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How to Navigate a Mentorship or Sponsorship

Throughout your career, you’ll connect with colleagues, managers, and advisors who can help provide valuable perspectives outside your own. Some of these connections can change your outlook, your goals, and your career path. Depending on where you are in your career and what your career goals are, you may want to find both a mentor and a sponsor as well.

A mentor is usually someone who has more experience, has a higher position, or just has more knowledge in a specific area, industry, or topic who is willing to provide guidance, advice, and support. A mentorship can be a casual relationship or a formal one. No matter which, you should feel comfortable reaching out to a mentor for a discussion, advice, or encouragement.

A sponsor is someone who not only has more experience and can provide guidance, but can also highlight your work among their own network, refer you to high-level projects, and open promotional opportunities for you. A sponsorship has more concrete actions and outcomes, where both parties have a specific goal that each person can help achieve.

Tips to Navigate a Mentorship or Sponsorship

There’s no “one size fits all” approach to navigating a mentorship or sponsorship. Most mentor-mentee relationships develop naturally, according to an Olivet University study. The study points out that 41% of mentor-mentee relationships work towards formal goals, while 56% are casual and loose. No matter how you approach mentorship and sponsorship, here are three common practices:

1. Set your career goals

At the Pathways for Women Conference in August, Jessica Altman, executive director of Covered California, said, “Don’t be afraid to have dreams, don’t be afraid to pay attention, and don’t be afraid to throw your hat in the ring when it becomes available.”

Identifying your career goals will motivate you to look for guidance, help you determine where to look for a sponsor, and enhance your mentee-mentor relationship. For example, if you’re looking to promote within your company, search for someone there who supports you, widens your perspective, provides great advice, and can help push you forward.

Raymond J. Arata, founder and CEO of Better Man Conference said, “A good sponsor will promote you in his network and he’ll speak about you in favor of why you’re qualified.”

2. Build your relationship

“You can easily go and ask pretty much anyone to be your mentor…but if you’re going to ask a sponsor to be your sponsor, make sure you know that person and that person has a line of sight to your work as well,” said Carin Taylor, chief diversity officer at Workday.

During her panel, she explained that a mentee-mentor/sponsor relationship should have trust, respect, understanding, and empathy. None of which is there without first building that relationship.

3. Take a leap

“Sometimes you may not believe in yourself,” said Geeta Kumar, team leader of the Diversity Outreach Program at CalPERS, “but having that mentor there that sees your potential and believes in you is really important to have in your career.”

Having a mentor or sponsor or both means you have people who “support you and someone who’s really going to go bat for you,” said Marlene Timberlake D’Adamo, chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer at CalPERS. They should help you feel confident, seen, valued, and respected. So much so that you’re willing to charge ahead and take leaps toward your career goals.