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Mentors vs. Sponsors and Why You Need Both

If you’re looking to advance your career, all the mentors in the world can’t help you. Ok, so that’s not entirely true, but while a mentor can help you pursue your sacred question, she may not have the leverage to move you up the professional ladder. 

A mentor is still incredibly valuable and necessary as you explore your life goals and ambitions. She cares about you personally and is willing to listen to your concerns and frustrations and share her advice. Sylvia Ann Hewlett explains the role of a mentor in her book (Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor:

“Mentors will listen sym­pathetically to just about anything you care to bring up … In return, you listen and try to heed their advice … It’s an asymmetric relationship. The energy is flowing one way: toward you.” 

A sponsor, on the other hand, isn’t there to simply listen and give advice. She is there to actively help you advance your career because doing so will benefit her career as well. 

A sponsor will introduce you to the right people and recommend you for a promotion. She has the power and expertise to propel you forward in your chosen industry. She has the capital to advocate for you, and when she recommends youa bright and talented aspiring leaderfor an assignment or position, it makes her look good by proxy. As Hewlett explains, 

“A sponsor sees furthering your career as an important investment in his or her own career, orga­nization, or vision. Sponsors may advise or steer you, but their chief role is to develop you as a leader. Your role is to earn their investment in you. Indeed, throughout the relationship, you’re delivering outstanding results, build­ing their brand or legacy, and generally making them look good. Sponsorship, done right, is transactional. It’s an implicit or even explicit strategic alliance, a long-range quid pro quo.”

There are benefits to both mentors and sponsors but each has its place. If you’re looking to further your career and enter a role of leadership, you need a sponsor to achieve that goal. To put it simply, a mentor is for your sacred question and a sponsor is for your career advancement. 

For more on finding your mentors, read The Group Mind (Or Why Two Heads Are Better Than One).  

How to find your sponsor

Seeking out a sponsor is no walk in the park. Few people are qualified to be an effective sponsor and you have to earn their sponsorship. 

Start by actively networking with those in your field who have the power and sway to fight for you and move you up the career food chain. Make yourself stand out from your colleagues by surpassing expectations and demonstrating your commitment to your career. This is where you really need to shine, so pull on your rubber pants, and tap into your tool belt. You have to show your potential sponsor that you’re a worthy investment of her time and energy. 

How do you do this?

Be professional, share your ideas, and act like a leader. Remember, you have to provide value because sponsorship is a two-way street

In her book Earning It: Hard-Won Lessons from Trailblazing Women at the Top of the Business World, Joann S. Lublin gives her own advice on how to get sponsored:

“Get sponsored by someone who is further up the food chain, preferably an executive-level person who recognizes a high potential like you and decides he or she wants to take you under his or her wings and have you be their protégé.”

You can also be a sponsor

Even if you’re not yet in a leadership position, you can and should be a sponsor. No matter where you are on your career path, I can guarantee that there is someone who hasn’t yet made it that far. We can all lift up another person regardless of where we are in our life. 

If you see another driven woman who needs a hand, then reach out. You don’t have to have all the answers, just offering to listen or connect her with a potential sponsor can make a huge difference. Women especially need each other’s support.  

The need for more women sponsoring women 

As we all know, women are still not treated equally in the workplace and the proportion of male CEOs compared to women is grossly skewed towards the former. (In 2016, women held only 4.2% of CEO positions in America’s 500 largest companies.) While men can certainly be effective sponsors for career-focused women, there’s simply no way for them to fully understand the unique challenges women face as we try to move up the ladder. 

Do you know another woman who you could sponsor or be sponsored by? Don’t be afraid to reach out. If you’re reading this blog, you know you have something valuable to bring to the table, so share that special talent and perspective. Don’t let self-doubt hold you back. The world needs leaders like you to take action now more than ever before. 

What’s your personal experience seeking out a sponsor or acting as a sponsor? Share your story in the comments below. 

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