When Should You Turn to a Mentor? An Executive Coach? A Sponsor? An Advisor?

is executive coaching the only option for my development?

The Different Relationships You’ll Have Throughout Your Career

Whether you’re an emerging leader or a long time executive, you may be considering engaging the services of high profile, veteran leaders to fast-track your career, accelerate your learning, and hone your leadership capabilities. We’ve talked before about the benefits of mentorship for both the mentor and the mentee, but depending on your objectives, you may also want to consider a leadership coach, Sponsor, or Advisor.


Before you ask just anyone to support your ability to thrive in this VUCA world, let’s get clear about which relationships we are talking about, and which ones might be right for you. Too often, we hear people use these terms – mentor, coach, Sponsor, and Advisor – interchangeably. Many people tend to see them as similar roles and relationships and don’t recognize the unique value each can bring.


But the truth is, each relationship represents a specific type of support, and depending on your objectives, it may be more beneficial to turn to one over the other. Knowing where to turn when you need help is a competency in itself, and one that is critical as you face more complexity and ambiguity in the workplace.


What Is A Mentor?

A mentor is an experienced and trusted individual who you generally seek out for their experience and knowledge. They’ve been there, done that already, and are willing to share their experiences with you – not so you can go through the same experiences, but so that you can navigate your own path. A mentor is there to provide guidance, advice, and wisdom to help you overcome specific challenges, avoid pitfalls, and move to the next phase of your career.


A mentorship relationship must be built on trust, respect, and confidentiality, as you will be sharing not only the good, but also the bad and the ugly with them. As a result, the right mentor is someone who cares about you and your success personally.


When Should I Turn To A Mentor?

Your organization may already facilitate a mentorship program, but if not, a mentor is someone you can seek out on your own. A mentor is a great option when you recognize a gap in your skills, knowledge, or experience and that you would benefit from a safe, open environment to discuss this gap.


Mentors are often best for guiding you through broad objectives and personal growth. Importantly, as you advance and progress in your career, you may need to turn to new mentors who are more experienced, or have different, more varied experiences, to help guide you into the next phases of your development.


What Is A Coach?

A coach is a partner who is there to hold you accountable and act as a facilitator of learning and results. Coaches have received training and education to gain powerful interpersonal, communication, and leadership skills in support of their profession. Effective coaches don’t necessarily offer answers to your challenges directly, but instead partner with you to discover and learn the answers yourself. Through their coaching, you will explore, experiment, and learn new ways of working and doing – both professionally and personally.


Like a mentor, you need to be able to trust your coach, as they may challenge your perspective and invite you to try new and different ways of doing things. You need to be able to have open and honest conversations and share the good, bad and the ugly. The coach is there to help you thrive within the good and guide you through the bad and the ugly.


When Should I Turn To A Coach?

Coaches are most effective when you know what needs to be done, but you aren’t necessarily sure how to do it. Coaches are often brought in when you, or your organization, recognize that you need to stretch your internal resources and capabilities in order to add the most value to the organization.


Coaches can help prepare future leaders to move into roles with more leadership responsibilities, and can help organizations improve the strength of their leadership and executive teams. They offer a broader perspective and encourage you to tackle a wider range of challenges.


What Is A Sponsor?

A Sponsor is someone who is typically within your organization and holds some degree of influence. They serve as your champion or advocate and want to see you succeed. They can help you gain access to new opportunities, such as high visibility assignments or strategically important projects, which open up new roles and responsibilities for you within the organization. t’s not typically as formal a relationship as a coach or mentor, so you should avoid using your Sponsor as a sounding board for the bad and the ugly. Instead, they are an accountability partner for the good, better, and best.


When Should I Turn To A Sponsor?

In most cases, a Sponsor is someone who finds you because they recognize your talent and want to see you succeed. They acknowledge that you are motivated and inspired to advance, and that you have the passion and potential needed to perform in more complex roles. A sponsor can help you advance within the organization and position yourself as a future leader. Nurturing these relationships is therefore very important as you progress through your development.


What Is An Advisor?

An Advisor is usually a more formal relationship than any of the others we have discussed so far, and they are also more granular in what they are brought in to do for you. An Advisor is a subject matter expert, with a specific area of expertise you or your organization does not already possess internally. They play an important role in helping you discover what to do, and can help you through specific challenges.


When Should I Turn To An Advisor?

Most of the time you should turn to an Advisor if you have a very specific challenge and recognize you simply do not have the knowledge or subject matter expertise required to solve it. You, or your organization, may decide it is faster and more effective to bring this knowledge in from an outside source.


My Challenge To You – Start Building Your Relationships

As you move through your career and take on more leadership responsibilities, you will benefit greatly from each of these relationships. Start by identifying people who align with these roles and are interested in helping you grow.


It’s important to remember that you’ll likely turn to multiple individuals at the same time. Though all of your interactions are personal and confidential, make sure that everyone is pulling in the same direction and understands the work others are doing. This way, you can make the most of your opportunities and continuously advance your personal and professional development.


Jennifer Collins is CEO and Managing Director of Hazell and Collins Associates. Discover our leadership strategy and career strategy services.

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