Exploring the issues that shape today's business world.

Do You Need a Mentor or a Sponsor?

Which one’s the best choice on your climb to the very top? By Selena Chavis | Digital Exclusive

Mentor

You’re taking your first few steps up the professional ladder. You know that each step would come that much easier if you had someone to help guide and champion your career. But who will that someone be?

The terms “mentor” and “sponsor” are often thrown about in casual career conversations. Your peers talk about them, and you’ve probably read articles about them. But do you really know what a mentor or sponsor can do for you?

Here’s what you need to know about mentors and sponsors and the pros and cons of each.

Mentors

Like Mr. Miyagi to Daniel LaRusso, or Yoda to Luke Skywalker, mentors are deeply invested in their protégés, forming bonds intended to teach, inspire and foster success. While there’s no shortage of information available to you in today’s digital climate, a good mentor helps you decipher data in a meaningful way and helps you make good decisions. Successful mentors do this by pulling from past experience and taking a vested interest in the outcome of their proteges’ actions, while understanding the differences between providing guidance and over-influencing final decisions. 

The Pros:

Mentors assess the challenges and opportunities presented to them and provide useful instruction using their seasoned viewpoints. Those on the receiving end benefit by, hopefully, avoiding common professional pitfalls and making better career choices.

A study documented in the Harvard Business Review speaks to a growing body of evidence that suggests mentoring programs have a positive impact on careers. The article states that “research on junior to mid-level professionals shows that such programs [mentorships] enable them to advance more quickly, earn higher salaries, and gain more satisfaction in their jobs and lives than people without mentors.” In fact, 71 percent of CEOs surveyed stated that mentoring enhanced business performance, and 76 percent noted that they are more equipped to meet investor expectations.

Many of today’s top accounting firms have established internal mentoring programs aimed at improving retention and employee success. When leveraged effectively, these programs bridge the knowledge gaps often seen between experienced firm leaders and new hires hoping to find their place in the ranks of established firms. These programs also are helping organizations improve their retention rates and new hire orientation efforts, all while paving the way for increased diversity in the accounting profession through career-enhancing guidance for minorities and women. Going beyond their problem-solving skills, mentors also help to improve overall morale by cheering on new employees and bolstering confidence among young professionals.  

The Cons:

Mentors may earn the title of “wise sage,” but ultimately they’re limited in their reach because good advice doesn’t necessarily mean successful upward momentum. With that said, while the right guidance can sometimes improve a professional’s career outlook, those expecting more than wise words may be disappointed in the results. Since seasoned mentors pull from past experiences, their advice may be outdated or out of sync with today’s fast-paced, digital world and economy. The caveat: Choose your mentor wisely.

Sponsors

Sponsors are like angel investors who invest in a very limited and much sought after venture: You.

Typically seated among the higher ranks of a company or industry, sponsors know the ins and outs of a field and have the connections needed to make things happen. These professionals are a special breed—a cross between an agent, personal bodyguard and seasoned executive—ready to identify opportunities, push obstacles out of the way and provide professional direction. As Catalyst Senior Director of Research Heather Foust-Cummings told Fortune, "a mentor will talk with you, but a sponsor will talk about you."

The Pros:

Sponsors get things done. They promote your abilities above other candidates for a job. And since they’ve invested in you, a vested interest exists for them to push for an outcome that’s worth protecting. As such, sponsors also can help you avoid damaging deals and misconceived opportunities.

Harvard Business Review research co-authored by Foust-Cummings also suggests that both men and women will feel more satisfied with their career advancement rates if they tap the skills of a sponsor. After all, sponsors provide the networking and professional connections needed for your daily dose of success, and their professional oversight ensures your work is up to par, that you stand out for your work ethic and skill sets, and that you’re pursuing the right roles.

The Cons:

Investments aren’t charity. Like any investor, sponsors expect an ROI for the time and energy they put into you. In other words, underperformers may find that their sponsors lose interest or cut their losses altogether. In fact, many sponsors are looking for top achievers who are already on the fast track. You either keep up or get left behind, because sponsors often have their own agendas, expectations and limits.

Which one to choose?

The way we see it, mentors are best for new entrants to the industry as they often provide the most needed guidance, steering young professionals away from damaging professional pitfalls and helping them identify goals and make smart decisions. In essence, they advise; whether you succeed or fail is up to you. 

If you’re ready to rev-up your career, the right choice is likely a sponsor. While these “show-me-the-money” advocates provide the extra career boost and connections to move a career forwards, they expect results. A mentor gives, and a sponsor invests. And investors expect an ROI.

However, don’t discount the value of a healthy balance of both. Sponsors and mentors both have strengths and weaknesses, but if you play your cards right, you can leverage the advantages of each on a situational basis. For example, if you need some advice on getting through a difficult situation, go to a mentor. If you need a new connection to fast track your career, reach out to a sponsor to act as a powerful ally.

Having both mentors and sponsors in your corner ready to help you succeed is a solid strategy. The only true “con” is not choosing either.