Forget finding a mentor — focus on finding a sponsor

Photo credit:  sergign, Shutterstock
Photo credit: sergign, Shutterstock

If you’ve ever needed guidance on a project or in your career, you’ve likely wanted or reached out to a mentor—someone who agrees to share their skills, knowledge, expertise, and professional contacts with you. After all, what’s better than having someone with more experience show you the ropes and help you think through tough decisions?

However, according to Sylvia Ann Hewlet—CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation—mentoring relationships are too one-way to actually be beneficial. Instead, we should seek sponsors: people who are invested our success because it also benefits them. Rather than outgrowing the relationship, which might happen with mentors, sponsorships inherently last longer and are more reciprocal:

Protégés attract sponsors by delivering in exceptional ways and secure sponsorship by remaining utterly devoted, even as they distinguish themselves as stars in their own right. In return, sponsors invest in their protégés, not because they’re impelled to pay it forward but because they recognize the incredible benefit to their own careers of building a loyal cadre of outstanding performers who can extend their reach, build their legacy, and burnish their reputation. Over time, both parties win. Indeed, the win-win aspect of sponsorship is what accounts for its extraordinary leverage and durability.

Contrast this to the decidedly one-way street of mentorship. Mentors give: They devote time, impart wisdom, and act as a sounding board (or a shoulder to cry on). Mentees receive: They’re obliged to do nothing but show up and listen. Mentors take an interest in the mentee’s career, but not a stake in it, because they’re not going to be held accountable for outcomes. Mentorship is at heart an expenditure rather than an investment, a gift rather than an alliance. It’s doomed to peter out: The mentee outgrows the mentor’s range of experience, and the mentor moves on to needier novitiates.

Read the rest of her article on Fast Company.

One interesting thing that stands out is the difference between how a protégé might present themselves to a potential mentor or sponsor. The former seems emphasis focusing on problems that need to be solved while the latter focuses on what the protégé has to offer. This makes sense as reciprocity can only happen when both parties are giving.

But what do you think? Are sponsors more valuable than mentors? Is there really a big difference between the two? Share your insights and experiences in the comments below.


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Former Editor and Creator of Idealist Careers, a publication of Follow me on Twitter @ajlovesya.

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    • Estelle Raboni
    • September 10, 2013

    I don’t see a difference between mentorship and sponsorhship. There is the assumption that mentors to do so out of the goodness of their own hearts, but that’s not always the case: mentors mentor because they seek to branch out their networks and see a young and rising star as a potential collaborator or additional link in their expanding network. Supervisors mentor because in these lean times, mentoring can increase job satisfaction. There is reciprocity in both.

  1. Pingback: The 2 + 1 rule for finding a mentor or sponsor | Idealist Careers

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