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Coach, Mentor or Sponsor? You Need All Three

I truly believe that I’m where I am today because of a combination of good genes, a stellar board of directors and having personal and professional coaches, mentors and sponsors. To date, only one of my mentoring relationships was/is formal. My coaches, mentors and sponsors have been seasoned co-workers, supervisors who embraced that I’m a sponge and love to learn and executives with the power to put me in rooms that I otherwise would not have entered. It is a combination of those relationships that cultivated my ability to communicate and connect with just about anyone and take criticism constructively, no matter how it’s delivered. While there might be some similarities, the roles of a coach, mentor and sponsor are quite different.


Newsweek reported that a life coach is part consultant, part motivational speaker, part therapist and part rent-a-friend, coaches work with managers, entrepreneurs, and just plain folks, helping them define and achieve their goals — career, personal, or most often, both.  According to CFO Magazine, coaches have the ability to view things from afar — in what some call ‘helicopter vision’ — and to shed new light on difficult situations. Often they can act as a sounding board through tough decisions, help sharpen skills, and motivate.


Mentoring is a long term relationship where the focus is on supporting the growth and development of the mentee. The mentor is a source of wisdom, teaching and support, but not someone who observes and advises on specific actions or behavioral changes in daily work. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines a mentor as “a trusted counselor or guide.” Others expand on that definition by suggesting that a mentor is “someone who is helping you with your career, specific work projects or general life advice out of the goodness of his or her heart. (


A sponsor is someone in a position of power who uses his or her influence to advocate on your be half. A sponsor could be your boss, your boss’s boss or anyone who’s in a position to influence others and who knows you well enough to put his or her reputation on the line for you. That’s in contrast to a mentor, who is typically someone who provides advice and helps you develop skills. Mentors help individuals get better, while sponsors help individuals get ahead.

According to Joann M. Eisenhart, senior vice president, Human Resources, Facilities and Philanthropy at Northwestern Mutual, there are three facts about sponsorship:

  • Sponsorship is earned. Only when a person knows your work, trusts you and can attest to your character will he or she likely be an advocate for you. Most won’t risk their own reputation on anything less.
  • Sponsorship doesn’t have to be formal. Because sponsorships are based on professional relationships that are cultivated over time, they often develop informally. Years ago, I was offered a position at a new company because a former colleague suggested the hiring manager get to know me. This colleague and I never said, “Let’s be sponsors for each other.”  Instead, the recommendation came as a natural extension of our strong professional relationship.
  • Sponsorships are two-way streets. If you’re fortunate enough to have a professional sponsor stick his or her neck out for you, don’t disappoint. In return for their advocacy, they’ll expect you to live up to your potential. And they may ask you to work on aspects of your career development before they’re willing to go to bat for you. After all, their credibility is riding on your success.

So do you have a coach, a mentor and a sponsor? If not, think about the people around who can step into those roles. Who do you go to for advice? Who to do go when you need clarity on how to get a task or a project done? Who do you know who is where you want to be and has the gravitas to introduce you to the right people?  Take the time to talk to them, find out if you have similarities and are compatible. Find out how you can assist them before asking them to help you. Be congruent in your words and actions.

If you have a coach, mentor and sponsor, share in the comments below how they have helped you along your journey.

With love,

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