Man preparing to get sponsors

Why Successful People Have Mentors and Sponsors

The best piece of advice that I’ve received in business school is get a mentor. Mentors help you develop the confidence and skills you need to get ahead. They will be there to support and guide you through challenges in your career. In fact, 80% of CEOs polled by Management Mentors have mentors who have provided career boosts.

But they’re not enough. You also need sponsors.

What’s a sponsor?

A sponsor is someone at the top of the management ladder who advocates for you. They will fight to get you in front of executives, put onto challenging projects, and ultimately help get you promoted.

Why do people take on these roles? Many sponsors and mentors like the idea of giving back. It feels good. But there are also other benefits. Mentorship and sponsorship can also improve their own standing in the organization, because they show that they can work with more junior people and improve overall employee performance.

The two main differences between mentors and sponsors are:

  • Mentors teach you. Sponsors promote you.
  • Mentors can be anywhere. Sponsors are at the top.

Understanding the differences between these two types of people will help you advance your career instead of stagnating.

Mentors help you grow. Sponsors promote you.

Mentors are great for personal and professional development. If you’re unsure about how to develop professional skills to perform better, or how to overcome personal challenges, mentors are your go-to people.

My earliest mentor was actually my mom. As early as elementary school, my mom helped me become a better writer. With what must have been gallons of red ink that she wrote on my papers, she taught me how to write clearly and concisely (“in order to” automatically becomes “to”). Without her early guidance, I wouldn’t have the writing skills I have today.

In contrast, my first sponsor was my business writing professor. While I was in her class, I wrote an opinion piece that she thought was good enough to get published. She was a professional writer before she became a professor, so I submitted it to the Daily Camera. After six weeks of trying to submit it on my own, she called the editor and helped push my article through. That was the first time someone fought for my writing and that didn’t just boost my confidence. It also got my article published. Surround yourself with people who can teach you and people who can help you get ahead.

Mentors can be anywhere. Sponsors are at the top.

Mentors don’t have to be above you. You can learn from anyone, whether it’s a peer teaching you the rules of the office, or a manager helping you develop professional skills. My first mentor in college was a junior who was studying the same subject that I was interested in. She helped me transition from high school to college, taught me how to interact with my business professors, and made me feel more confident in a completely new place. She helped me develop the skills necessary to connect with and leverage professionals above me later on.

Unlike mentors, sponsors are at the top of the food chain. They are where you want to be one day. My peer mentor took on a sponsorship role when she recommended me for a consulting gig in South Africa. She had gone through the program the summer before I did, and she pushed to have me accepted for the upcoming summer. I got in and had an amazing experience working in South Africa partly because I had someone who was willing to fight for me. Mentors teach. Sponsors promote.

Are mentors and sponsors different people?

Not necessarily.

You might meet someone who will help you grow and get you promoted. You won’t always get that lucky. Sometimes they’ll be the same person like my peer mentor was for me. Sometimes they’ll be different people, like my mom and business writing professor were for me.

What’s important is that you fill both roles. One isn’t better than the other, but they’re both important for your career.

How do I attract a sponsor?

When you’re a strong performer, you’re ready to catch the attention of a sponsor. Think about who is in the position you want to be in some day. Then, figure out how to get in front of them. Maybe one of your managers knows them well and can get you a meeting. Maybe you’ll have to reach out on your own and ask for projects. However you do it, start making sponsors part of your tribe at work.

None of this means that mentors aren’t important. Without them, you’d have a harder time finding someone senior to advocate for you. But once you’ve learned enough to become a high performer, you’re ready to “wow” a sponsor.

What’s expected from me?

If you’re lucky enough to get someone who’s willing to mentor or sponsor you, then you should be prepared to secure that relationship.

Do

  • Set expectations about communication for one another. Ask them how often they would like to stay in touch and their preferred mode of communication. Not everyone likes to text.
  • Set goals together. If your mentor or sponsor knows where you want to be, then they can help you develop skills or connect you with people who can help get you there. Do some up-front research and come prepared with your goals.
  • Be professional. This should go without saying, but no matter how close you get, you’re both still in a professional setting.

Don’t 

  • Don’t use emojis. Seriously. I know people my age who’ve made this mistake. Even if your mentor or sponsor has said they’re ok with it, sticking to text makes you look more professional.
  • Don’t ghost your mentor or sponsor. They have a vested interest in you and want you to succeed. If it’s not working out, be honest with them and adjust.
  • Don’t forget them. Even when they don’t mentor or sponsor you anymore, they’re still great people to know throughout your career. Keep in touch with them. One day, you could give back to them, too.

Where do I find these people?

Even if your company isn’t pairing you off with someone, you can find a mentor or a sponsor on your own. You should be seeking them out anyway.  Some places to look include:

  • LinkedIn. Find people who you want to be like and start getting to know them. Be sure to explain the value you can provide to them, too. This is a two way street. Start with a short note and ask for 15 minutes of their time.
  • Your personal network. Does your friend’s dad have your ideal job? Start getting to know people or find those who can get you in front of them.
  • Conferences. Events full of people doing what you want to do is a great place to meet mentors and sponsors. Start attending, collecting business cards, and following up with people you’re interested in.

If you begin building relationships with professionals early on, you might find someone with whom you connect. These relationships take work, but they can propel you forward to new heights. Take a chance. It only takes one person to make a huge difference in your career.


Photo by Hunters Race

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