What is the difference between mentoring and sponsorship, and how can I get a sponsor?
The best way to describe the difference is, “A mentor will talk with you, but a sponsor will talk about you.” A mentor will provide you with advice and guidance on your personal and professional development. A mentor can also support you in making important career decisions, like whether or not to accept a new job at a different firm or pursue other opportunities within your current company. For example, a mentor may suggest that you obtain additional professional training or coaching in leadership development to prepare you to take on new projects you might enjoy more than your current role.
A sponsor is someone in your current organization, ideally highly placed, who actively advocates for you when it comes to development opportunities or promotions. Someone who is more senior is in a better position to be a sponsor. While mentoring is important, it’s sponsorship that actually predicts advancement—and it’s critical at every stage of your career. When you have senior people advocating for you, you are more likely to land critical development opportunities, such as high-visibility projects, international assignments, and mission-critical roles—all of which can help fast-track professional growth.
Catalyst research on the role mentors play in people’s career advancement and compensation reveals some key findings:
- Women and men in our study were equally likely to have had a mentor before their first job—but men with mentors were more likely to accept a higher position with a greater level of responsibility as their first post-MBA job than women with mentors.
- Men’s mentors tended to be more senior than women’s.
- The level of a person’s mentor predicted individuals’ career advancement and compensation growth. The reason for this? Sponsorship.
We’ve determined that sponsors are critical. So: how do you get one? While a sponsor may choose you, you can also seek one out yourself, either through a formal program or informally through your networks. Don’t sit back and wait to be noticed—be proactive!
- Be Seen. Make yourself and your work visible. Our research has shown that one strategy proven to attract sponsors for men AND women is to make your accomplishments known. If senior people don’t know what you can do, how can they champion you?
- Take Risks. Our research shows that women often feel they need to exceed performance expectations in order to advance, or that they must have 10 out of 10 criteria in order to qualify for a major opportunity. But taking some calculated risks and going for the big job even when you may not yet possess the entire skill set needed will get you noticed by potential sponsors.
- Ask for What You Want. It’s essential to acquire a clear understanding of what you want and practice articulating those desires to a potential sponsor, so he or she knows what to push for on your behalf. Don’t be afraid to be bold and direct!
The key is to know your own strengths and learn how to showcase them effectively. Attracting a sponsor can be as simple as demonstrating that you know what you want—and are willing to do what it takes to get it.