Coach, Mentor or Sponsor?

As an executive leadership coach, I come across clients and coaches alike who have difficulty understanding the distinctions between being a coach, mentor or sponsor. It’s not surprising since these titles have evolved over time independent of each other and in a somewhat inconsistent manner.

Following is my (ever evolving) description of the three roles. I hope it helps you understand not just how they differ, but also how they can complement each other:

Sponsor:  Someone in a senior position who is willing and able to support your candidacy for advancement in the organization. This is almost always someone within the organization, and sometimes even at the Board level.

Mentor: Someone who has unique knowledge concerning the career path you are on, can help you navigate the obstacles and speedbumps, and provide wise counsel. Likely, this is someone who has “been there, done that” and succeeded. This is likely someone within the organization, and can, but not neccessarily be, the same person as the Sponsor.

Coach: Someone who can ask you the crucial questions, at the right time, in the right sequence, without giving advice or counsel, and hold you accountable for taking action. Ideally this is someone outside the organization who has no biases, allegiances or political agenda.

Support can also come in other forms, such as Communities of Practice (CoPs), Mastermind Groups and Professional Associations. Successful leaders willingly tap into such resources, and understand what each resource brings to the table. They also understand that supports like these are reciprocal, and demonstrate this reciprocity by giving back when the time is right.

How well do you tap into such resources? Do you provide coaching to your staff, not just on the tasks that confront them, but also on their career choices and development? If you provide coaching, do you walk the talk by having a coach yourself?