A coach, a mentor, a sponsor: Why you need all three

When it comes to professional and personal development, no one should go it alone. The reality is that regardless of your industry or career path, you can benefit from the advice, support, knowledge and perspectives of other professionals you admire and trust. Here’s my take on why coaching, mentoring and sponsorship relationships are critical for professional development – and what it takes to successfully foster each.

The difference between a coach, a mentor and a sponsor – and why each is important

  • Coaching occurs ‘in the moment,’ and can be offered by anyone around you. Like a coach on the sideline, someone who coaches you in a professional setting gives you advice on how to do your job better. A coach evaluates, and shares feedback about, your skillset, in action.

Coaching can come even when you don’t seek it out. It can be delivered by anyone – a person who reports to you, a team member, a boss or a customer. If you’re smart, you’ll use coaching feedback to improve your game.

  • Mentoring relationships are intentional, and usually occur between you and someone with whom you’ve had a longstanding relationship – someone you trust. You can bounce ideas off a mentor, actively seek their advice, inputs and opinions. Your mentor may work in your same industry or at the same organization, but they certainly don’t need to. And sometimes, having a mentor who works in a different organization or industry can be to your benefit – because their advice and counsel can be more objective.
  • A sponsor has components of a mentor – but also serves as your champion, at work or in your community. A sponsor advocates on your behalf – even when you’re not in the room with them. When you raise your hand for a stretch assignment, promotion or role – they’re your support mechanism. To be effective, your sponsor should work in your same industry – and if you need their advocacy at your workplace, it’s a good idea for your sponsor to work there, too.

Need a mentor or sponsor? Actively seek yours out

Finding a mentor or sponsor isn’t a passive pursuit. Actively seek out mentors and sponsors both inside and outside of your profession. Start by identifying people you look up to…people with whom you feel a connection…people who you trust, want to emulate, or admire. If you don’t currently find yourself surrounded by anyone who fits that description, then strategic networking is key. Make time in your schedule to attend workplace, industry and community events where you may be likely to come in contact with potential mentors and sponsors. And know that the gender of your mentor or sponsor matters not. Women and men can both benefit greatly from mentoring relationships with fellow women, and men alike.

Be patient, but don’t delay

A mentor or sponsor needs to intrinsically want to help and support you – and relationships like that take time to grow and nurture. That’s all the more reason not to delay. Don’t wait until the moment you want to pursue a promotion or stretch assignment to find a mentor to offer you advice – or to find a sponsor to serve as your advocate. Start identifying potential mentors and sponsors, now, and know you’ll need to invest time and effort in building those relationships. That time and effort, invested now, will pay off in the future.

Be clear and intentional about communicating your needs

Like any relationship, the most successful coaching and mentoring relationships occur when both parties are clear about what they want to contribute to it – and get out of it. Specifically ask that person you trust and admire if they’d be willing to serve as your mentor or sponsor. Be clear about the support you need – and your goal. Do you need a sponsor to nominate you for a specific role? Ask. Do you need a mentor to help you fill in gaps in knowledge, so you can feel more confident about pursuing a promotion or career change? Ask. The clearer you are about your needs, the more likely you are to find mentors and sponsors who will be successful in helping you reach your goals.

Pay it forward

Coaching, mentoring and sponsorship are two-way streets. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you not only could use some coaches, mentors and sponsors – but you can be a coach, mentor and sponsor, too. Identify high-potential professionals with whom you feel a connection – and ask them if they could benefit from a mentoring or sponsorship relationship. Then, put in the time to nurture that relationship. Chances are – by walking in the shoes of a mentor of sponsor – you won’t just make a difference in the life of a co-worker, community member of colleague – you’ll learn how to work more effectively with your mentors and sponsors, too.

By Cynthia J. Pigg, Vice President of Managed Care and Business Development for Cardinal Health