Coach, Mentor, or Sponsor? What’s the Difference?
Coaches, mentors, and sponsors are three important roles that folks can leverage to improve their skills and grow their careers over time. Although they may seem redundant or overlapping, they each have a specific value to offer. Here’s a brief description of each one of these roles and how your career can benefit from them.
A coach is someone who is typically hired or paid to help you reach a specific goal or develop a given skill. There is a determined time commitment and you’re both tracking against a goal or set of milestones. A good example would be when you hire a coach to improve your public speaking skills. Because there is a determined timeframe to reach a goal, meetings and progress will be much more structured and measured. The coach also sets up the agenda for each meeting.
A mentor is not paid and the mentor-mentee relationship is indefinite in terms of time span. A mentor is typically more tenured than the mentee, they’re more advanced in their career progress and they are at a point where the mentee wants to be. A mentor acts as a guide to get to that point and shows the mentee what skills, network connections, aptitudes, and attitudes need to be in place for the mentee to reach that point in their own career.
In this case, it is the mentee who asks the questions depending on what the mentee wants to learn or where they want to go. Finding a mentor can be a formalized process where someone (a school or a company) assigns a mentor to a mentee based on their needs. Alternatively, a mentee can informally find a mentor, without necessarily asking outright “will you be my mentor?”, as described by Simon Sinek in the following video:
Sinek describes mentorship as “ [a] friendship: it evolves over time, and it’s a two-way street.” (Shout out to Maxine Gray for sharing this valuable nugget!). Kent State University has a helpful table that compares coaching to mentorship if you want to get more details.
A sponsor is not paid either and although they will also help guide a sponsee just like a mentor guides a mentee, the sponsor actively looks for opportunities for their sponsee and advocates on their behalf. For example, if the sponsor knows of a job opportunity, they will actively recommend the sponsee to be considered. If there is a team meeting where managers talk about headcount or people in their teams, a sponsor will make sure to speak in favor of the sponsee’s best interests. Similar to finding a mentor, there could be a formal or informal process of finding a sponsor. Out of all three roles, this is the role that requires the most level of commitment. Thus, trust is of the utmost importance for a sponsor to stick out their neck for their sponsee.
All three roles are important for the advancement of one’s professional career, and they have different objectives. Having access to all three of them might not happen all at once. What’s important is to think about how to best leverage each one at different points in your career for different objectives.
Start thinking about the people in your network (first degree), can they adopt one of these three roles for you? Do they know someone who might (second and third-degree network)? You will not have all the answers from the outset, but as you go forth and develop relationships, these roles can happen naturally.
Ambiguity is part of this process, and as such, it may confuse folks, especially those who were not raised to have natural access to these levers growing up. One way to try to structure this process is to set aside 15–30 min a day to think about this strategy, reach out to folks, and nurture those relationships.