Throughout your career, you’ll need the help of various people to help you get ahead and grow. While your talent and skills are essential to helping you land new roles, so are the people and the relationships you build and nurture. These three types of people who can specifically influence your career trajectory are career coaches, mentors, and sponsors.
A career coach, mentor, or sponsor are similar. But in different ways. At their most basic levels, each of these people has a goal of helping you succeed. The differences are in how they do it and why they do it. So, who does what? And, who should you prioritize establishing a relationship with first?
A career coach, a mentor, and a sponsor are all important people to have in your professional circle, but their purposes may be more helpful to you at some points than others. It’s honestly confusing, and the titles are often used interchangeably (and incorrectly). To truly comprehend the benefits of these relationships, you have first to understand what they do.
What Is a Career Coach?
Their job title says it all. A career coach is someone who coaches you as you progress in your career. Like in sports, a career coach will teach you, give you the tools to do things on your own, and push you to become your best self. There’s a common misconception that career coaches serve to help people find new jobs, but they offer a lot more services than just that. Some services they provide include:
Help you figure out what you’d like to do professionally
Assist in crafting a solid resume and or cover letter
Set and track goals
Prepare and practice for upcoming interviews
Develop job search strategies
Create a solid social media presence and or online portfolio
Provide honest, constructive feedback
Assist in the process of starting a new business
Offer advice and assist in creating actionable steps to address a problem at work
Strategize for promotion and career growth
Coach networking skills
Provide practical guidance for overcoming job and or interview anxiety
A career coach’s services go far beyond just helping your job search. Their services can benefit anyone trying to advance in their career. However, one catch is that they’re not doing any of this for free. Career coaches charge customers fees for all of these services, but it's usually worth the investment if they’re good at what they do.
What is a Mentor?
Mentors are similar to career coaches in that they serve as advisors. However, they are not as invested in your progress because they aren’t getting paid. A mentor is usually someone in the same field as you (either industry or job function) but has more experience than you do. Their role is not necessarily to help you advance in your career. Instead, their advice can undoubtedly help lead to advancement. But look out for your best interest as you navigate hurdles and situations they’ve likely already experienced.
Establishing a mentor/mentee relationship can happen organically, such as with your supervisor at work or through a program or targeted approach. For example, some companies offer mentorship programs to their employees, pairing people up as they show interest. There are also outside organizations that can help people find mentors, and while the organization may charge a fee, the mentor themselves will not.
Since mentors don’t charge a fee, the relationship can last for as long or as little as it works for the two of you. Some mentor-mentee partnerships last for years, while others fizzle out when you no longer need as much career guidance.
Here are some things a mentor may do to help their mentee
Listen to work problems and offer specific advice
Help create short and long term goals and plan to reach them
Schedule regular follow-ups/check-ins to talk about goal progress and help adjust plans as needed
Share network connections and make introductions
Serve as a reference or referral for a new job
Review resumes/cover letters and offer tips for improvement
Help with interview preparations
Share industry knowledge
What sets a mentor apart from a career coach or sponsor is that they are in the relationship because they want to be, not because they are getting paid or because there’s potentially something else in it for them. It’s a more genuine partnership with no obligations on either side.
Like a mentor, a sponsor is someone in your line of work at a more senior level. However, a sponsor usually works for your current company or for a company you want to work for, so they can directly influence your career growth. Also, unlike a mentor or a career coach, you can’t just request a relationship with a sponsor. You have to earn it.
A sponsor will advocate for you when considering a promotion or new job offer. Essentially, they’re willing to put their stamp of approval on your resume, hand it directly to the hiring manager, and say, “I’m willing to put my reputation on the line for this.” They’ll also do this when it comes to raises, promotions, projects, and other big steps in a career they may have some influence in. A sponsorship is a big deal, so it’s not something that comes easily and without hard work.
The person who benefits most from this kind of relationship is the person who is the sponsee. However, the sponsor still gets something out of it. When a sponsor’s protégé succeeds, that reflects well on them. It shows that they have good judgment strengthening their leadership skills and reputation.
While a sponsor may directly influence your career growth, they usually don’t offer the kind of warm-fuzzy relationship you would get from a career coach or mentor. A sponsor doesn’t typically help with goal setting, planning, and tracking, and while they might help you prep for your interview and give your resume a cursory glance, it’s unlikely that they’ll spend as much time going back and forth with you as a career coach or mentor would. Additionally, suppose if you’re asking for help with a problem at work, they probably won’t be able to offer objective guidance advice because the two of you are closely linked, so they have to look out for their own interests before yours.
Career Coach vs. Mentor vs. Sponsor Comparison Chart
The roles of a career coach, mentor, and sponsor are all somewhat similar, and there are some blurry lines between them at times. Here’s a comparison chart to help give you a clearer picture of what each one has to offer.
What you do next depends entirely on your career goals. A career coach is an excellent option for general help across all aspects of your professional life. Establishing a mentor-mentee relationship is a good idea at any time, no matter where you’re at professionally. If you have your eye on growing within your organization, you’ll need to start impressing someone higher up to show them your potential (and get them to go to bat for you when the time comes). It’s important to remember that these roles are not mutually exclusive, so you can have relationships with all three at once if you think it will benefit you professionally (which it probably will).
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