Career Path

Mentors vs. Sponsors

They’re different animals—and you need both to advance your career.

Pop quiz: you’re gunning for a promotion at work and have prepared your data points for why you deserve the new position. Do you take your case to your mentor or your sponsor?

If you’re like most people, you’d answer mentor. Because you may not even know what a sponsor is, truth be told. But the correct answer is to talk with your sponsor.

Mentors act as career guides, while sponsors invest in your success.

Like a mentor, a sponsor is typically a more senior person who plays a role in your career advancement. But that’s about where the commonalities end. “Your mentors should provide personal growth and serve as an advisory sounding board,” says John Petzold, senior client partner and CXO Optimization lead at Korn Ferry. “You need sponsors to prop you up and push you forward. You also need them to provide air cover so you can take risks.”  

Breaking down the basics. 

Here’s another way to think of the two different roles: Mentors act as career guides. They can be within your company or outside it. They show you how to build important skills like getting noticed in meetings and pinpointing key people to cultivate. But—and here’s a crucial point—they often aren’t willing (or able) to go out on a limb for you publicly. They are, however, great guides for when the going gets tough. “A mentor is someone you can approach when you’re succeeding and when you’re failing,” says Gwen Lawson, Korn Ferry’s CXO program manager.  

A sponsor, on the other hand, is all in, with a real personal investment in your success – and someone you should approach when you’re feeling confident, Lawson says. They actively promote your career using their influence to connect you to useful people and get you high-profile assignments and promotions. In other words, they help drive your career and visibly back you. Why? In most cases, because you can make them look good, and down the line, if they need lieutenants who are loyal, they can look to you. For those reasons, having a sponsor on your side is often a requirement for getting to the top of an organization.

Sponsors are particularly important for women and people of color, who often lack sponsorship opportunities. Research shows that 13% of full-time female employees at large companies have in-house champions, compared to 46% of men.

Develop the relationships differently.

Not surprisingly, mentors are easier to cultivate than sponsors. While a more senior person might be perfectly comfortable offering advice, going out on a limb for you by advocating for a promotion is another matter. For that reason, developing a sponsor and building the requisite foundation in which you’ve proven yourself to him or her takes time.

Still, the roles can be fluid. If you consistently impress your mentor, this person might be willing to step up the relationship. “If you build up enough trust, a mentor can become a sponsor,” says Julia Taylor Kennedy, executive vice president at the Center for Talent Innovation. That’s especially true if mentors find themselves in new roles where they wield more influence. 

In some cases, mentors can also help you find a sponsor. Taylor Kennedy recalls an up-and-comer in a pharmaceutical company who was paired with a senior executive as part of a sponsorship program for minorities. Before her first meeting, she contacted her mentors to ask how to prepare for the meeting. The conversation with the senior executive was a success—in part, thanks to those mentors—and the sponsor ended up pushing for her to get a promotion a year later.

With sponsors, particularly, you giveth and taketh.

In contrast to dealing with mentors, relationships with sponsors involve more of a commitment on the part of the protégé—a give and take on both sides. Career pros say it isn’t uncommon to hear stories of a sponsor asking protégés to drop everything to focus on deadline, perhaps even all-nighter projects. “The way a protégé earns backing is by demonstrating loyalty to the sponsor,” Taylor Kennedy says.

Ideally, you should build relationships with more than one mentor and sponsor. That’s in case someone leaves, of course, but also because it allows you to get more than one perspective. “I don’t believe in doing anything important with just a single individual,” says Damon Bates, a principal and senior consultant at Bates Communications in Massachusetts.

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