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You Need a Coach, Mentor, AND Sponsor

Posted by David A. Couper, MA on May 07, 2015 9:30 AM

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If you don’t know the difference between a coach, mentor and a sponsor, your career could be a long, tough slog uphill. In a perfect world, you will have all three. Let’s start with the differences...

Coach: This is someone paid to help you. In most cases, their mandate is quite clear, such as to polish some rough edges that have prevented you from being more effective in your current position. A coach is all about action and making a measurable difference in a modest amount of time.

When you first start working with a coach, make sure you both have agreed on specific tasks and goals on which you will focus your joint efforts.

Mentor: This is a personal relationship between you and a more experienced professional. That person is often - but not always - in your industry. S/he understands your challenges and opportunities and helps you make wise decisions. A mentoring relationship can be informal, in the sense that neither party ever uses the word “mentor”, but both understand that they are basically engaged in a mentoring relationship.

Working with a mentor, focus on building a lasting and mutually beneficial relationship. A mentor is more interested in you than in a specific task or goal. In most cases, they want to see you grow and thrive as a human being.

Sponsor: This is a senior person within your organization; the more senior, the better. You often need such a person to protect your job in tumultuous times, and to help get you promoted in times of opportunity. It can be difficult to survive for long in a large company without having a strong sponsor.

A sponsor is nothing like a coach or mentor. The Washington Post describes sponsorship in this way:

By sponsorship we mean advocating or fighting to get them a job or promotion, mentioning their name for placement on an important committee or visible assignment or actively helping them advance.

 Many mentors give generously of their time and expertise, and expect only that you do your best to take seriously and benefit from their advice. But sponsors often perceive that furthering your career is important to supporting their own objectives.

In my experience, few professionals grasp the importance of this notion: you need to establish a quid pro quo relationship with a senior sponsor. To do this, you must understand what’s in it for another person to serve as your sponsor. This could mean fully grasping – and enabling - your sponsor’s vision and goals.

It’s vital you understand these differences:

  •      A coach is generally there to help you produce specific, immediate results. A good coaching relationship is structured.
  •      A mentor is in it for the long-term relationship. S/he is unlikely to get you another job. Many mentoring relationships are relatively unstructured.
  •      A sponsor can help protect your current job, and also help you get a better one.

This isn’t an either/or decision. Many people have all three relationships. Work towards that goal.

David Couper is founder and CEO of David Couper Consulting, a strategic-effectiveness consulting firm focused on the real bottom-line in business: PEOPLE.

Image: Kevin Dooley/Flickr

Interested to learn more about executive coaching?  You might like this blog post.

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