Should you get a mentor or a sponsor? “There is a big difference”

In my previous article, How To Find Yourself a Mentor in 2017, I shared some of my experiences as both a mentor and mentee, and offered some thoughts on how you can find a mentor through avoiding some of the common pitfalls. Now I want to talk about the difference between a mentor and a sponsor, and whether you need both.

Mentor v Sponsor

In a nutshell, there is a big difference between a mentor and a sponsor. And while a mentor may be a sponsor, it is just as likely they may not be. And to complicate things, you may have sponsors in your life who you would not consider a mentor, and who you may not even know particularly well. Let me explain.

Generally speaking, any sponsors in your career may have developed from first being a mentor. But rarely does it work the other way around. The reason is that a sponsor is essentially someone who is prepared to go out on a limb to another person in their network and say “Yes, I know this person. I trust this person. I am willing to recommend this person”. That public endorsement is therefore quite different to a mentor who provides support, encouragement and assistance to you directly and most often, privately.

A sponsor is one of the most valuable people in your professional network because they are prepared to put their own reputation on the line by putting you forward for an opportunity. In this article I want to focus on sponsors that know you well and that have come to know you over a period of time whether as a mentor, as one of your leaders, as a colleague or perhaps someone you have dealt with within your industry.

It is these sponsors you have impressed to such an extent that when they hear that someone in their network needs particular skills or experiences for an opportunity, they are prepared to put your name forward with the endorsement of “I know Susan and I really feel she would be excellent for this role. I have seen her work in similar situations and handle these kinds of issues incredibly well. You might like to take a look at her for your company.” This kind of ‘sponsorship’ or recommendation can be invaluable in your career.

While mentors are incredibly valuable in terms of having someone to consult with privately about professional issues and decisions, sponsors are prepared take that relationship public and put you forward for opportunities. Sponsors are willing to promote you within their own network and they do so because they feel that not only will it assist you in your career, it will also assist the person they are recommending you to as well. In comparison, mentors will – initially at least – focus on fostering your personal relationship to provide you with professional advice and guidance as required.

It is worth noting that in some cases, you may have never met your ‘sponsor’ and they may only be aware of you by reputation alone. While it is probably the less common scenario, it certainly does happen, and any recommendation would normally be couched with “I have not met Louise personally but I understand she has terrific digital skills and so could be someone you might like to consider.”

I am frequently asked for recommendations of people for board or executive roles. Most often I suggest people I know directly and can feel safe to ‘vouch’ for. But there are other people that I know of by reputation, including through online platforms such as LinkedIn or Twitter, or who I may know as an acquaintance and if I think they could be of value to the person asking, I will still recommend them.

Finding a sponsor

So how do you find a sponsor? Well if you thought finding a mentor was challenging, finding a sponsor is even more difficult. But, in many ways less complicated. Let me explain.

To find a mentor you need to have the right ‘chemistry’, you need plenty of time and you need to make sure the relationship is a two-way street. (Have a read here for more advice about mentors and some of the pitfalls to avoid.)

To find a sponsor, you need to do whatever it is you do in your profession really well, and along the way develop trusted relationships with people in your network. You need to meet people, engage with colleagues within your industry and your organisation, and be someone who people would want on their team or in their organisation. You need to seek out mentors who can assist you to be the best in whatever professional pursuit you pursue and who may, in time, become a sponsor as well.

I have been fortunate to have had people who have ‘sponsored’ me throughout my career, some of them I would consider mentors, others have not. Sometimes I know a sponsor may have recommended me for a particular opportunity, other times I do not. This is what makes knowing how to find a sponsor that much more difficult. So don’t try – sponsors will find you and want to recommend you if you focus on doing whatever it is you do, well.

So it is important to remember it is not possible to control or ‘manage’ who may or may not become a sponsor. The only thing you can control is to focus on what you do and do it to the best of your ability. You should certainly continue to look for a mentor, but also continue to build your network and develop authentic and genuine relationships across a wide spectrum. And importantly, help others by acting as their sponsor whenever you can.

Dr Kirstin Ferguson is a professional company director and sits on a range of corporate boards as well as the board of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Layne Beachley’s Aim for the Stars Foundation. Ferguson has a PhD in leadership and governance, and in 2014 was named one of 100 Australia’s Women of Influence. You can connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

This article was originally published on Women’s Agenda

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