women or people of color, gain visibility and the respect of others within the organizations.

Fostering a “coaching culture” in nursing

Many organizational leaders are unfamiliar with the process of identifying coaches, mentors, and sponsors to pair with future leaders for growth. Fortunately, current leaders can take several steps to help facilitate this process:

  • Determine the organization’s needs.
  • Find individuals who understand the work.
  • Seek out trained coaches and mentors and reach out to them to assess the emotional “fit” of such a relationship.
  • If a good fit is identified, establish ground rules and goals. Clarify roles and responsibilities. Incorporate ways to evaluate the process as it continues.
  • Identify ways to provide constructive feedback.
  • Build in methods of maintaining the professional relationship over time.

While this article specifically focuses on public health leaders, organizational leaders can use these concepts in any area of nursing practice. Coaching, mentoring, and sponsorship can all play a key role in the success and advancement of all future nurse leaders.

Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN
Freelance Health and Medical Content Writer, Wolters Kluwer Health
Sarah has over nine years’ experience in various clinical areas, including surgery, endocrinology, family practice, and pharmaceuticals. She began writing professionally in 2016 as a way to use her medical knowledge beyond the bedside to help educate and inform healthcare consumers and providers.
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