Career partnerships – mentor, coach, sponsor

11 June 2021 | Columns

Chaze Nalisa

A few weeks ago, I shared an article titled ‘Network is a Currency’. In today’s piece, I would like to draw attention to network partners who aid in catapulting careers. A successful career requires three vital partners: A mentor, a coach and a sponsor. Someone said “know the difference and have all three”.

In a nutshell, a mentor is an advisor, a coach is a listener and a sponsor is an advocate.

Mentorship can either be a formal or informal partnership. When one is in need of advice, support and encouragement, due to some experiences, they seek the partnership of a mentor. The mentee identifies areas of learning and development, while the mentor sources the knowledge, proposes the growth initiatives and unlocks the potential in the mentee. The partnership does not require the mentor and mentee to have the same or similar career paths, be from the same organisation or even from the same industry. The objective is for the mentee to gain insights and experience from the mentor or from the mentor’s network. The partnership is initiated by the mentee, who reaches out to a mentor that he or she identifies as fitting for the purpose, based on their developmental needs.

The meetings and interactions are ad hoc and are generally initiated by the mentee.

A coach is required when one has very specific tasks to achieve. These tasks may require horning new skills. The coachee may also simply have a specific professional problem that they need to overcome with the help of an expert in the field. As a result, the coach-coachee partnership is time-bound and goal-focused, with defined results, and is therefore performance-driven. In addition, each coaching partnership is unique, therefore the framework is determined by the coach and coachee.

Both the coach and coachee drive the relationship. Either one of the parties can initiate such a relationship. In a coach-coachee relationship, it is ideal that the coach has the same or similar career paths or skills background in order for the partnership to be impactful. The meetings are usually set in intervals, with the mandate of discussing tactics and results for the set goals.

A sponsor is someone that ensures that the mentee takes the next step on their career ladder. I call this a network-orientated ‘mentorship’. While a mentor supports generic learning and development, and a coach facilitates very specific skills enhancement; a sponsor opens the doors to opportunities where the mentee can now apply their gained experience, knowledge and skills. A sponsor is more personally involved in the mentee’s career progression. The sponsor believes in the strengths and potential of the mentee and, in turn, understands the mentee’s limitations, and is thus able to advocate for them. He or she advocates for the mentee in public and private, wherever opportunities arise. A sponsor only advocates for capable, integral and professional mentees. A sponsor is usually someone with a network larger and more impactful than that of the mentee. They have influence and decision-making power within the industry the mentee desires to grow.

It is not necessary to have all three partnerships simultaneously. I would say a sponsor is a vital one to have at all times. At different stages of one’s career, there may be need for either a mentor or a coach, and not necessarily both. Nevertheless, coaching can be an initiative embedded within a mentorship process. One can find a sponsor by enhancing their personal brand and visibility, or through the networks of their mentor or coach. It is possible to have one partnership that fulfills all three roles, but it is worth understanding the role that each career partner serves in order to ensure that the partnerships are strategically established.

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