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Sponsor or Mentor? Which is Better?

Back in October, I attended a conference designed to help motivate and inspire new and future entrepreneurs. I listened with enthusiasm as a variety of industry leaders talked about their experiences, the good, the bad, and complicated parts of their entrepreneurship journeys.

During a leadership panel comprised of successful entrepreneurs, the moderator asked, “What is the best piece of advice you received?”

The panel consisted of two men and two women who provided varying responses. One response caught my attention, from a man whose career ranged from media (radio/communications), to law enforcement, to teaching, and running his own business, He said, “Don’t just settle for a mentor, look for a sponsor.”

He explained how having a sponsor impacted his career in law enforcement as he moved up in the ranks before retiring.

After listening to him, I made it a point to give him my business card and connect with him on LinkedIn right away! Everything he said during the panel just spoke to me and I knew he was someone build a strong on-going relationship with.

Not to mention, he is right. Having a mentor is great but having a sponsor is much better!

So, to start, let’s first define “mentor.”

Throughout my career journey, well-meaning people have told me about the need to have mentors both within and outside the workplace. I have read article after article about how to identify and build a positive relationship with a mentor. Although I’m currently a mentor, I don’t feel that mentorship is right or is the only thing for everyone.

To be truthful, I have never found success with a mentor because I never had one, at least not anything on-going. Now don’t get me wrong, over the years, I have built relationships both within and outside my industry and took advantage of opportunities, and, as a result, and I consider this a form of mentorship, even if its’ smallest form). However, as my career progressed, I quickly realized that while mentors are great for pointing in the right direction, you are going to need more.

And this is where sponsors come in.

What is a sponsor?

The man at the conference said it best, “A sponsor advocates for you and takes you up the ladder with him as he moves up. You go where he goes.”

In other words, a mentor is a person who serves as your sounding board as you discuss your professional/academic ideas, concerns, and needs. Then, they either point you toward or provide you with the resources needed to complete your goals. A sponsor, on the other hand, is someone you’ve worked with (most likely your boss or someone else higher up), knows your work, and your professionalism, They advocate for you by talking you up and putting you in the room with the decision-makers.

Advantages of Having a Sponsor

  • Opening Doors: A sponsor opens doors for you to opportunities you either didn’t have access to or didn’t even know about.

  • Advocate: A sponsor will lend their name to your brand, which makes others more likely to trust and work with you.

  • They Lift as You Climb: Your professional success means a sponsor will want to take you along with them as they move up especially as they look to build strong teams of their own.

  • Empowerment: A sponsor wants to ensure you have what you need to be successful and will empower you to make sure that happens. Empowerment also leads to professional development in your career.

Who Make a Good Sponsor?

  • Passionate: Yes, I love passion! Your sponsor should be passionate about you, your career, as well as theirs!

  • Well Connected: What’s the point of having a sponsor who doesn’t know anyone? Make sure your sponsor is on good terms with people you want to build connections with yourself.

  • Open: Is your sponsor open to new ideas? Are they willing to listen to what you have to say or how you feel? This is a two-way relationship, not a dictatorship.

  • Successful:Your sponsor should be successful and have had success helping others in the past. Do your research before forming a relationship.

All that being said about sponsors, mentors are not “bad” and mentors may even eventually turn into your sponsor. What I want to stress is that my greatest success has come from those who advocated, opened doors, and put me in the room with the right people.

This advice has served me well in my career, and I expect it to continue to propel me.

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