Which do you need: mentor, coach or sponsor?

The differences between a mentor, coach or sponsor can seem hard to work out, but in fact they all have very different roles. The questions is which would be the best choice for you right now?

You are passionate about your career and want to take positive steps towards moving forward. There is so much written about which is best between a mentor, coach or sponsor that it can be difficult to distinguish between them all. They are not mutually exclusive. It’s not either/or but about also/and. It’s possible to avail yourself of the services of all of them at the same time. At other points you may choose to work with each separately, according to what’s going on in your career at any particular time. So taking a decision to find a mentor, coach or sponsor can be challenging. To make the right decision means you have to drill down to the basics.


Each, whether a mentor, coach or sponsor serves a different purpose in your career, but their end goal is the same: to support an individual to achieve their professional and personal goals. It’s important to know who does what.

A Mentor is defined as: a partnership between two people (mentor and mentee), normally working in a similar field or sharing similar experiences.

A Coach is defined as: a person who someone employed to help them attain their goals in life; business, career or any other capacity for which they’ve been hired.

 A Sponsor is defined as: a senior leader or similar who uses strong influence to help the protégé obtain high-visibility assignments, promotions, or jobs. The protégé will be held accountable for delivering high-level results.

Distinguishing the roles of a mentor, coach or sponsor

There is much discussion on the value of mentoring, which is less fashionable today than it was five years ago. In contrast, coaching and sponsorship have gained ground. The reality is that mentoring, coaching and sponsorship programmes play key roles in the career progression of any employee.

A mentor shares her experience with a mentee and guides her towards making decisions which she thinks will be best. Having a mentor is a privilege and the responsibility for driving the relationship lies with the mentee. Typically a mentor has something to offer which you feel would be helpful to achieve career success. Your mentor can help you to grow professionally and to navigate tough decisions. They share tips that are relevant to your field or area of expertise which they have found helpful in their own career path. A mentor is someone who can give you advice and support which is specific to your industry, role or organization, usually for free. However, with such a small number of mentors in senior roles organizations frequently approach professional mentors.

3Plus works with a large number of professional mentors. Find out more about our mentors HERE.

Unlike a mentor, a sponsor is someone who not only advises a protégé on her career, but actively helps advance it. They have influence and power in their organization, so they can use their social capital and credibility to advocate for, promote, protect, prepare and motivate their protégé. If a protégé fails to deliver to expectation, it reflects on the sponsor. He or she is staking their personal reputation, which involves an element of risk with any endorsement.

A coach supports a client in attaining his or her goals, enhancing their performance and acquiring new skills or honing existing ones. Sometimes people hire coaches to even find out what their goals are. In a professional context, it can be around creating a career strategy and planning or focusing on skill building such as time management, presentation or negotiation skills. Your coach is a neutral person who is there just for you; to be your vision-board and bounce ideas. She will hold you to account and push you out of your comfort zone, but in a way that makes you feel comfortable with discomfort.  Your coach supports you to unearth your professional identity, to boost your confidence, obtain greater job satisfaction and hone your strategic career plan.

Differences between coaching and mentoring

 Mentor, coach or sponsor

Looking for a mentor

Many women struggle to find a mentor. With so few female role models it can be hard. Very often it’s best to have both male and female mentors.


The first step to finding a mentor is self-insight. Make sure you have done your inner work. Know what your career goals are and where your strengths and personal development needs lie. Choose a mentor who can teach and inspire you to learn those skills. My first mentor was a skilled presenter. I learned so much from her tips and tricks that I still rely on them today. It was an invaluable period. I am forever grateful. Having a clear understanding of what you need to work on to develop your career is a vital component for finding a mentor. If you are in doubt, ask for feedback from your boss in your annual appraisal, as well as your colleagues. If your mentor doesn’t inspire and motivate you, the match may not be right.

Download the 3Plus Career Reflections Worksheets


Be direct about your expectations. What are your goals and how can this mentor add value to you? Be transparent. It’s in no one’s best interest to be circumspect about your needs or ambitions. A good mentor will understand totally if the match isn’t right. In fact, a good mentor will be the first to say “I think you might be better suited to working with x.” Look for someone who has walked in your shoes. She will understand your circumstances and challenges. You don’t need to look for someone very senior to be able to learn from their experiences. Remember you can also have more than one mentor.


