Career Advice Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Understanding the Roles of Mentors and Sponsors

John Smith

A facilitative catalyst to navigating career “firsts”—whether it be a first job, first attempt at a promotion, or first time returning to the office after a career break—can be the presence of a mentor or a sponsor. Though the guidance from both can be extremely impactful to your career, the two roles are not quite the same.

The major differences

A mentor is someone who can assist their mentee with the unwritten rules and policies within their organisation. Mentors steer their mentees towards choices that will propel them forward in building their career. It is helpful when one’s mentor is within their company, but not necessary. A role model in your industry will do just fine—distance from your day-to-day responsibilities could allow them to provide an external, open-minded view on situations or complications.

A sponsor has a more serious role to play. Simply speaking, a sponsor will put their status and reputation on the line for the backing of their protégé. The role of a sponsor is held by an employee within the company of the protégé—and often in a top-tier, management position—who has a strong enough status to campaign for the success of the promising employee.

Building a mentor/mentee relationship

A looming question for new employees is often: how does one actually find a mentor, let alone a sponsor? Since the roles require different things, initiating the conversation and the relationship for each role also differ.

Before asking someone to mentor you, consider a few questions first. Do you look up to this person? Have they achieved success in an area you find inspiring, or reached a goal that you aim to reach yourself? Do they have an understanding of your role and company, of your goals and work ethic?

This request is not only a compliment to receive, but the relationship can benefit both parties. The pupil receives guidance, and the mentor gains experience as a leader and insight about what is happening at another level of the business.

Trusting, respectful relationships make for the best mentor/mentee pairings. However, this is a special type of professional relationship that takes time to build and strengthen. Grab a coffee, strike up a conversation on similar interests, or offer reinforcements on a large project or task to let your superior know you’re looking to make an advancement in your career. In addition, keep track of your achievements so that you can communicate them to your potential mentor. Humble self-promotion is an important step in proving yourself to superiors.

Earning a sponsor

Sponsorship is quite different from mentorship. A sponsor is, in effect, someone who believes in your potential growth within a company and is willing to put their reputation on the line for you. Although directly asking a potential mentor for their guidance is acceptable, the road to earning a sponsor is different. This is not a question that needs to be asked, rather than something that needs to be proved.

Senior level employees can make the choice to become a sponsor on their own if they have true faith in a budding employee, but they will not sponsor just anyone—especially if proof of their hard work and perseverance is lacking. So how do you earn the support of a sponsor within your organization? Take on that extra project, work the extra hour, and go above and beyond your role to earn the positive attention of senior management. Ultimately, show that you are a hard worker willing to put in the effort necessary to pave the way for not only your success, but the company’s as a whole. This puts you in the view of your superiors as a rising star within the business.

Best of both worlds

Although mentors and sponsors differ in a few ways, their central motive is the same: to assist employees with room for growth in achieving their highest potential for themselves and their company. You don’t have to  choose between the two, either. Receiving guidance from both mentors and sponsors can hugely benefit any employee, whether they are looking to get on a promotional track or simply want to obtain more confidence and knowledge in their role. Mentors and sponsors can be the driving force behind promotions and recognitions, and overall are instrumental to the building and success rate of one’s career.


Featured image credit: Photo by Headway on Unsplash