Mentor vs Sponsor: Boost Your Career with Professional Relationships

A mentor and a sponsor function very differently, yet the roles are often confused and used interchangeably by those seeking help and support with their careers. The main difference between these two roles is: mentors advise and sponsors act. Let’s look at the roles in more depth and see how they function operationally.

A mentor is usually a trusted senior-level leader who can provide advice to help you recognize your own strengths and assist you with your career goals. A mentorship creates a supportive environment – ie, a “behind the scenes” type of relationship - where the mentee sets the goals and is in control of defining the success of the interactions. Mentors focus on sharing experiences and advice that support skill building and provide feedback to build confidence toward achieving your own goals. You, the mentee, does the heavy lifting in a mentorship arrangement.

A sponsor, on the other hand, is sought out because she can provide you, the protégé, with the connections and advocacy that will openly move your career forward. Sponsors, who are typically well respected, senior leaders in your company or industry, will connect you to opportunities, high profile assignments and other people who can quickly advance your career. Sponsors know what you have already accomplished in prior roles and they openly advocate for you in meetings where project assignments, contracts and opportunities are discussed. They put their own reputations on the line for your benefit because you have proven your ability to be trusted in situations which require more responsibility and results.

An interesting aside - according to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, “women, on average, have three times as many mentors as men - but men have twice as many sponsors as women”. It may help to explain why men tend to advance more quickly than women in competitive career environments. Hewlett goes on to say that “women are not as intentional as men in seeking sponsors” to advance their careers. This may be because more women than men believe that mentorship functions similarly to sponsoring, so they don’t expect or understand the impact that a sponsor asserts in career development.

How do you know if mentorship or sponsorship is the better choice for you to achieve your personal and professional goals? Could you benefit from both types of relationships – mentoring and sponsorship? How do you know that you’re ready for a sponsor? There are many questions that require some thought before you reach out to begin either type of relationship.

In every case, it takes time to develop trust for either scenario to work out satisfactorily. A sponsor may need to work with you for a while before she is willing to stake her own reputation on yours. A mentor may decide that your vision and his style are not a good match and respectfully decline the relationship. You may decide not to accept the sponsorship or mentorship of a leader because of a difference in values. Keep in mind that, in all cases, these are two-way relationships and should be managed professionally, both on a personal and professional level.

If you are seeking mentorship, remember these tips:

  1. Mentors support through discussions about how to build skills, qualities or confidence for career advancement.

  2. Look for a mentor who is willing to share experiences, tools and strategies that can expand your thinking and help you to grow as a leader.

  3. Mentors should be easy to talk to and encourage you to look at yourself in an objective manner.

  4. Seek mentors who are not judgmental.

  5. Experienced mentors expect you to define your goals and to assess the dynamics of the relationship.

If you want a sponsor, you will need to gain the attention of a leader who is impressed with your work and confident of her ability to help you advance professionally. Position yourself accordingly by considering the following:

  1. Be very clear about the opportunities that you are seeking and make sure that these are known to your manager (and to her manager).

  2. Look for relationships with established leaders who are willing to share their connections and network to expose your accomplishments to a wider base.

  3. Develop a niche or a specialty. Know exactly what you want to be known for and why.

  4. Speak up when applicable to show your point of view.

  5. Be authentic, open and flexible.

  6. Be aware of the opportunities that are available and ask to be included on projects and programs where you can add value.

Whether you’re seeking a mentor or a sponsor, you will need to make the first move and position yourself as a good candidate for a professional relationship. Don’t reach out to people randomly. Be intentional. Take the time to research and learn why this person could potentially be a good fit for you. Know in advance what you expect from any professional relationship by understanding the ask that you are making of another and the responsibilities that come with the ask.





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