Find someone who’s on the same wavelength as you. An effective mentor needs to share your enthusiasm and passion, but perhaps tempered with some realism that comes with experience. Whatever the reason to search for a mentor, make sure you find someone who looks as if they can guide you to finding answers. It’s not their job to provide them for you. But be careful your mentor doesn’t have to be your BFF.


Being mentored by someone is a gift. To find a mentor it’s important to demonstrate that you are willing to learn and open to feedback. Things you might hear maybe hard to take. Make the most of it. Gain your mentor’s respect and always appreciate their time. Show up prepared and ready to engage. Thank them. Listen to their comments carefully. If you disagree, make sure you discuss the options constructively and leave your ego at the door.

Get the most out of every moment and don’t forget to ask how you can help them. Chances are – you have done so already. Mentoring is a two-way street.


Looking for a Coach

To find a career coach, first determine what kind of coach would be the best for you and your career path. There are industry-specific coaches and coaches for particular career needs and competence development. It’s important to do your research and choose wisely. Use the Internet to check out different coaches related to your needs. Don’t forget to ask your company if they will sponsor your coaching. It is a professional development programme after all.

Take a look at 3Plus’ vast array of coaches HERE.

Most coaches offer a complimentary call to assess your needs. Ask them key questions about their qualifications, experience and specific areas of focus. Today’s technology offers many opportunities to have coaches with different backgrounds and experience, as well as geographic location. You are not tied into local resources any more. Many coaches offer sessions on Skype and Zoom.

A coach should always be prepared for your sessions, attentive to you and your career goals and be able to accommodate your schedule within reason. They have been hired to hold you accountable and to stretch you. If your coach agrees with everything you do and say – it may be a good match, but it could also be that you are not being challenged.

Looking for a sponsor

Generally, although not always, a sponsor will find you. You will usually attract the attention of a potential sponsor via hard work, raising your visibility and excellent results. Connecting with the best sponsor for you can be career changing. The most important aspect is to make sure that any sponsor has real power and influence in an organization, rather than someone you gravitate towards because you admire their management style and philosophy.

Their power lies in their organizational clout and their ability to open professional doors in terms of assignments, new roles and networking contacts. You will need to look outside your immediate circle to see who will be a valuable connection. There is pressure in this because they will be putting their reputation on the line and you will have to deliver top results.

Some companies are starting to run their own sponsorship programmes with cohorts of high potential employees. Normally you have to be selected to be in this group. This is not really a new concept, rather an new name for an old one.

Mentor, coach or sponsor and when?

Frequently we receive the question: when is the best time to have a mentor, coach or sponsor? The reality is that most women need all three most of the time. Research from 3Plus in 2014 in the MBA community found that a key differentiator between men and women was a lack of career strategy. Research from HBR found that only 5% of women set career goals. Women leave far more to chance and focus more on internal opportunities than their male counterparts. They also fail to build up a knowledge of the wider market, which impacts their network. This means they are more vulnerable to career crises.

So, here are some key steps for each point in your career:

Early career

  • Create a career strategy and set goals immediately.  (Role – coach/mentor)
  • Assess your career to date – create a plan to achieve your goals. (Role – coach/mentor)
  • Identify your professional development needs. (Role – coach/mentor)
  • Your manager or one level above will be enough to sponsor you at this point. (Sponsor)


  • This is a good time to hire a coach to work out a concrete development plan. There are also lots of free resources to support you if you have budgetary issues.
  • Find a mentor as soon as you can.
  • Keep a watchful eye for a potential sponsor who could be a door opener for you. Make sure you come onto his/her radar.

Executive career

  • You should be starting to build up a “Board of Advisors”. At this point in your career it would be good to have several mentors in different areas of your spheres of interest, including both an internal and external mentor.
  • Try to find a specialist executive or leadership coach.
  • Competence coaching will help you work on your specific needs.
  • Find a sponsor  – someone at C-level or above.

Don’t wait until you have a crisis because you can’t fix your roof when it’s raining! In fact there is no better time for starting to get your career on the right path than NOW. Start deciding as soon as you can: who would be a good fit for you as a mentor, coach AND sponsor?

3Plus can help you work out your career strategies and how to unlock your full potential. Contact us for your Complimentary 30 minute Skype call to assess your needs.

Staff Writer: Career Contributor
3Plus welcomes any writers to join 3Plus as a Staff Writer. If you are an expert in Job Search, Career and Mentoring or just want to share your experiences, contact us! We would love to give you a voice!

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