Mentor vs. sponsor: Why having both is key for your career

September 23, 2021 - 20 min read

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Why do people confuse mentorship and sponsorship?

Defining a mentor

Defining a sponsor

What’s the difference between a mentor versus a sponsor?

What successful mentorship looks like

What successful sponsorship looks like

How both concepts can help with diversity in the workplace

The impact of mentorship vs sponsorship

Mentor vs sponsor: both matter in the workplace

Developing a satisfying and successful career isn't easy. Doing it on your own is even harder — and unnecessary.

Without guidance, it can be hard to get perspective when you need to make important decisions. It can be hard to find career advancement opportunities when leaders haven’t noticed your potential.

Getting on the radar, knowing how to get the right people to notice your potential, can seem like a mystery.

That's why finding mentors and sponsors is so important for advancing your career. But what’s the difference between a mentor vs. a sponsor?

Let’s explore what mentors and sponsors are, how they can help nurture diversity in the workplace, and what successful mentorships and sponsorships look like.

Why do people confuse mentorship and sponsorship?

It’s easy to confuse mentorship and sponsorship. In both cases, someone with more experience guides another professional. Typically, mentors and sponsors advise on a career path, but they can also focus more on a specific activity or interest.

Both mentors and sponsors can provide guidance and help their protégés grow their network. And both roles can provide you with constructive criticism when you need it. They are also both important for developing employees into leaders.

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But mentors and sponsors have very different roles.

Before looking at their differences, let’s define each role.

Defining a mentor

A mentor in the workplace is someone that can provide you with guidance and career advice.

Usually, a mentor has experience working in the same field as you. They may even have had the same job or role as you. As such, they act as a role model for their mentee.

You can bounce career questions off them and ask them what they’d do in certain situations. They can also help you clarify your personal vision for your career.

Having a mentor can help you develop your career. That’s because you’re tapping into the knowledge and experience of someone who’s achieved similar goals (or who is on their way there).

Mentors aren't reserved just for your career guidance. For example, my friend's band (a side project) benefits from the mentorship of a more accomplished musician who has helped her with contacts at area clubs and how to think about what types of gigs to take and how to add new members.

It’s easy to assume that all mentors are older than their mentees. But that’s not always the case. People of all ages can reach out for mentorship. And people of all ages may have the experience someone else seeks in a mentor.

Reverse mentorship is where a younger person mentors a more seasoned professional. Reverse mentorship can help those who want to enter a new field or emerging industry or stay up-to-date on new tools and ways of doing things. For example, the mentorship of a 21-year-old gamer could be useful for someone developing learning products for young professionals.

8% of people who have mentors are senior-level. And 35% are mid-level. So entry-level employees aren’t the only ones who seek out mentors.

Defining a sponsor

Different from a mentor, a sponsor is someone in the workplace who will advocate for you. This could be a colleague, but it’ll usually be one of your leaders.

A sponsor roots for you and your career development. A sponsor makes sure that you "are on the radar" and that other decision-makers know your name. They’ll put your name in for promotions, recommend you for a raise, or provide you with other similar opportunities.

Not paying attention to cultivating a sponsor, or several, is a mistake. While we like to think our good work will speak for itself — and companies like to talk about merit — without a sponsor, you risk getting overlooked. Especially in large organizations.

This is why sponsors are usually in a position of leadership compared to their sponsees. Sponsors trust their sponsees. They see their potential and want them to succeed in their career.

Sponsees get help navigating their career through strategy, career advancement opportunities, and introductions to important people in both their company and their chosen field.

What’s the difference between a mentor versus a sponsor? 

The roles of sponsor and mentor may sound similar. But they’re very different from one another. For one, mentors don’t necessarily work in the same organization as you. But sponsors usually do.

Both will provide guidance and advice. But only a sponsor will actively advocate for your career success within your current organization. Mentors may advocate for you, but this isn’t typical.

For example, let’s say you’re working in a sales position at a company, but one of your career goals is to eventually move into management. A sponsor could talk to their colleagues who are already in management about your goals and why you would be a good fit for a management position.

