I recently moderated a career panel of four talented young alumni. They shared many great insights into the world of work and how students can best plan and prepare for their careers. One panelist, however, posed a question that I think is particularly useful for students when it comes to the ever-so-dreaded act of networking: when it comes to making connections for your career, who are your mentors and who are your sponsors?
But, you may ask, what exactly is the difference?
A mentor is a connection who will give you professional guidance. Typically, they may be older than you and more experienced in your field of choice, and they will take an invested interest in your personal and career success. They may try to protect you when they feel you are making a mistake or offer seasoned advice when it comes to taking next steps. They want you to feel confident and content. Mentors are sounding boards.
A sponsor will be an authority figure in your workplace (or desired workplace), and your advocate and PR agent. They will sing your praises for a job well done and make sure everyone else hears it to open up opportunities for you. Sponsors may be impressed enough with the work you do that they recommend you for a promotion, introduce you to key players at a company, or help you earn a rewarding new project. Often, the sponsor may find value in your success (for example, your strong performance will reflect positively on the sponsor), so the relationship could be mutually beneficial.
Most of the students I advise will cringe a bit when I ask them about networking. The process can seem uncomfortable and overwhelming, and students often say they feel like they are “bothering the alum” when trying to establish these connections. Aside from reminding students that a few years from now they’d likely be thrilled – even flattered – to have a current student reach out to learn about their career, I think it’s also helpful to go into networking with a bit more clarity about the end goal. The goal of any networking should be to learn about a job, expand your knowledge of an industry, and perhaps most importantly, grow your pool of mentors and sponsors. Having strong mentors and sponsors in your life will not only help you to make career choices and keep moving forward but to do so with support and confidence.
As you navigate your career, it may be helpful to think strategically about the mentors and the sponsors in your life so that you can optimize interactions with them. Listen to your mentors when they are offering tips based on their own experiences, and be alert to sponsors who offer gateways to career success. If you are new to networking, keep the distinction between mentors and sponsors in the back of your mind. People’s roles in our lives often define themselves with time. When I think back on some of my greatest mentors and sponsors, I didn’t have an inkling at the time we met that they’d end up making such an impact on my life. It can take effort to build strong relationships, whether with mentors or sponsors, but when that time is invested the payoff can be huge.
To get started with networking, or to review some of our resources for making connections, click here.