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Mentors vs Sponsors: Who is on your team?

Renowned businessman Jim Rohn once said, “You are the average of the five people you spend most of your time with.” Bottom line: the people around you matter. You need people—sponsors, mentors, coaches, colleagues, family, friends—who will challenge you and push you to become your best. When you engage with people who are exponentially better than you, the only result is that you will up-level yourself in the process.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, President and CEO of the think tank Center for Talent Innovation, studied 12,000 men and women across the U.S. and the U.K. to better understand the difference and impact of mentors versus sponsors. The research showed that sponsorship beat mentorship when it comes to career progression – especially for women struggling to climb higher than middle management.

Recently, many women have been asking me how to get mentors and sponsors. We all need help to blaze a successful trail in business. You can’t expect to win going it alone. But “getting” a mentor or sponsor isn’t the challenge. You must understand the fundamental differences.

Mentors are members of your inner circle that you reach out to for advice. They provide you with guidance on what worked for them on their career path to show you a path to your goals. Mentors don’t typically step in and make things happen, but rather are there to act as a sounding board for you to bring up ideas and suggestions, then provide feedback. They don’t expect much in return.

You may formally request a mentoring relationship with a key executive; however, top leaders – especially women in male-dominated industries and disciplines – are flooded with mentoring requests. Even if she wants to support you as a mentor, there might not be time for a formal type arrangement. Instead, seek informal mentoring and build relationships. Perhaps request an informal coffee meeting to ask questions about their position and their career path. Even a single meeting can shed great light onto your own career path.

In the corporate world, sponsors are the golden key to advancement.

Sponsors are much bigger players in the game. They are individuals that will nominate and support you for a role that perhaps you might not be 100 percent ready for. Sponsors have a belief in you. They stake their reputation on your performance.

Hewlett warned, women without a sponsor risk getting stuck in that “sticky middle slice of management where so many driven and talented women languish.” You don’t seek a sponsor like you might a mentor. Instead, your results speak for themselves. The sponsoring relationship has much more at stake for both parties. This is why the investment must be earned through your drive, ambition and results.

“Trust is at the heart of this relationship. When I put my faith in up-and-coming talent and become their sponsor, I need to know I can totally depend on them – because they are walking around with my brand on,” says Kerrie Peraino, global head of talent at American Express. It is through the results you deliver that you will get recognition from potential sponsors within your organization or industry. Allow this relationship to grow organically and be willing to give more than receive. Speak up about your ambition.

Sponsors advocate on your behalf and connect you to important influencers and players in your business. In doing so, they look good. Because sponsors typically go out on a limb for you, they expect stellar performance and results. Pay attention to those who support you and see your talents. Demonstrate that you are trustworthy and loyal. Focus on your strengths to deliver top-level performance consistently.

Mentors are great for friendly advice, but sponsors are the key to growth and advancement in your business and career. Hard work is not enough to succeed these days. You need others to recognize your contributions and help you open doors of influence and opportunity. Having a powerful sponsor will give you that extra boost.