Mentorship and sponsorship are two common ways for others to help you on your path, but they serve different roles in your professional development. Understanding the ways they are distinct can help you get the most out of these relationships.
Sponsorship: a two-way street
A sponsor is someone within your organization who serves as your advocate. They may provide guidance and counsel along the way, but primarily a sponsor will work on your behalf behind the scenes, acting as your promoter as you grow into increased responsibility. They may recommend you for positions of leadership, committee spots, or more challenging projects. And, over time, the trust you earn with your sponsor will spread throughout your organization.
"Being sponsored allowed me to step into bigger cases," said Clara Cohen, CPA, COO at Bedrock Wealth Strategies. Cohen said that her sponsor helped her gain confidence in her leadership abilities, which allowed her to build teams, take on larger projects, and move forward in her career more quickly than others with greater seniority.
Ideally, your sponsor will also benefit from supporting you and your career. Sponsorship can be "a give-and-take relationship," said Dom Serra, career consultant at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. When you're successful, "it demonstrates to the rest of the organization that your sponsor is good at identifying and developing talent," he said.
Note that it's not always easy to spot the difference your sponsor is making, however. "Most of the conversations sponsors have about you happen behind closed doors," Cohen said.
And ultimately, a sponsor's job is to help lead you up the ladder, not push you there.
"It works best if you're being proactive," said Matt Rampe, principal at Rampe Consulting in Grand Rapids, Mich., an organization that advises accounting firms on practice management and leadership development. "If I were a sponsor and I felt like I was dragging somebody, I would let go. It's not your sponsor's job to make your career shine; it's your job."
How to find a sponsor: A sponsor is someone within your organization who will leverage their influence to help direct you into promotions, bigger assignments, and positions of higher visibility.
To find a sponsor, Rampe suggested proactively reaching out to people you're interested in. "I would recommend approaching potential sponsors proactively opposed to waiting for someone to tap you on the shoulder," he said.
Don't be afraid to discuss your hopes for your career with possible sponsors, said Doug Slaybaugh, CPA, CGMA, an executive coach at The CPA Coach in Littleton, Colo. "Create conversations with people, talk to them about the jobs you want, and influence their contribution just by letting them know," he said. "Sit down and say, 'I like what you're doing and I'd like to do it, too.' Let them know you'd like to go down a similar path."
To have a good relationship with your sponsor, "you need strong chemistry with your sponsor, but you also need to show you are motivated and have the desire to move up," Rampe said. You should also be open to growth and experimentation and be willing to take on more tasks.
Mentorship: powerful support
The difference between sponsorship and mentorship is sometimes described this way: A sponsor is someone whose primary role is talking about you, but a mentor's role is talking with you.
Having a mentor is likely to be more of a focused learning experience than having a sponsor. Your mentor will likely adopt more of a big-picture outlook on your career, encouraging and motivating you as you work toward short- and long-term goals.
Cohen said mentorship is more likely to be about imparting wisdom than making requests. "True mentorship, in order for it to make sense, for it to be powerful, involves more of a supportive role," she said.
How to find a mentor: Unlike a sponsor, a mentor doesn't necessarily have to be someone you work with, Serra said. Mentors may be teachers or athletics coaches from school, former bosses, or just friends you've met along the way. A mentor is someone with experience or wisdom you value, someone you can go back to over and over for their insight or guidance.
While mentorship often grows organically, it can be pursued and built deliberately, as well.
"It's something that begins with you asking what you want to learn more about," Slaybaugh said. Find someone further than you are down a career path you want to pursue, then simply reach out, he suggested.
To keep your relationship with your mentor strong, make sure there is give-and-take involved. "A mentorship is going to be a long-term relationship," Serra said. "Maintain that relationship, and put as much value into it as your mentor puts into it. Don't just communicate when you need something. Share with them the fruits of their guidance."
For more advice on finding and working with a mentor or sponsor, see this guide from the AICPA Women's Initiatives Executive Committee.
— Matthew Philpott is a North Carolina-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.