A mentor could do this too. However, they would be more focused on helping you develop the necessary skill set to work in management and helping you create a clear plan for your career path.

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While mentors may help you network, sponsors will actively include you in their professional network. They’ll go out of their way to introduce you to people who could help you advance your career. That’s because they’re personally invested in your professional development.

Consider our example above about the employee working in sales who wants to move into management. Their sponsor could set up a meeting between the sales employee and people who already work in management. In addition, the sponsor could introduce the sales employee to people in management at other companies.

Mentors can do this too, but it isn’t their primary purpose.

Remember that sponsors always have their own agenda. That agenda might be simply to achieve a business outcome like hitting next quarter's sales target, related to a corporate priority like more diverse management, or to build a high-performing network that will burnish their own career prospects. 

Mentors also have their own agenda. It is usually related more to their own personal fulfillment and meaning. A mentor often wants to give back, share learning and impart wisdom, guide others to improve the community, or shape their own legacy. 

Neither the sponsor's or the mentor's agenda is a bad thing. Often it can align with your own goals. But you should keep it in mind. 

Finally, sponsors won’t always be the right people to help you navigate inner challenges

For example, let’s say you’re struggling to find fulfillment in your career. A mentor will often be better-suited to help you with this problem, because a big part of mentorship is helping you develop as a person. They can help you define your career goals and decide if your current job best suits you. This is where mentors excel the most.

On the other hand, a sponsor is more focused on helping you reach the career goals you’ve already defined.

This is why having both a mentor and a sponsor can be beneficial to your career. Let’s take a closer look at what successful mentorships and sponsorships look like.

What successful mentorship looks like

A successful mentorship starts with clear expectations. Both the mentor and the mentee know what their role is in the relationship.

For example, the mentee understands that the mentor cannot realistically invest more than two hours a month discussing with them. The mentor, on the other hand, understands that the mentee expects them to set that time aside.

Second, a mentorship shouldn’t feel emotionally exhausting to the two members. Instead, successful mentorships should feel effortless or at least enjoyable. The mentor and mentee need to have some chemistry to make the relationship pleasant for both parties.

In a good mentor-to-mentee relationship, the mentor will understand that they don’t have all the right answers. And, they’ll help the mentee achieve their own career goals, not the goals the mentor believes the mentee should have.

For example, let’s say the mentee wants to pursue leadership in project management. But the mentor’s vision of success is attaining the C-suite. Even if they have different ideas of what it means to be successful, the mentor should support the mentee in their vision.

Finally, a successful mentorship will include the good and the bad. Mentees need to be willing to receive constructive criticism. If they’re always defensive when receiving feedback, the relationship can start to feel taxing.

Mentors need to be able to provide that criticism with honesty. Mentors who feel nervous about being honest because they don’t want to hurt feelings won’t help their mentees improve.

Here’s an example.

Let’s say the mentee is practicing their public speaking skills and wants to know if they’re ready to give an important presentation. The mentor feels like they need more practice before they’re ready.

But they also know that the mentee has already worked really hard and don’t want to hurt their feelings.

So, instead of telling the truth, they tell the mentee to go ahead and pursue the opportunity to give that presentation. If the mentee isn’t ready, this may harm their career.

It would’ve been better for the mentor to tell the truth and let the mentee know what areas of their public speaking skills need more work.

What successful sponsorship looks like

According to The Sponsor Dividend report from Coqual, 71% of sponsors are of the same gender or race as their primary sponsee. This is because people gravitate toward others who look like them.

And sometimes, people prefer to have a mentor that is in the same minority group as them. This is because that mentor can often understand some of the unique struggles that the mentee has gone through.

However, this can sometimes cause an issue since men predominantly hold positions of power as senior leaders in organizations. For instance, for every one Fortune 500 company run by a woman, there are 13 companies run by men.

So, if sponsors are only working with people who look like them and have a similar background, there may not be much diversity in sponsorship programs.

A successful sponsorship should go beyond pairing sponsors and sponsees who come from the same background. Instead, the focus should be on placing sponsees with potential sponsors who can help them advance their careers.

