Have you ever wondered what the difference between a sponsor and a mentor is? If you have, you’re not alone. It’s a common question, especially in Corporate America. In this blog, I’ll explore the differences, share some helpful tips on how to find a mentor, and how to leverage your sponsors once you’ve secured them.
Starting with the Basics
What is the purpose of a mentor? A mentor is someone that provides you with career guidance, challenges your thinking, and gives you constructive feedback. Perhaps it’s a parent, fellow colleague, a senior leader, or someone younger than you acting as a reverse mentor. Mentors are important to your career and should be a trusted source for straightforward advice. Not everyone has a formal relationship; some mentors function in a much more informal manner.
By contrast, a sponsor is someone high enough and powerful enough in the organization who can create opportunities and vouch for your performance. Sponsors will pick up the phone and recommend you during a job interview. They will make connections for you that reach across functional or business units, opening the door to opportunities in ways a mentor can’t. In some rare cases, depending on their level, your mentor could also be your sponsor.
Mentors will help you prepare for the interview. Sponsors will pick up the phone and recommend you for the job.
Selecting a Mentor
The biggest question I get from the women I coach is, How do I find a mentor? It’s best to choose a mentor based on the goals you are looking to achieve. Too often someone will choose a mentor just for the sake of having one. Instead, select a mentor that can help you in a specific area or develop a particular skill. For example, if you want to develop your expertise in Finance, a mentor in Communications probably isn’t the right fit. It’s a good idea to have mentors from different backgrounds and genders as well. Just because you are a woman doesn’t mean you should only have female mentors. Diversity will help you see things from a different perspective.
Your mentors will change over time as your career and skill set evolves. You may even have a few mentors, each with a different purpose. Don’t forget about external mentors, too. It can be tempting to only consider people inside your company, but often the best source of fresh ideas will come from those in a different industry. Not to mention they won’t be caught up in your office politics and can provide a truly objective view!
How do you get a mentor? Ask. This is one of the biggest differences between a sponsor and a mentor. All you have to do is ask someone to mentor you. When you approach them be sure to outline the reason for selecting them, what you’re hoping they can help you with, and what you’ll realistically expect from them. If you are expecting a mentor to meet with you monthly and they can’t commit the time, you should consider someone else or adjust your expectations. Make sure you are on the same page when you establish the relationship. If they say no, it doesn’t hurt to ask why. You may gain insights that can help you land a yes next time. Then start looking for someone else.
Leveraging your Sponsors
A sponsor, on the other hand, happens organically and is based on a deep trust. Typically, you can’t ask someone to be your sponsor, because they have to believe in your work ethic and your ability to produce results repeatedly. If you haven’t found a sponsor, take a hard look at your results and personal brand. There could be some underlying reasons that you aren’t aware of, which are preventing others from sponsoring you. Hopefully, your mentor can help you in this area.
Once you have a sponsor it’s time to leverage them. Keep them informed about your aspirations, career goals, and desired opportunities. Don’t be shy about asking them to pick up the phone and make a call on your behalf. Make it easy for them though. Give them talking points about why you would be good in the role and have the hiring manager’s contact information prepared, if they don’t already have it. In some cases, you won’t know who your sponsors are, but they are advocating for you in the workplace when you need more visibility. If you do know who they are, be sure to thank your sponsors when they support you. A simple handwritten card should suffice, but a gift basked during the holidays doesn’t hurt (if your budget affords it).
Whatever you do, never burn a bridge with a sponsor. They are spending political currency and risking their reputation when they vouch for you. It’s best to make sure you really want the job if you ask for a recommendation and are offered the position as a result. If you don’t follow through, they’ll think twice next time you ask them for support.
Your career is a journey and finding mentors and sponsors is part of it. Both will be important to your success, but having a sponsor to help you move through the organization will be critical.
Lastly, when you reach the top, remember to pay it forward and mentor or sponsor emerging talent. You were once in their shoes and now have the opportunity to advance the career of others. Use your power wisely.