When you were in high school, you had a guidance counselor to help you with your college applications. When you were in college, your advisor nudged you to finish your senior thesis. Now that you’re a working professional, who plays that supporting role? It’s likely a mentor or sponsor.
Both are similar in that they can positively impact your career, but there are some big differences between mentors and sponsors. Mentors offer advice and wisdom, while sponsors can and will actively advocate for you — and expect you to make good on the doors they help open.
Put simply, "Mentors advise, while sponsors act," says career expert and author Sylvia Ann Hewlett.
HOW TO FIND A SPONSOR OR MENTOR
When it comes to career advancement, few of us can go it alone. One 2013 survey found that about 80 percent of CEOs reported having mentors. Some experts such as Hewlett argue that sponsorship is an even bigger contributor to professional success: Her research found that 70 percent of sponsored men and 68 percent of sponsored women are happy with the rate at which they're moving up in their careers, while only 57 percent of their unsponsored peers could say the same. Unfortunately, women typically have three times as many mentors as men, but half the number of sponsors.
That’s why it’s so important to actively seek out a sponsor if you’re looking for help getting to the next level of your career, or a mentor if you’re seeking to pick the brain of someone who has been there, done that.
“Finding a career sponsor is a little trickier, as it's more about attracting their attention than outright asking them.”
Even though it’s all about relationships, the way you approach finding the two can be different. When seeking a mentor, identify folks who are living the professional life you aspire to, then send a brief email explaining why you're seeking their guidance, whether it’s for general career advice or help with a specific situation. Don't be afraid to ask them out for a quick coffee; you’d be surprised how many people are willing to give their time.
If you aren't sure who to approach, look within your alumni or personal networks, or even on LinkedIn. Check within your employer, too. Some companies have formal mentoring programs, but even if they don’t, think about an exec whose career path you admire. Either way, the mentor shouldn't be your direct supervisor or manager. He or she should be removed from your day-to-day work life but have been where you are and successfully moved up in the organization.
Finding a career sponsor is a little trickier, as it's more about attracting their attention than outright asking them. You have to earn a sponsor’s attention; proving your worth is your most powerful strategy. Your ability to consistently deliver is what's going to get you on the radar of powerful higher-ups. Ideally, the sponsors you're looking to attract are those who have direct access to decision-making within your organization.
HOW TO MAINTAIN YOUR RELATIONSHIPS
After you’ve secured a mentor or sponsor, keep the connection. The best way to do that is to make sure you’re actually an enjoyable person to mentor or sponsor. Keep your expectations manageable, be respectful of their time, show gratitude and offer ways that you can be of service.
And remember that a sponsor has put his or her reputation on the line by recommending you for a high-profile assignment, pay raise or promotion. So you owe it to them to do your best work and exude a sense of loyalty. They should be proud to have sponsored you.
That said, it's wise to invest in more than one sponsor, especially because your sponsor could leave the company. For larger companies, consider the 2+1 Rule: having two sponsors inside your organization, plus one on the outside. This helps you cast a wider career net — and up your chances of progressing.