Mentorship, Sponsorship — What’s the Difference?
Two words, often confused. And for good reason. There is so much attention around the importance of being mentored and not nearly enough of a focus on sponsorship, which can often be more valuable.
Both involve getting support and guidance from another individual, yes. But what’s the difference and why should you care?
A mentor is someone who’s more experienced than their mentee, commonly with an expertise in a certain area. They are there to “coach” the mentee and help them become stronger in their roles.
A sponsor should be experienced as well. Their role is to help you identify opportunities to advance and broker introductions or recommendations that will fast track you into your next role. It's to your advantage to have a sponsor or mentor, even both. But to create a successful relationship with both, it helps to understand the difference.
Spotting a Sponsor
It’s not always easy to spot a sponsor. Often a sponsor helps from behind the scenes.
Think of it like the stage crew on a TV set. All we see are the actors doing their thing. But it’s the stage crew that enables the scene to go off without a hitch. In business, a sponsor may observe you doing good work and suggest your name when a project comes up for grabs. Or a sponsor may be acquainted with your talents and suggest you for a role at a growing company that is seeking people with your expertise. Sometimes a sponsor will tell you they’re making these recommendations, or often they will simply do it and not mention it to you.
It’s easy to assume your boss will be your sponsor, especially when you’re lucky enough to have a quality relationship with them. The truth is, the person managing you is doing exactly that. Managing you. They may be generous enough to suggest you for other roles or different companies, but don’t rely on them. Seek sponsorship elsewhere.
Expand your range. Who is going to help you get your next job? Or encourage you to go after alternative positions within your department? Who will you cross paths with in five, 10 or even 20 years down the road when you’re the boss? The answer — your peers.
Your colleagues are a resource you might overlook for this type of relationship. In reality, they are your best advocates for the future as you advance in your careers together. They know your skills and ambitions likely more than anyone else in the company and can really set you up to be viewed in a favorable light.
Getting Noticed by Potential Sponsors
Want to take a crack at a big new assignment? You have to ask. Ask someone if they are willing to vouch for you. Or if they’re willing to make an introduction for you. That’s the very nature of sponsorship.
Raise your hand. At the end of a meeting when someone asks, “Do you have any questions?” Ask! This is not the time to be silent. Let me guess, you’re scared of sounding dumb? Get over the fear because someone in the room likely has the same question as you. You might even catch the eye of a sponsor by being courageous enough to express interest in things outside of your sweet spot.
Is your company attending a conference you feel unqualified to attend? Share your interest and let them decide if you’re unqualified. Chances are, you’re not giving yourself enough credit. Even if you are technically unqualified, the fact that you’re voicing your desire to learn more and become qualified tells a lot. This kind of behavior could very well attract your next sponsor.
Sponsors are not mind readers — put yourself out there. Be noticeable. Give someone a reason to want to invest in your career.
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out my tips on finding the perfect mentor.