Coach vs. Mentor vs. Sponsor

Coaches, mentors and sponsors are necessary for career success.
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Coaching, mentoring and sponsoring are popular concepts in the world of corporate talent development. While there is still a place for formal training in acquiring skills, these informal-sounding, in-house processes are seen as the way forward in identifying and nurturing future leaders. They sound synonymous, but there are subtle differences between the roles. The website DiversityInc describes them as the differences between someone talking to you, with you and about you.


    Coaching is one-on-one activity, although one person may be a coach to many different people. Like sports coaching, business coaching is about enabling you to learn a skill, overcome a challenge, or improve your performance. Typical coaching activities include questioning, supporting you in setting goals, allowing you space to explore different approaches to a problem and constant encouragement. It is generally a short-term, intensive process with regular, frequent meetings. Coaching usually takes place in work time, with the agreement of your line manager. In fact, your line manager could be your coach or could have identified a suitable person to coach you.

    Coaching is a one-on-one activity agreed to by your line manager.


    Mentoring also is a one-on-one activity, but usually takes place off-line, outside the normal reporting hierarchy at work. Your mentor must be able to listen to you in confidence, and that would be impossible if she were also your boss. In fact, mentoring can be an informal arrangement that your line manager may not even know about. It is generally a longer-term process than coaching. A mentor might guide you through a significant transition at work, such as promotion to senior management, or offer support throughout your career. She will probably have had similar experiences to you which allow her to empathize, understand your issues and offer you useful advice.

    Mentoring typically takes place off-line and can be informal.


    A sponsor takes mentoring to the next level. A sponsor is a powerful, senior figure who will be your advocate, recommend you for promotion and ensure that you get opportunities. It is entirely informal. You cannot appoint a sponsor: it all depends on someone recognizing your potential and being prepared to put his or her own reputation on the line in order to give you a leg-up on the career ladder. However, if you have a mentor who is influential in the company, it is possible that she might turn into a sponsor.

    A sponsor will insist that you are given opportunities.

Sponsorship for Women

    According to a "Harvard Business Review" report in 2010, "The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling," one reason that so few women hold the really top business positions is that they are over-mentored and under-sponsored. They either fail to understand the importance of sponsorship or do not cultivate potential sponsors, often because they do not like being seen using "connections" or are wary of being seen too close to an older man. Equally, men in leadership positions are circumspect about championing younger women.

    Most women are over-mentored and under-sponsored.

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