In our competitive workforce, it’s crucial that you stand out from the other candidates vying for the same opportunities. Sponsors — individuals within an organization who see your potential and point you in the right direction — can help you define your personal brand and act as your advocate.

The Difference Between a Sponsor and a Mentor

A mentor may or may not come from within your organization. They will share with you their experiences. They can tell you, “Here’s what I did when I was in your shoes.” A mentor can also be a subject matter expert who can share with you real-time lessons on how to succeed in a function or role. 

A sponsor comes from within your organization and is always forward-looking and challenging you to rise to the occasion. They give you specific advice about how to maneuver the political landscape of your organization and will also wear your brand T-shirt. By that, I mean sponsors will take it upon themselves to promote your brand by sticking their necks out on your behalf when promotions, open spots on projects or committees, and other opportunities become available.

While a mentor also gives advice, they do not advocate for you within your organization.

This is the key difference between a mentor and a sponsor. Think about the people in your organization who have spoken well of you. Could they be a sponsor?

How a Sponsor Can Help You

You are a brand, an emotion, a moment, and a memory. Every single day, you reinforce the perception of your brand by how you conduct yourself in internal meetings, departmental meetings, team interactions, company events, the break room, one-on-ones, in the hallway, on the phone, and most importantly, online. How you perceive your brand doesn’t necessarily mean that’s how other people see your brand, and your sponsor can help you create alignment between what you want your brand to be and how people perceive your brand.

At one point in my career it was perceived that I was a know-it-all and that I wasn’t very friendly. My coworkers thought that I managed up well, but I didn’t manage well horizontally or peer-to-peer. To add to that, the way I communicated via email was misinterpreted. My colleagues thought my emails were harsh, insensitive, and came off a little angry, and not as consensus-building or partnering.

It would put people off. I also copied people on emails who had nothing to do with those messages, in an attempt to cover my tracks. So people didn’t trust me. It was my sponsor who gave me the honest feedback that I needed to address those perceptions. I remember, he told me that I did not have relationships based on trust. He said, “If you are going to thrive in this business, you need to work on building relationships with people who will be there when you need them because you built the relationship when you didn’t need anything.” With that, he challenged me to establish relationships based on trust, and to send more effective emails.

A sponsor will challenge you to course correct your behavior so you don’t derail your career. Yes, your sponsor can give you feedback and point out blind spots, but it’s up to you to do the work. Take the class, learn the lesson, and for goodness sake, don’t make any excuses. Own what you need to do. Step up and own it. Not tomorrow, right now. Thanks to my sponsor’s advice, not only did I change the perception of my brand in the company, but I also learned a valuable lesson.

For more in depth advice about how to find a sponsor, check out my #LinkedInLearning training, Finding a Sponsor.