by Sue Weston

Who’s on your advisory team?

Sep 07, 2017

A look at the difference between sponsor, mentor and coach

puzzle / teamwork / strategy
Credit: Thinkstock

Can you make it on your own? It takes more than hard work to advance your career; even senior managers are not guaranteed job security due to restructuring, shifting priorities, and location strategy. Navigate organizational instability by expanding your circle and building an advisory team. Three players to consider for your team are sponsor, mentor and coach. These roles are often confused, but each serves a different purpose: Your sponsor speaks about you, your mentor speaks to you and your coach listens.


A sponsor is your promoter, someone who puts your name up for consideration and advocates for you. Employees with sponsors are more likely to speak up for themselves: Both men and women ask for raises and bigger assignments more often, their salaries are 30% higher, and they are more apt to be selected for highly visible roles. I use my sponsor to expand my network and make valuable connections.

How to find a sponsor:

  • Strategically select an influential leader who is positioned to advance your career (don’t look for a role model).
  • You may already have sponsors you are unaware of because their conversations happen behind closed doors.
  • Continue to deliver high-quality results and you will get noticed.
  • Be purposeful; develop a relationship based on trust, and share your career aspirations.


A mentor is your sounding board, a like-minded individual with whom you can address specific work-oriented issues. They listen and provide a safe space to discuss ideas, while offering honest feedback. You can have multiple mentors, with each focusing on specific objectives. I have a strategist to help me make career changes and a motivator to keep me focused. You are responsible for managing the relationship, which includes scheduling meetings and establishing goals.

How to find a mentor:

  • Choose someone with whom you have an authentic connection and who can assist you in accomplishing a specific objective. This relationship is based on trust and chemistry.
  • Your mentor can be at any level in the organization. To provide objectivity and a broader perspective, select a mentor outside your department.
  • Agree on goals up front. After you reach your goals, end the formal mentorship and let the relationship evolve. While it is not necessary to “label” the relationship, it is important to be clear about your expectations and time commitment.


A coach is a paid professional who helps you solve your problems by asking questions, directing the dialogue, and listening. Your coach does not provide therapy or advice. You are accountable for managing your career; you identify areas to explore, and your coach helps you find the solution.

How to find a coach:

  • Ask for referrals and schedule an introductory conversation.
  • The relationship should be comfortable and safe. It should feel like you are speaking with a friend. A good coach should ask questions that help you grow.

Build an advisory team to fit your individual needs. Balance your team to provide the level of support you need, when you need it. Women tend to have twice as many mentors and half as many sponsors as men. In fact, women are half as likely to have any sponsors. Make sure to:

  • Keep the relationships fluid. Let them grow with you.
  • Periodically reassess. Are your objectives still relevant? Are your advisors helping you move forward? Do you have too many or too few advisors?
  • Managing these relationships can take time and effort; don’t let it distract from doing your job.

Benefits: Your advisory team can accelerate your career. Allow your sponsor to provide visibility, and showcase your talents; they are positioned to speak about your successes. Ask your mentor to provide honest feedback, point out your blindspots and help you navigate your career. Use your coach to help you develop from within.

Trust your advisory team and process the advice you receive, but rely on your gut instinct. You are responsible for your career. Be honest, share openly, and respect the needs of your advisors. It takes hard work and a solid support network to advance your career.