A Little Help Up The Ladder

Recently, I’ve heard a rise in discussion about the difference between a mentor and a sponsor. While both mentor/mentee relationships and sponsor/protégé relationships are important, more people tend to focus on the former. Robin Madell does a nice job differentiating the two in her article, “Having a mentor and/or a sponsor can make all the difference in your career,” in which she quoted Mika Brzezinski, author of Knowing Your Value:

a mentor [is] someone who will offer advice, provide feedback, suggest strategy, and explain company culture. A sponsor, on the other hand, [is] someone who is willing to use his or her own social capital to help pull someone else up the corporate ladder. 

If a person is trying to move up the ladder without actively seeking a mentor, sponsor or both, then they are trying to climb that ladder with their shoelaces tied together. While both are important in achieving success, finding a sponsor can offer additional benefits because of the vast resources available to them. Whereas a mentor is willing to offer advice and suggestions based on their experiences, a sponsor “has some skin in the game” and is willing to put their reputation on the line.

Finding a sponsor is something that can be pursued actively, as opposed to waiting passively and hoping they find you. Without letting the person know what your interest is, the chances of them simply volunteering are unlikely, even if they have considered it as a possibility. Therefore, just because you have not already been chosen by someone as a potential protégé does not mean that you are not a worthwhile investment for someone. It is exceedingly rare for a person to be chosen out of the blue, and even then usually requires some soliciting. Do not be afraid to take initiative, schedule a meeting and be clear about what you are looking for.

So what is a sponsor looking for in a protégé? The resounding answer is loyalty and the willingness to go the extra mile. A sponsor does not want to waste their time on someone who is not willing to put in the effort to take the guidance they are giving. Remember, a sponsor/protégé relationship is a two-way street and one of the biggest things a sponsor gains from a protégé is loyalty and the opportunity to “do the right thing” by giving back. Understanding this can be the key to having a successful relationship with a sponsor. Furthermore, having a successful relationship with a sponsor can be the difference between being successful and being wildly successful in your career.

Moving forward, challenge yourself to look to your extended network and make a list of potential candidates who could serve as your sponsor. But, don’t stop there; be proactive. Schedule a meeting with each of the people you listed and make your intentions known.


Hewlett, Sylvia A., Melinda Marshall, and Laura Sherbin. “The Relationship You Need To Get Right.” Harvard Business Review Oct. 2011: 131-34. Web. 29 June 2012.

Madell, Robin. “Having a mentor and/or a sponsor can make all the difference in your career.” career-intelligence.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 June 2012.

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