Ask an Exec: Can My Mentor be My Sponsor?

“In the early days of your career, your mentor and sponsor are likely to be the same person,” says Carla Harris, Vice Chairman of Wealth Management at Morgan Stanley, in an episode of her video podcast, Coffee With Carla.

What’s the difference between a mentor and a sponsor? A mentor helps you skill up, whereas a sponsor will help you move up.

Because high-potential women are overmentored and undersponsored relative to their male peers, it’s important to understand the difference. And don’t just seek out mentors. Actively cultivate sponsorships for yourself, too.

If you’ve just joined the workforce it is fine for one individual to fill both roles, Harris explains. Your mentor may be the manager who hired you and continues to give input as they help you to grow and develop. Your mentor might also act as a sponsor by advocating for your next raise or promotion.

“But over time,” Harris continues, “you will want to separate the mentor and the sponsor.” You’ll need your sponsor to be squarely focused on what you’re good at. That might be difficult if you’ve shared your concerns, fears, or mistakes in a recent mentoring conversation. “You don’t want them to be conflicted when they’re behind closed doors and pounding on the table on your behalf,” she adds, emphasizing “If that same person can be a mentor or a sponsor, you absolutely want to choose them as your sponsor.”

Why? Well, explains Harris, you can always find one more mentor, but it’s much harder to find that special individual who has both the desire and the influence to make things happen for your career. “If you have the choice,” she recommends, “change the mentoring conversation to a sponsorship conversation — and find yourself another mentor.”

Jo Miller

Jo Miller is a globally renowned authority on women’s leadership. She’s dedicated two decades to helping women advance into positions of influence by leveraging their leadership strengths. Based on her work with hundreds of thousands of women, she developed a pragmatic and powerful roadmap that guides women to become the leaders they aspire to be. Jo shares this proven process in her book Woman of Influence: 9 Steps to Build Your Brand, Establish Your Legacy, and Thrive (McGraw Hill, 2019.)

Jo is CEO of leadership development, consulting and research firm Be Leaderly. Learn more about her speaking engagements at www.JoMiller.com and follow @Jo_Miller on Twitter.

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