By sponsoring diverse people, leaders in organizations can work to improve the diversity and inclusivity of their leadership team since sponsorships can give opportunities to advance careers.

Next, the sponsor needs to be in a position that can help their sponsee based on their goals. If the sponsor doesn’t have any influence to help the sponsee, then the relationship is closer to a mentorship. That’s why sponsors usually hold leadership roles.

For example, a senior executive would make a great sponsor for someone who wishes to climb to an executive position someday.

Sponsees need to show some promise and high potential. Successful sponsorships work best when the sponsor truly believes in the sponsee.

This is important because a sponsorship can also have repercussions on a sponsor’s career. If a sponsor makes recommendations and the sponsee falls through, this reflects badly on the sponsor.

Similar to a mentorship, honesty is important in a sponsorship relationship. Sponsees need to be willing to receive feedback and make the most of what they are learning. While sponsors need to be honest with their sponsees if they want to see them succeed. Shying away from feedback will only stop sponsees from achieving their full potential.

How both concepts can help with diversity in the workplace

Both mentorship and sponsorship can help organizations with diversity in the workplace.

For one, leaders who have diverse mentees can help create a sense of belonging for those mentees, which can drive retention. Employees who feel like they belong are ten times more likely to experience a sense of job satisfaction.

So why can mentoring create a sense of belonging?

For mentees, having a mentor can feel like someone is looking out for them. Mentors can also introduce their mentees to their network within the organization.

As a result, diverse mentees can forge relationships with more people in the organization. Those relationships can then help foster belonging.

Sponsorships also play an important role in cultivating diversity.

In the Coqual report on The Sponsor Dividend, over 3,000 full-time white-collar workers in the US were asked about their satisfaction with their career advancement.

45% of white employees said they were satisfied with their rate of advancement without having a sponsor. But only 34% of people of color said the same. With sponsors, 56% of people of color said they were satisfied with their rate of advancement.

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And because 93% of employees say they would stay at a company longer if that company invested in their career development, sponsoring your diverse employees could improve retention.

If people from diverse backgrounds know that they have someone vouching for their interests at their current organization, they’re less likely to want to leave. If they don’t have this, these employees could seek advancement opportunities elsewhere.

This doesn’t just harm a company’s retention rate. It also reduces the level of diversity, which can lead to less diversity of thought and less innovation.

The impact of mentorship vs sponsorship

Both sponsorship and mentorship relationships have a powerful impact on all parties involved.

Let’s break down what this impact looks like for mentors, mentees, sponsors, and sponsees.

Impact on mentors

Here are some ways that mentorship impacts a mentor:

Impact on mentees

Here are some ways that mentorship impacts a mentee:

  • See a concrete example of what it takes to achieve their professional goals
  • Have a place to turn to in times of uncertainty
  • Have increased self-worth and personal growth
  • Can develop ideas by bouncing off with their mentor
  • Achieve professional goals faster by following in someone’s footsteps
  • Receive constructive feedback to keep improving

Impact on sponsors

Here are some ways that sponsorship impacts a sponsor:

Impact on sponsees

Here are some ways that sponsorship impacts a sponsee:

  • Build their network faster and with more key people for career improvement
  • Open doors for career advancement
  • Reach new opportunities to showcase their skills
  • Get honest feedback from sponsors to improve at work
  • Increase self-confidence
  • Get noticed for good work

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Mentor vs sponsor: both matter in the workplace

Mentorships and sponsorships both help create more diverse workplaces, foster belonging, and develop tomorrow’s leaders.

With such relationships in place, employees who seek guidance can learn from those who have been there before. They can also earn the trust of their leaders with sponsors vouching for them.  

But coaching also has an important role to play in the workplace. Unlike mentorship and sponsorship, coaching is done by professionals who specialize in helping employees attain their full potential.

So which is better, coaching or mentoring and sponsoring?

One isn’t better than the other. However, coaching can help leaders become better mentors and sponsors.

See how coaching can help you find a mentor or sponsor, or become one yourself, by getting a customized BetterUp demo today.

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Published September 23, 2021

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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