There is a lot of emphasis on organisations having formal mentoring programs available to their staff. The benefits of mentoring to both an organisation's culture and its employees’ development are not disputed. But are we misguided? Do we need sponsors, not mentors? And is there a difference between the two?

Mentor or sponsor: What is the difference?

In my quest to find out the difference between the mentors and sponsors and which is better, I interviewed Maud Lindley, founding director of leadership consultancy Serendis. Serendis run the successful Women in Banking and Finance (WiBF) Mentoring Program, as well as the Property Council of Australia’s Women in Property Mentoring Program.

Lindley says, “A mentor is someone you can be transparent with and trust. You can speak openly about your experiences, your capabilities, your level of confidence. Mentors can help you grow, they challenge your perspectives and help you see your potential in a different light. To your mentor, you can say, ‘I’m not sure, I don’t know, can you help me with this? What’s your experience with this?’ Your relationship with sponsor is very different. A sponsor advocates for you at the risk of his or her own reputation. They are prepared to put their own reputation and career on the line for you.”

We all need help

From the conversation I had with Lindley, in addition to discussions I’ve had with colleagues, peers and other senior business figures, I’ve learned that gender shouldn’t be a factor when it comes to mentoring or sponsorship. I know this sounds archaic, but often women in business are portrayed as needing more help than men, and this is not true; we all need help and advice equally.

“For several years, we have been pushing the topic: ‘women need mentoring and mentoring programs and initiatives’. It comes with a risk of stereotyping a situation where ‘women need help’. Given mentors are senior business people, in the current context, they are also most often men. They [!then!] become the ‘helpers’. We need to move away from this,” explains Lindley. “We don’t believe women need mentoring more than men, men just tend to get more assistance and advice through informal relationships they’ve developed.”

Mentor or sponsor: Which is better?

Lindley tells me that the most important discussions about your career take place when you are not in the room. That said, do you really want your sponsor–whose job it is to advocate on your behalf–to know about all of your trials, tribulations, fears and inexperience?

“You want that person in the room [!your!] to say, ‘you need to hire this person because of these reasons…’. So really, you may not want to be having the type of conversations you need to have with a mentor, with your sponsor. That said, there are a range of issues and situations for which both mentors and sponsors are needed. We all need both to progress our careers,” says Lindley.

And I agree. The best possible chance you have of being the one spoken about positively in the room is by finding a good mentor to help guide you through difficult work situations.

Mutually beneficial

Mentoring provides benefits to both the mentee and the mentor. Given that most mentors are in a senior strategic position within their firm, they may not have had direct exposure to some of the issues unique to young executives of today–such as online social reputation, a higher level of university graduates and the 24/7 availability and expectation that comes with today’s technology at a more junior level.