It’s easy to feel like you need to go it alone in your career. It’s up to you to land that job or score that promotion. The development of your skills rests on your shoulders. Ultimately, only you can make your career ambitions a reality.
I’ll admit that there’s some truth to all of those statements — and it’s good to take accountability for the role you play in your own professional future.
But here’s the thing: nobody walks this road totally alone. Committed managers, helpful team members, encouraging partners, and even understanding friends are our allies when it comes to chasing our biggest job-related goals.
Those people can offer a lot of support, whether you want to tackle a new challenge or just need to vent after a long day in the office. But, when it comes to making informed career choices, building your network, and maximizing your employment potential, it’s hard to match the influence of a mentor and a sponsor.
Wait… a mentor and a sponsor? Don’t those two terms mean exactly the same thing? Not quite. We’re breaking down the difference between these roles, and why you might want to find both.
What’s a mentor?
Out of the two, this is likely the term that you’re more familiar with. You can think of a mentor almost like a coach — this person (who, in most cases, has more experience than you) will serve as your go-to resource for any career questions and challenges you might come across.
You can think of a mentor almost like a coach — this person will serve as your go-to resource for any career questions and challenges you might come across.
Maybe you need help crafting a career plan for yourself or perhaps you want to pick the brain of someone who has already achieved a lot in your chosen field. Those are shoes that a mentor could fill.
While there are certainly more formal mentorship arrangements and programs out there, a lot of mentoring is actually pretty casual. In most cases, you’ll get your hands on knowledge, insights, feedback, and advice from your mentor through low-pressure conversations (whether it’s over coffee or via email) where you’ve come prepared with your questions.
Sounds helpful, right? It is. Being able to turn to someone who’s more experienced and established not only offers you a great confidence boost when you’re doubting yourself, but it can also improve your performance.
A study of 1,000 employees conducted by Gartner found that a quarter of employees who enrolled in a mentoring program had a positive change in salary grade, while only 5 percent of employees who weren’t part of the program saw a change. Similarly, mentees were promoted up to five times as often as those who weren’t in the program.
OK… so, what’s a sponsor?
If a mentor is like your coach, then you can think of a sponsor like your agent. While mentors are there to provide recommendations to help you develop (it’s up to you to take them or leave them!), sponsors take a much more active role in your professional life.
Think of a sponsor like your agent. They’ll take a much more active role in your professional life.
“A sponsor is someone in a position of power who uses his or her influence to advocate on your behalf,” Joann Eisenhart, Ph.D., Senior Vice President for Human Resources at Northwestern Mutual, wrote in an article for Forbes. “A sponsor could be your boss, your boss’s boss, or anyone who’s in a position to influence others and who knows you well enough to put his or her reputation on the line for you.”
As a fact sheet from Stanford University explains, a sponsor will assist their protegé by helping them achieve their career vision, directly championing them and increasing their visibility, and offering to make connections and introductions within their own network.
In short, sponsors are far more hands-on. They aren’t just equipping you with information — they’re highly invested in your success and take steps to help you actually make things happen.
Is one better than the other? Or do you need both?
Much like a lot of things in your career, deciding whether to have a mentor or a sponsor is ultimately a personal choice.
Perhaps you’re somebody who loves the idea of a sponsor serving as a strong proponent in your corner — or maybe the thought of having someone broadcast your achievements like that makes you a little itchy and uncomfortable.
The good news is that a mentor or a sponsor can do a lot of good in helping you take your career to the next level. But the even better news? If you feel like you’re going to need to flip a coin to decide between them, you don’t have to — it’s perfectly acceptable (and even beneficial) to have both.
Here’s why: they serve very different purposes. Sure, there’s bound to be some overlap every now and then, but generally, the roles they play in your career development aren’t the same.
Let’s look at a hypothetical situation for some clarity. Perhaps you’ve been feeling like you’re stagnating in your career. You’ve mastered your position, every single day feels the same, and you’re growing increasingly bored at work. In that scenario, your mentor will provide you with some advice to shake things up — for example, suggesting that you start up a side hustle to reignite your passion.
Your sponsor? They’d be the ones to roll up their sleeves and connect you to your first potential client and hand out your brand new business cards to people who might be interested in what you’re offering.
See the difference? They’re both beneficial, just in different ways.
Sometimes your career journey can feel lonely, but take comfort in the fact that you don’t have to go it alone. In addition to the support network you’ve already built, both a mentor and a sponsor can offer significant value in terms of helping you set your career ambitions — and then actually make them a reality.