Mentor vs. Sponsor: What’s The Difference and Do You Need Them?

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Let’s face it; work can be stressful and overwhelming—even in jobs, we love. If you add personal stuff with work challenges, problems can feel much more significant than they are. And if you always try to do everything yourself (after all people are counting on you), you will eventually fail - and then fail again.

To avoid these types of burnouts from happening professionally, we tend to lean on sponsor/mentor relationships to help navigate us through the throes of success. Though both of these relationships are imperative to success and used interchangeably, they are quite different. Depending on the circumstances, you can use one (or both!) to maximize, leverage, win, win, and win! 

The Differences

One of the first ways to know if you require a mentorship or sponsorship relationship is by understanding the differences in the roles. 


A mentor is someone who helps you navigate your career. They identify your strengths and offer recommendations based on your career goals and path. They typically are your “biz older buddy,” a sounding board, if you will, and will often offer advice on workplace scenarios. 


A sponsor takes being a mentor to another level. It’s a mentor on MAJOR vitamins. It’s a mentor who’s been in the gym, has the playbook and has the hidden key to the club. . They are more focused on your achievements. They are well-versed in defining your talent and ensuring that you are maximizing opportunities on every level. They will open doors you didn’t realize you need opened! They sometimes start as your mentor and evolve to your sponsor, but whatever the case, they are all about making sure you take your career path to the next level. 

The Relationship

A mentor typically has an emotional connection to your journey, which lends to being a little passive. They are often trying to “find the right words” to make sure they are offering emotional support. A mentor may or may not be in your industry or your workplace, so the relationship is purely psychological. 


A sponsorship relationship is more active, meaning they are more invested in your wins and professional achievements. Your feelings are not as important to them as ensuring that you are on the par with your objectives. That’s why sponsors typically include you in their professional network and are always trying to put you in front of key players and decision-makers and heighten your stock. 


Both parties want the same result (which is your success); they are just going about it differently. 


The Solutions

Both of these relationships are crucial when it comes to obtaining success. A natural progression would say to start with a mentorship first, to ensure that you are clear on your career’s goals and direction. Then as time goes on, begin to move towards a sponsorship relationship to tap into networks and contacts that can elevate your career. A mentor will show you the door, but a sponsor will help you through it. 


Final Thoughts

Seems straightforward, right? Nope! As a woman of color, you might have to navigate additional obstacles in identifying, cultivating and building relationships that will help you with your career (and life). Be sure to have a community you belong to that feels like “home”. You’ll need it when things feel hard or when relationships take longer to build than you’d hoped. Recognize (and make peace with) the reality that all skin folk ain’t kinfolk. Use your discernment when deciding who you’d like to seek mentorship or sponsorship from and why. 

Building and nurturing relationships with mentors and sponsors are essential to the not-so-straight path to success. Next time you’re afraid that you might not hit a goal or get stuck about what step to take next, reach out to your support network and begin nurturing these relationships. And while you’re figuring out who should be in your kitchen cabinet of advisors, don’t forget to identify what you can bring to these relationships. 


Successful people know you can’t do this alone, so don’t.



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