In her book on sponsorship, Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, Sylvia Ann Hewlett stated, “Women on average have three times as many mentors as men—but men have twice as many sponsors.” Curious about how that translates to promotions? According to Herminia Ibarra, professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD and coauthor of the HBR article “Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women,” “women are over-mentored and under-sponsored.” And based on a recent Catalyst study, Ibarra discovered a very important finding: “For men, there was a significant relationship between having had a mentor two years before and having had a promotion two years later. For women, there was no relationship. Having a mentor had no correlation whatsoever with whether they got promoted or not.” So, as an executive leader, how should this inform your thinking about cultivating coaches, mentors, and sponsors?
At this stage of your career, you know the rich value of engaging an executive coach and having mentors along the way. Fortunately, many organizations consider this foundational development for senior executives and as such make available and endorse these relationships. As an executive coach to Board Directors, CEOs, and C-suite officers, I discuss ‘locus of control’ and ‘agency’ as conceptual underpinnings for building and shaping your cumulative executive career. Part of that is understanding the nature of the support systems that must happen along the way. This leads to understanding the difference between using coaches, having mentors, and cultivating sponsors. The kingpin of them all is understanding the role of the ‘sponsor’ because, as Hewlett stated, “Even if you get just one sponsor, you have a 20% greater shot at getting that next rung on the ladder or getting a pay hike.”
So, let’s talk about the difference between these three. In a nutshell: a coach listens to you, a mentor advises you, and a sponsor talks about and acts for you. Now for more on what that all means to you.
A coach listens carefully and provides guidance in helping you derive meaning from what is happening around you. Coaches ‘come up alongside’ you to help make sense of issues, challenges, and opportunities by providing clarity and a pathway for your own meaning making. Coaches don’t typically focus on subject matter expertise (such as your technical planning skills) but are more focused on management and leadership skills (such as choosing and building a high-performance team). According to Catalyst, “You and your coach both drive the relationship—you can reach out to your coach when you need help, but your coach can also reach out to you.” Coaches provide development feedback outside the formal performance evaluation process.
A mentor is someone who listens, provides insight, and shares formal or informal advice and counsel but does not necessarily coach or sponsor. Instead, mentors discuss how you might consider your next career move, how to ask for a raise, or how to position yourself for a meaty assignment or promotion. You may find that throughout your career you have many mentors with differing capabilities and perspectives—all of which are critical to you at that point in time. How do you find a mentor? First decide if you want an internal mentor (someone anywhere in the hierarchy who knows the ropes—the cultural landmines to avoid, etc.) or an external mentor (a leader who provides sage advice and counsel that transcends all industries). Many companies have matching programs, where mentors are actively available for you to ‘speed date.’ Louise Pentland, senior vice president, general counsel, and company secretary at PayPal, wrote, “The common thread through all of my most successful mentorships has been that my mentor and I had a friendship first. It’s difficult to ask someone to be your mentor if they don’t know who you are, because a mentorship needs to be about connection, chemistry, and trust.”
A sponsor is a leader who is a highly regarded influencer operating in circles that exceed your own. Not always known to you, these executives are able to direct and shape what is happening within your career orbit. They generally have enough exposure to you over time through either those who report to them or a moment when your paths crossed. These leaders have developed a perception of you and have the influence to act as an agent of sorts in mentioning your name and endorsing your advancement, access to assignments, and ultimately your promotability. Sponsors are typically senior to you and have a different sphere of influence. And while, yes, they could be someone you report to (or have reported to at some point in your career), they could also be a Board Director who is watching from afar, an industry leader, or someone who can influence with a nod.
How to find sponsors? While you don’t typically enroll a sponsor to take on this role, you can enhance your visibility by locating leaders who can advocate for your advancement and champion your work and potential with other senior leaders. Do great work and find ways to be visible for that work. Network and be known for the value you contribute since further visibility and advancement are as much about perception as they are about fact.
As a note, be intentional. Don’t wait on the sidelines to access and develop yourself through coaches, mentors, and sponsors. You should be starting this early in your career as a healthy way to actively manage your future.