Being a mentor is helping people find their way. Being a sponsor is putting your credibility on the line for someone you believe in, sometimes without their realizing it. It's speaking up for someone who may not be in a position to speak up for themselves. It's surfacing a name that might not otherwise rise to the top.
Leaders need to be both and to recognize when to shift from one role to the other, usually from mentor to sponsor. Not everyone might look to you or need you to be their sponsor. But in some cases, you will see the opportunity to do both.
Understanding each role is important. A mentor advises. A sponsor advocates. A mentor can be at any level of the organization and at any point in their career. A sponsor will typically be a more senior-level executive with more sway within an organization. Mentors help their protégés build a vision for their career. Sponsors help them execute towards those goals.
For leaders looking to bring their teams up alongside them, making the leap from mentor to sponsor is key. Here's some things to know.
1. Don't project your vision onto someone else.
This is rule number one. Sometimes leaders try to mentor people onto their own path. It's that, "Here's how I did it. Here's what you should do" approach. Don't do that. Your professional aspirations and goals might not be something they share. You need to become OK with that. When you're looking to sponsor someone, you have to ask yourself if you're really listening to what it is that they want to accomplish and where it is that they want to go. This is one place where your empathic listening skills can come in especially handy. Ask yourself, does this person know their strengths, their passions, and their goals? Do they know their purpose? If the answers to any of these questions are yes, frame your sponsorship through those lenses. Your sponsorship is meant to get a person where they want to go--not where you might want them to go.
2. Get comfortable lending your credibility to others.
Sponsorship is about lending your stature, your experience, your title, and your credibility to someone else who needs a platform. This is where you advocate for those around you. This could involve making a key introduction, serving as a positive reference, or suggesting someone for a yet-to-be advertised job. Sponsorship is advocating for someone, not coaching that person. You put your credibility on the line to help them make that leap. Remember, someone helped you make it in the past.
3. Focus on helping people accomplish their goals.
As a sponsor my goal is to help the person meet their goals, whatever those might be. If you're looking to move into the C-Suite, I can help you accomplish that. If you're looking to make a pivot within the organization, I can help with that. As a sponsor, I can help anybody accomplish anything. I just have to know what it is.
If you're not clear what someone's goals are, ask them. Prod them if you need to. Help them think and talk their way through it, if that's what it takes.
Understanding the goals is the first step to helping someone reach them. But remember, keep the focus on the goals of the person you're sponsoring, not on your goals for them.