Mentors and sponsors - many believe these words are interchangeable. Though both play critical roles in career advancement, they are not created equal. So, what’s the difference? And how does one go about getting mentored or sponsored? Here is everything you need to know:
What is a mentor?
The main function of a mentor is to guide. They help you define which career path to take and then guide you along the path. Mentors can assist individuals one-on-one or as a group, but regardless of the dynamic of the relationship, you should be able to look to your mentor to steer you around any professional pitfalls by providing emotional support and impartial feedback. With a superior on your team in the form of a mentor, you have a built-in professional network.
Okay then, what is a sponsor?
Mentors are essential in helping you figure out where you want to go and give you advice on how to get there. Sponsors, on the other hand, act as advocates when advancement decisions are made. Your sponsor, not your mentor, is the one bringing up your name in the closed-door meeting before the meeting. Where mentors are key at the entry-level getting your career off the ground, only a sponsor can help you reach the top. These individuals connect you with the opportunities and actively enable you to rise.
Where the need for a mentor may decrease over time, a sponsor’s worth never wavers. Even those higher up the corporate ladder tend to have higher rates of sponsorship. In fact, sponsorship increases with every rung. Non-managers have a sponsorship rate of about 55%. Managers have a sponsorship rate of 59.2%. 63.1% of directors are sponsored and a whopping 65.5% of executives have at least one sponsor advocating for them.
That all sounds great, but how do I get one?
First, do your homework. Don’t just reach out randomly to someone you found googling prominent people in your industry. You should be able to demonstrate familiarity with this person and their work. Start by scanning your organization. Notice the people holding positions you aspire to or working on projects you dream of furthering. Typically, mentors are direct superiors, a step ahead if not your own manager. Sponsors are ideally two or more levels above you but can be existing mentors.
Start off by asking for a brief chat but know what you expect of them before you reach out. Do you want them to mentor you - advising you on the steps you need to take to advance? Or do you want a sponsor to advocate for that advancement? Do you want them to show you the ropes, or help you pull up the sail? While a mentor may be more willing to start from nothing and show you the way, a sponsor will want you to know the way already so they can help you get there.
This should go without saying, but show your gratitude. Let them know you appreciate any help they are willing and able to provide but also offer to return the favor if/when the opportunity should arise. Let prospective mentors know that you aren’t looking to get something for nothing. Sponsorship is even more of a two-way street, though the return is more substantive. The best way to show gratitude to the person who helped you get where you are is through your performance and loyalty. Show them they weren’t wasting their energy on a company drain but rather investing in the company’s future.
Whether through a formal work program or cold-calling an alumnus from your college, retaining mentors and sponsorships is the best way to advance your career. Keep in mind, though, that these kinds of relationships take time to build and it may take a while to find the right match. If at first you don’t succeed - keep at it. While it’s never too late to start, there is no time like the present to explore your options.