A couple weekends ago, I had the pleasure of co-hosting a “Leadership and Mentoring” brunch for midshipmen (students) of the United States Naval Academy and alumni. Throughout the morning, we shared nuggets of wisdom, words of affirmation, and lesson learned. When we opened the opportunity for questions and discussion, I observed one alumnae ask a group of midshipmen, “Who knows the difference between a mentor and a sponsor?”
None of them could answer. As I reflect back on my time as a college student, I don’t think I would have been able to answer that question either. While “mentoring” was a part of our daily leadership, learning, and activity, to us, the word “sponsor” included the generous and loving families that agreed to provide hospitality on the weekends.
Knowing the roles and distinctions between a mentor and sponsor in your professional life is critically important if you are building a career and not simply settling into a job.
The Role of Mentor
A mentor can play many roles or wear different hats in your personal and professional development. The top three that quickly come to mind are:
- Education. Mentors tell you want you need to know, including the written and unwritten rules. They challenge you to educate yourself by helping you learn the business, introducing you to folks who will share their expertise, and are regularly recommending reading material and learning opportunities for you to consider.
- Guidance. Mentors help you make wise decisions. So much of our professional journey is about being in the right place at the right time. Often times whether or not we are in the right position is determined by the various people, places (i.e. schooling or your alma Mata, geographical location for our specific trade), or things (i.e. the overall brand or reputation of your current place of employment) to which we are attached.
- Navigation. Mentors can keep you out of trouble. Sometimes you just don’t know what you don’t know. Not knowing can be a career killer. Answering the right person in the wrong manner can also stunt a career, even if you are right. Great mentors will help you evaluate the lay of the land and consider different perspectives before determining the best way to respond to challenging people and circumstances.
This is not all that mentors do, but it covers a lot of the bases. In short, mentors are people you cultivate relationships with; they know you and your story well, and they are willing to journey with you on the road to success.
The Role of Sponsor
Sponsors are different than mentors. They may be friends of friends, or someone with whom you made a great first impression. They may create opportunities to catch up with you occasionally, but most likely you will spend less time with them than you do with your mentors.
Sponsors are people who are where you want to be, and they are willing to help you get there. They are generally two or more steps higher on the success ladder. They get to participate in opportunities, meetings, dinner parties, fundraisers, and golf tournaments where people on your level are not invited.
If they are your sponsor, however, they will carry your name with them into those (often private) spaces. They might do subtle name dropping like: “Do you know Natasha Sistrunk Robinson? She is [and then proceed to tell everyone in the room how great you are].” They may initiate an introduction like, “I need to connect you to my friend, Natasha Sistrunk Robinson [and then add a reason why the connection is important].” Then they will actually follow up with an email, phone call, or set up a lunch meeting to connect you with a critical person with whom you can develop a relationship. They may even coach you on how best to cultivate and leverage that relationship.
Sponsors have relational capital, and they use their position, power, influence, and reputation to open doors of opportunity for others.
Stewarding our Power as Mentors and Sponsors
Whether or not we are aware, these two critical relationships are how business gets done in America. I’ve had professional work experience in the military, federal government, ministry, and am now entering into the steep learning curve of the nonprofit sector. In every arena, including the church (i.e. congregational hires, at Christian schools, conference planning, publishing, etc.), this remains true.
Most people are not hired because they are qualified for a particular job. They apply to the job because they are qualified. When you are invited to an interview, the organization is agreeing that you meet their minimum requirements. When they are interviewing you, however, what they are trying to determine is whether or not they actually want to work with you. The politically correct language is, “We want to hire the right fit.” Well, the right fit for great job opportunities with benefits and salaries that sufficiently support families are often determined by referrals from those with whom they already have a connection through a mentoring or sponsor relationship. A lot of times, the hire is already determined before the job is posted.
As Christians, we need an understanding and awareness about the power we have when we are on staff, planning conferences, making editing and publishing decisions. Consider: Who is in your network? Is your network large and diverse enough to reflect the whole body of Christ, and to address the complex cultural and organizational needs and challenges of today and the future?
Then consider the ways you can intentionally mentor or sponsor people to create opportunities and access for others to share in the flourishing you currently experience.
© Natasha Sistrunk Robinson 2016