QWhat is the difference between sponsors and mentors? Another perspective.

answered January 13th, 2012 by Dr.Nancy McInerney-Lacombe

This question took me on a long and cathartic journey through my corporate career. At first, I just rummaged through my memory identifying pivotal people and events that would qualify for each of the categories but then I decided to get organized and prepared a 3 column chart – Mentor/ Mentor-Sponsor/ Sponsor. The chart in the end (after all the column switching) fairly reflected my experience with the three groupings and I was now in a position to properly answer the question – or at least try to.


Before presenting my findings, it may be helpful to understand how I defined each category:

  • A mentor was someone, at both my own seniority level and also one or two levels more senior that helped me solve problems, provided feedback, knew me with all the warts that I have – a confidante. It was a person where I could show my vulnerability and trusted that they would not judge me. They had a balanced view of my strengths and weaknesses.
  • A mentor/sponsor was somewhat senior to me but someone that, knowing my strengths and weaknesses, was still prepared to go out on a limb and recommend me to lead a new project, for a promotion, etc.
  • A sponsor was significantly senior to me and knew my professional persona extremely well but not my personal one. They were not a confidante. Yet, they were powerful within the corporation, had the ear of or were the key decision makers. They sponsored me because they judged that I would deliver and reflect positively on them – it was as simple as that.


In my 30 plus year career, I had 5 mentors, 2 mentor-sponsors and 5 sponsors. Interestingly, but no surprise thinking of my vintage, the majority of my mentors were female, my 2 mentor-sponsors were female and 4 of my 5 sponsors were men.


There was one male mentor that I mistakenly judged as a mentor- sponsor. I realized that I had feelings of great disappointment that he did not deliver on promises. While he said all the right things, nothing ever materialized. Upon reflection, the reality was that I misjudged, not his sincerity, but his confidence. He was not prepared to put himself out there. He was building his own career and he knew my warts and I sincerely believe that it was just too risky for him. Whereas the female mentor-sponsors were true champions…..the “you can do that new job in a heartbeat”. They had enormous self-confidence personally and they did not let their knowledge of my own insecurities cloud their judgment of my strengths. The message here is be realistic when assessing whether your mentor-sponsors really will or can deliver. Upon reflection, it may be safer to keep your mentors very separate from your sponsors unless you are lucky, as I was to have 2 of 5 ready to go to bat for me with absolutely no hidden agendas. I always tried to pay this forward with my own staff and colleagues. I had great teachers on how to do this well.


Now on the topic of sponsors, my “modus operandi” always was to work my brains out. I know there is literature that says this doesn’t work – but it certainly worked for me. The reality is – you get noticed. Every one of my sponsors was someone I had worked for in the past- in some cases, many years in the past. As their careers develop, you hope they will remember the hoops you were able to jump through. You keep in touch. You let them know you have thought through what you want for a next step.  Ask them, can they help? These are senior people; they will tell you the truth. I was not disappointed.


In closing, I was about to wish you good luck and while luck always plays some role, my wish for you is “to make it happen”.


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