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Mentor, Coach, Advocate, Sponsor: The Differences and How to Leverage Them for Your Career Growth

In today’s blog, I want to address the differences between Mentor, Coach, Advocate, and Sponsor. There is a lot of information and thus confusion out there about these roles. Yet, there are real differences, and each plays a crucial part. Understanding them and knowing which person you need in your life can give you the momentum you need regardless of your career stage.

In a previous blog post, I touched briefly on these roles, mainly from the perspective of their use in getting a promotion. In this post, I want to go a bit deeper and talk about these three roles and their importance for your career success.

My Story

For me, this topic is personal. Not only because today I’m a mentor and coach, but because, as an immigrant and first-generation professional in corporate America, I remember having no clue that these roles existed, even less how to leverage them. Worse, growing up in war-torn Colombia, I picked up negative beliefs about asking for help or guidance as it equates to vulnerability and calling trouble. In hindsight, now I had that superwoman belief, that is so insidious amongst Latinas and WOC. Therefore when I entered the professional world, I felt lost, alone, and at some point, pretty much burnt out.

Because of this experience, I learned that nobody can do it alone. In fact, I learned that in corporate America, it is expected that you surround yourself with one or more of these. I like to call them your personal board of directors So let’s start with the most commonly known role: The Mentor.

A Mentor

Everyone needs or should have a mentor at any point in their career, but especially at the beginning.

A mentor is in your industry but is a few levels ahead of your current role. Because a mentor has had your role in the past, he/she can help you with direct advice. A mentor will talk with you and discuss your career aspirations, challenges, and roadblocks. They can also be a source of inspiration and motivation, and they can help build your “tribe of mentors.” Which, by the way, is a thing- you do not need to limit yourself to one.

Where can you find a mentor? You can find a mentor inside or outside work. It could be your manager or someone at work. I personally like to recommend having a mentor outside of work because then the chances of augmenting your network increases tenfold. LiT has an amazing mentorship program that I highly recommend you check out.

Your Sponsor

A sponsor is a person that speaks about you in the room when you are not there. Therefore, a sponsor is a role that almost exclusively lives inside the organization that you are part of. They could be your boss or your boss’s boss, but they are not preferable. They are often a couple of levels above and close to or part of the C-suite. They champion you in those more exclusive circles and can recommend you for advantageous assignments and projects, and promotions.

This role is critical for mid-level professionals, and it can be transformational. As a mid-level manager or team lead, getting stuck in dead-end projects or worker bee-type assignments is easy. Unless you have someone advocating for you and helping to beef up your credibility within those circles, chances are that no matter how hard you work, the promotion will not come anytime soon.

How do you find a sponsor?

The best way to find them is by networking within the organization and nurturing those relationships. You need to earn their trust solidly first. They need to know that you can handle your current job and the additional responsibilities of a promotion. This can be in the form of delivering above and beyond for them consistently. But here is the key, when the moment comes, and you identify an opening, don’t hesitate to ask for guidance and support. Don’t expect they will put a good word in because you are doing a great job. A simple, “Hey so and so, I was wondering if I can have your opinion on what is the best way I can position myself for x role” usually opens the door for them to offer some help by means of introductions or a word with their peers on your behalf. If you want to see a really amazing talk about the power of a sponsor, watch this TED Talk by Carla Harris.

Believe me, a mentor is great, but a sponsor is much more effective.

Your Advocate(s)

Ok, this one might sound repetitive, and you might think that perhaps the prior role is the same. This role is slightly different and widely underestimated. Your advocates are your peers (people at your same level) but in other departments- who work side by side on cross-functional projects. I like to call them the lateral champions.

Because here is the thing, in this day and age, accelerating your career is not based on performance. Almost certainly, coming to your yearly annual review process, there is also the team player/ likeability factor. I said many times before:

promotions = performance + likeability

Many workplaces ask for peer reviews during annual performance evaluations. An effective strategy is to get in front of this, by making sure you are being intentional in fostering these lateral relationships. Take the time to know your peers, understand a bit more of their history and their current lives, and, again, identify potential opportunities to provide value.

One simple way to foster this relationship is to be a peer-to-peer coach. You can always offer to be the resounding board and provide that safe space for them. You can also support them by backing them up in calls or supporting arguments when they are making a point on a group call. I can assure you will pay good dividends in the future as you pave your way to the next level in your career.

The Coach

Every great athlete has a coach behind them to help them get better. Having a coach by your side in your career trajectory is truly transformational.

There is an infographic out there* that says a coach talks to you, a mentor talks with you, and a sponsor talks about you.” I respectfully like to dissent. A great coach listens to you first, asks great questions, and, yes, talks to you as well, but it is not about advice giving. A great coach is not there to tell you what to do, or evaluate you. A coach is there to help you dig deep, clarify your goals, show support, and hold you accountable as you evolve.

Back in the day, coaching was reserved for only executives. These days I’m glad to see coaching as a more democratized service accessible to all. We just need to decide to make the choice of seeking it out. Many companies offer coaching as part of their employee development budgets- always ask! Whether the company can offer some financial assistance or not, hiring a coach is the best investment you can make for yourself and the only one that will pay back tenfold in all areas of your life.

Accelerating Your Career Beyond Performance

To close off this blog post, there is no denying that the ‘’broken rung’’ is real. The most recent study by McKinsey and LeanIn.Org defined it as the phenomenon where women and other minorities in entry to mid-level positions are promoted to managerial roles at much lower rates than men. However experts agree that the one strategy that is effective in combating this issue that is completely in your control, is to build your personal board of directors with one or more of these roles.

Be proactive about it, because here is what I know for sure:

  • Your professional accomplishments are NOT going to be enough

  • Working hard is NOT going to be enough

  • Achieving that next educational degree is NOT going to be enough

And if you are ready to explore what a coaching relationship might look like for you, I’m always happy to chat. You can reach out here.


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