Mentors vs. Sponsors: Definition, Differences, and Why You Need One More Than the Other

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What is a mentor?

In the traditional sense, a mentor is someone who you turn to for advice. 
Professionally, a mentor can be someone who's worked in the field you're in, or who's had similar jobs as you, whom you seek guidance from. Young professionals are often told to seek mentors. The reason for this is to have someone to bounce career questions off of as well as someone to help shed light on certain workplace situations that commonly come up. 
While the common image is that of a young professional and an old mentor, peers or younger individuals can also serve in this capacity; it's the relationship dynamic that determines the mentor/mentee interaction, not age or demographics.

What is a career (or professional) sponsor?

In the career development realm, a sponsor refers to a workplace advocate. A sponsor may be your boss or another leader, or even a peer, that champions your work and development. 
This could mean an executive who puts your name up for promotion, or who pushes for you to take the lead in a big project, or even throws public speaking opportunities your way. A sponsor actively helps open doors for you. 
A sponsorship relationship is more involved than a mentorship in that a sponsor generally puts their professional clout behind their sponsee. In recommending a sponsee for a raise, promotion, or opportunity, a sponsor indicates professional trust in the person they're elevating. 

Mentor vs. Sponsor

  • Does not have to work in your organization
  • Generally works with you
  • Provides guidance and advice
  • Can provide guidance or advice
  • Can advocate for you at work but not necessary for a traditional "mentorship relationship"
  • Actively advocates for you and helps you advance or develop in your career 
  • May introduce you to connections and help you network
  • Includes you in professional network and introduces you to key people
  • Can be thought of as a passive relationship
  • More of an active relationship 
  • Can serve as a professional role model but does not actively seek advancement for you
  • Personally invested in your professional advancement

Why you should seek a sponsor

While mentors have their benefits, sponsors have more impact. A sponsor will help you advance while a mentor will give you ideas on how you might advance. Think of it this way: a mentor is like a guidance counselor, while a sponsor is like the college admissions officer. The latter opens doors for you while the former describes possible doors to you. 

The tricky part is finding a sponsorship relationship. As you can imagine, it's not exactly a topic of conversation, and it'd be out-of-place to directly ask a boss or senior leader to play this role for you. It's a dynamic you have to nurture organically. Luckily, with the advent of employee resource groups, especially women's ERGs, this type of relationship has much more awareness around it which means it's more likely for senior leaders to actively initiate this type of relationship. 

Tips for finding a sponsor or mentor

  1. Finding a mentor is easier than finding a sponsor. Asking professionals for advice is often well-received if the asker is polite and a good listener. A simple conversation can turn into a mentorship with the right attitude (and the right people). 
  2. Shifting a mentorship into a sponsorship can be easier than finding a sponsorship relationship. This is because you already have a relationship; again, this will depend on the mentor, but it's often easier to shift these relationships than to find a sponsor among strangers. 
  3.  Do your best at work and have a good attitude. Social dynamics do matter. For a sponsor to want to stand behind your advancement, you have to show that you're worth the effort. Think of it this way, if a busy executive has to choose who to elevate and it's between you, the smart employee who happens to be the office gossip, versus the hard-working, kind teammate, you'll probably lose out. Be someone who a sponsor would be proud to stand behind.

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